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Chapman, Sir Austin (1864–1926)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Austin Chapman (1864-1926), by unknown photographer

Austin Chapman (1864-1926), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23398624

Sir Austin Chapman (1864-1926), businessman and politician, was born on 10 July 1864 at Bong Bong near Bowral, New South Wales, son of Richard Chapman, wheelwright and publican, and his Irish wife Monica, née Cain (or Kean or Kein). Registered as Austen, his Christian name was officially corrected in 1897. He attended the Marulan Public School and after being apprenticed at 14 to a local saddler worked in Goulburn and Mudgee. In 1885 while operating Chapman's Hotel at Bungendore he championed the cause of E. W. O'Sullivan, Protectionist candidate for Queanbeyan in the Legislative Assembly, and in 1887 moved to Sydney as managing partner of the auctioneering firm E. W. O'Sullivan, Chapman & Co. At the same time he kept the Emu Inn in Bathurst Street.

When the partnership with O'Sullivan was dissolved in October 1889 Chapman opened the Royal Hotel at Braidwood, and in 1891-1901 held the Braidwood seat in the assembly as a Protectionist. He married Catherine O'Brien of Belle Vue station on 23 October 1894 with Roman Catholic rites. He set up business as an auctioneer and commission agent, raced his own horses and invested heavily in and directed local dredging companies, including the Araluen Central Gold Dredging, Redbank Gold Dredging and Victorian Araluen Dredging companies. He was a member of the local literary institute and secretary of the Braidwood Hospital and the Railway League. As a parliamentarian he worked assiduously for his electorate, and in the 1890s was a keen supporter of moves to introduce the old-age pension bill.

An enthusiastic advocate of Federation, Chapman won Eden-Monaro in the first Federal election and held it until 1926 as a leading New South Wales Protectionist and later Liberal and Nationalist: he was unopposed in the 1903 general election and also in 1910 when, after the fusion of 1909, he stood as an independent. Although he moved his auctioneering and commission agency to Sydney and established households there and in Melbourne, he toured his electorate frequently and took a tireless personal interest in local affairs. He was an 'infectiously genial man' and his prominence was aided by continuing family connexions within the district: his father was a well-known Braidwood resident who had kept the Commercial and Queanbeyan Club hotels; the new publican of the Braidwood Royal was Chapman's brother-in-law T. Pooley; another brother-in-law, M. Byrne, owned the Royal Hotel in Queanbeyan. Chapman's younger brother Albert Edward, a former teacher who had entered Austin's auctioneering business, represented Braidwood in the Legislative Assembly in 1901-04.

In the Federal parliament Chapman was government whip during the (Sir Edmund) Barton ministry, minister for defence in the first Deakin government of 1903-04, postmaster-general in 1905-07 and minister for trade and customs in 1907-08. He chaired the royal commission of 1906 which successfully recommended old-age and invalid pensions and was responsible for the introduction into the wheat industry of a standard light-weight wheat-bag, familiarly known as the 'Chapman sack'. Common sense was his greatest attribute as a minister. He claimed with pride to have introduced penny postage into Australia, and made his second overseas trip as Australian, New Zealand and Fijian representative at the International Postal Union Congress at Rome in 1906; in 1902 he had been Barton's personal companion at the coronation of King Edward VII. After a stroke in 1909 paralysed one arm and sapped his vitality, he sat on the back-benches until February 1923 when his work towards the formation of the Bruce-Page coalition and his seniority brought him the portfolios of trade and customs, and health. His term as minister for trade and customs was fraught with tension: his appointment was not generally popular among the Nationalists and the Country Party was strongly critical of the Tariff Board. In May 1924 he resigned from the ministry on the grounds of ill health and in June was appointed K.C.M.G.

Chapman was one of the most expert constituency-managers in Australian political history. His greatest coup was the selection of the site for the Federal capital, which he was determined to have within the Eden-Monaro district. Initially he supported Dalgety and Bombala but eventually backed the Canberra proposal. His running battles for over ten years against Victorian interests opposed to the site lent some credence to his claim to be 'father of Canberra'. He also advocated a railway link between the south coast of New South Wales and Gippsland in Victoria, and supported proposals to harness the Snowy River for hydro-electricity. He died of cerebro-vascular disease on 12 January 1926 in Sydney, survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons, both of whom became distinguished professional soldiers. His funeral service was held in St Mary's Cathedral, Sydney, and he was buried in the Catholic section of Randwick cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £34,811.

Select Bibliography

  • E. C. G. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • E. J. Lea-Scarlett, Queanbeyan (Queanbeyan, 1968)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1891 (1) 471
  • Australian Magazine (Sydney), 1 June 1909
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 29 June 1891, 21 July 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 22 Dec 1904
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 1922
  • Argus (Melbourne), 16 Apr, 27 May 1924
  • Braidwood Dispatch, 15 Jan 1926
  • Australian National Review, 20 Jan 1926
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 23 Jan 1926
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Chapman, Sir Austin (1864–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/chapman-sir-austin-5554/text9469, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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