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Carter, Godfrey Downes (1830–1902)

by Henry Rosenbloom

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Godfrey Downes Carter (1830-1902), by unknown engraver

Godfrey Downes Carter (1830-1902), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, A/S22/10/84/164

Godfrey Downes Carter (1830-1902), politician and merchant, was born at Jamaica, West Indies, son of John Adams Carter, merchant and planter, and his wife Selina Grace, née Adams. He was educated at an Anglican school in London and trained in a mercantile office. In 1847 after reading David Collins's An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales he told his parents that at 21 he would try his fortunes in Australia Felix. Overruled, he agreed to try Jamaica first and arrived in Victoria in 1853, profoundly regretful at missing the first discovery of gold. He began business as an importer and merchant, engaging in intercolonial shipping. By frugal living he slowly prospered and gave up general dealing to develop a wholesale wine business. In 1863 he married Susan, daughter of Edward Khull; they had five sons and two daughters.

In 1873 he organized the Victorian Licensed Victuallers' Association and became its chairman. In 1874 he published his moderate lecture on The Use and Abuse of Spirituous Liquors and the Best Means of Combating Intemperance. He was also elected to the Melbourne City Council and in 1876 joined the provisional committee of the Free Trade Association. Next year he was elected by a majority of one for the St Kilda seat in the Legislative Assembly and resigned from the Licensed Victuallers' Association. Although Tory in politics he was largely responsible for rejection of the monopolistic first tramway bill, thereby showing his concern for the broad mass of humanity. However, in 1883 he lost his seat and visited England. He returned to organize the Liberty and Property Defence League to preserve the rights of brewers and publicans; an implacable opponent of the temperance movement, he nevertheless advocated moderate drinking. As mayor of Melbourne in 1884-85 he distinguished himself by his hospitality and insistence on such radical improvements as widened footpaths and tree planting. In 1885 he was elected for West Melbourne to the Legislative Assembly and took the lead in forming the Melbourne branch of the Imperial Federation League.

By 1891 Carter was said to be 'one of the most esteemed and trusted businessmen in Melbourne'. He was a director of such successful enterprises as the National Fire Insurance Co., the National Mutual Life Association, the Carlton and West End Brewery, the Bank of Victoria and the Melbourne Hydraulic Co. His appointment in 1893 as treasurer in the Patterson ministry was therefore no surprise. However, Carter assumed office about three months before the depression crisis. His handling of it, especially the declaration of the moratorium, was widely condemned by contemporaries and compared unfavourably with the tactics of the government in New South Wales. On 13 May Alfred Deakin remarked that 'in financial matters as in most others [he] relies upon his own judgment which he rates at an infallible height'. To George Meudell he was 'a whisky merchant who was quite untrained in finance' with 'a colossal conceit of himself'; Henry Turner described him as a 'man of many words and few deeds [who] lost his head at the critical moment'. In 1894 Carter seriously miscalculated his estimates and, two weeks after the budget, the government fell. Candid, but inadequate, he told parliament, 'I was wrong; I can say no more. But, sir, I say that I think I was better justified in taking a sanguine view of the position than … in taking a pessimistic view. I think I erred on the right side, and, at any rate, it did no harm'. He died at his home in South Yarra on 29 April 1902; despite his varied business interests he left a deficit of £3396.

Select Bibliography

  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vol 2 (Lond, 1904)
  • G. Meudell, The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift and his Later Reflections (Melb, 1935)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1893-94
  • Table Talk, 18 Sept, 11 Dec 1891
  • Australasian Sketcher, 22 Oct 1884
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Mar 1874
  • Australasian, 28 Jan 1893
  • M. J. Finlayson, Victorian Politics 1889-1894 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

Citation details

Henry Rosenbloom, 'Carter, Godfrey Downes (1830–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carter-godfrey-downes-3174/text4753, published in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 30 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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