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Cox, George Henry (1824–1901)

by Ruth Teale

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

George Henry Cox (1824-1901), by unknown photographer

George Henry Cox (1824-1901), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, Original : PXA 848

George Henry Cox (1824-1901), pastoralist and sheepbreeder, was born on 18 October 1824 at Mulgoa, New South Wales, the eldest son of George Cox of Winbourn, Mulgoa, and Elizabeth, daughter of Archibald Bell senior. His father and uncle Henry, sons of William Cox, owned extensive grants in the Mudgee district and, after three years at The King's School and several terms under Rev. Thomas Makinson, George became manager of his father's grant at Burrundulla, Mudgee, in 1845. When gold was discovered in 1851 Cox decided to lease his fertile flats on the Cudgegong River in forty-acre (16 ha) farms at rents of about £100 a year. By the 1860s he had over thirty tenants, whose wheat, vegetables and dairy produce mostly went to the goldfields. In the 1850s and 1860s he also expanded his interests in the Liverpool Plains and on the Warrego in south-western Queensland, where he held extensive sheep and cattle runs in partnership with Vincent Dowling. By 1876 most of these leases had been sold but the last, Pine Ridge, north-west of Dubbo, he retained till 1899. On all his properties he experimented in the breeding of the Australian merino and did much to develop the fine, dense and elastic qualities for which Mudgee wool is famous. For many years he was a councillor of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales and president of the Sheepbreeders' Association. In 1862 his greasy merino fleeces won Thomas Mort's gold medal, and he later won awards in Amsterdam and Calcutta.

A landlord who tried to introduce a squirearchy on the English model, Cox publicly maintained that the ownership of land carried social and political obligations. In Mudgee he was on every committee and local government body which appealed for public subscriptions; as member of parliament he obtained government grants toward the hospital, mechanics' institute and other organizations, and for many years before 1884 he led the agitation for the extension of the railway from Wallerawang to Mudgee. Through his influence Cudgegong was in July 1860 declared the first rural municipality in New South Wales and he became its first mayor. He was generally looked on as the patron of Mudgee and one of its 'most useful citizens'.

At 32 he entered politics as member for Wellington (County) in the first Legislative Assembly, and was returned unopposed in January 1858. With the reallocation of seats in the new parliament under manhood suffrage, Cox did not seek re-election but in June 1863 Charles Cowper appointed him to the Legislative Council, where he sat continuously until his death, being then its longest standing member. He never held ministerial rank because he gave his vote where he chose and not always in the interests of conservative landowners. His consistent principles were free trade and the abolition of state aid to religion and Church schools. As a member of the Public Schools League in the 1870s he loudly proclaimed the benefits of public education, and would gladly show visitors over the model public school conducted at Burrundulla for his tenants' children. In 1856 he had favoured the extension of agriculture and small-scale farming, and the opening of public lands to private settlement. Later he championed the cause of the farmers' and settlers' associations, even touring the colony on their behalf. His first speech in the council had been in support of legislation to abolish entail and primogeniture, and he continually advocated reform of the Legislative Council by the election of at least some of its members. In the late 1880s he strenuously supported Sir Alfred Stephen's divorce extension bill, and drew up the report of the royal commission into tanks and wells, based on his own observation of artesian water supplies in Pacific North America. But his last political ambition was never realized: despite his age he stood for the senate of the first Commonwealth parliament but was defeated largely because he refused to stand as a party man.

Cox was an active member of the Church of England. In 1841 his father had given land for the church, glebe and cemetery of St John the Baptist, Mudgee, and his son continued as its most generous pew-holder and trustee. Two of his sisters had married clergymen, Canon Alfred Stephen and Archdeacon W. E. White of Muswellbrook. He held a seat on the diocesan synod of Sydney from 1866 and of Bathurst from 1873. As chairman of committees of the Bathurst synod he was its most influential layman, taking special interest in financial matters. As trustee of the diocesan endowment he securely invested its funds in mortgages to the Cudgegong municipality. As the Bathurst representative to provincial and general synods he often found himself in opposition to most of the clergy, particularly in his support of public education. On questions of doctrine he met with strong episcopal censure both in Sydney and Bathurst when in 1888-89 he tried to revive the English debates on revision of the Prayer Book by a 'clipping and cutting process' intended to bring in the Nonconformists. But in temporal affairs his influence remained valuable. His last act on behalf of the Bathurst diocese was in a dispute over the cathedral finances in 1901, when he rose from his sick bed to lead a synod delegation to the Bathurst parishioners.

On 21 June 1853 he married his cousin Henrietta Jane, daughter of Henry Cox; they had five sons and seven daughters; the fifth son inherited the Mudgee properties. The homestead Cox built at Burrundulla was large and two-storied: its main staircase was lit by a stained glass window bearing the Cox crest and monogram, and its living rooms adorned with prints, collected in Europe, of the Italian renaissance masters and paintings of more familiar subjects by Conrad Martens. Cox died at Burrundulla on 28 November 1901.

As a landowner and public figure in Mudgee Cox was widely respected, especially among his tenants, even though his manner was sometimes arbitrary. In politics he was one of the councillors who prided themselves on personal integrity and family name rather than party affiliations. Although his tenant farming and religion might suggest the pattern of English society he took pride in his colonial birth and stock and fostered colonial enterprise in everything from public education to the development of the outback by artesian wells and the better breeding of the Australian merino.

Select Bibliography

  • Empire (Sydney), 13 May 1856
  • Mudgee Liberal, 26 Nov 1863
  • Town and Country Journal, 27 Aug 1870
  • Mudgee Independent, 19 Jan 1878
  • Church of England Guardian, 4 May 1889
  • Mudgee Guardian, 2, 5 Dec 1901
  • Western Post, 2, 5 Dec 1901
  • G. H. F. Cox, letters and papers, 1826-1912 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • G. H. F. Cox, History of Mudgee (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under G. H. Cox (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Cox, George Henry (1824–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cox-george-henry-3280/text4979, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 27 June 2017.

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

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