Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clapp, Francis Boardman (1833–1920)

by J. Ann Hone

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

Francis Boardman Clapp (1833-1920), businessman, was born on 27 June 1833 at Holden, Massachusetts, United States of America, the son of Oliver Clapp, merchant, and his wife Mary, née Boardman. He arrived in Victoria in 1853. Already experienced in the coaching business he bought and operated Cobb & Co.'s Melbourne-Ballarat line in December 1857 and by 1859 was the largest mail contractor in Victoria, receiving over £22,000 in subsidies. His coaches also ran from Geelong as far afield as Portland and Penola, often under the name of Cobb & Co., but ownerships changed hands rapidly. In the early 1860s Clapp and others negotiated with the Melbourne City Council to lay a horse tramway from Spencer Street to Collingwood by way of Bourke Street. Nothing came of this project and tiring of the delay Clapp sold his Western District business and in 1867 visited Europe and America.

On his return he gave evidence to the select committee on railway extension and formed the Melbourne Omnibus Co. in association with William McCulloch and Henry Hoyt. In March 1869 with carriages imported from America and Sydney and six hundred horses the company opened the route from Bourke Street to Collingwood. The 3d. fare undercut the cabs, the challenge of a rival firm was successfully met and Clapp was able to buy its buses cheaply; he soon opened lines to Richmond, Fitzroy, Carlton, North Melbourne and Brunswick. In 1878 the company bought a horse wagonette line which ran to Prahran, and opened lines to St Kilda, South Melbourne and Sandridge (Port Melbourne). Clapp's efforts gave foundation to John McIlwraith's claim, 'In my travels I have found no place better supplied with omnibuses, cabs or carriages than Melbourne'.

Clapp now battled for the introduction of tramways and though at first opposed by the municipalities he was so confident of success that he stopped manufacturing omnibuses. In 1883 the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Company's Act was passed; it empowered municipalities to construct tramways, form a Tramways Trust, and lease the tracks to Clapp's company until July 1916. In 1884 Clapp convinced a select committee that the cable system of tramways which he had recently inspected in America should be adopted. He also won permission to operate additional branch lines to which he transferred the omnibuses set free by the opening of tram lines. He persuaded shareholders to agree to much writing off of the omnibus stock, and the 10s. shares soon sold for 25s. In 1886 the company underwent great expansion, carrying more than sixteen million passengers and raising its dividend from 7 to 12 per cent. The manufacture of rolling stock for the tramways became an increasingly important part of the company's business. By 1889 shares were selling at £9 but in the depression fell to 8s.

Cordial relations with the Tramways Trust were maintained with difficulty and Clapp received both condemnation and praise from his contemporaries. To militant Labor Clapp was an 'astute Yank' and the company an octopus which grabbed all it could and overworked its employees. Clapp's business sense and organizing ability were regarded as remarkable and he was largely responsible for the success of the Melbourne Tramway and Omnibus Co. Though blind in his last twelve years Clapp remained chairman until the lease expired. He died at Airlie, Domain Road, South Yarra, on 6 September 1920, survived by his wife Isabell Pinnock, née Pierce, four daughters and three sons (educated at Melbourne Grammar School): Sir Harold Winthrop, chairman of the railway commission; Leroy Pierce, a mining engineer of note; and Francis Boardman who went to America.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Villiers, The War on the Workers (Melb, 1919)
  • J. A. Maher, The Tale of a Century: Kilmore, 1837-1937 (Melb, 1938)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • K. A. Austin, The Lights of Cobb and Co. (Adel, 1967)
  • Royal Commission on the Tariff, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1883, 2 (S50).

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Clapp, Francis Boardman (1833–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clapp-francis-boardman-3209/text4829, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 6 December 2016.

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

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