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Denham, Digby Frank (1859–1944)

by D. J. Murphy

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Digby Frank Denham (1859-1944), produce merchant, businessman and politician, was born on 25 January 1859 at Langport, Somerset, England, son of William Denham, baker, and his wife Edna Grace, née Cooke. In July 1873 after education at Langport Grammar School he was indentured to a drapery firm. In 1881 Denham migrated to South Australia where he formed a business partnership in Mallala with George Cable Knight, a commercial traveller. He married Knight's sister Alice Maud at North Adelaide on 16 April 1884: they had two daughters and a son Harold, who was awarded a Rhodes scholarship in 1911.

The Mallala partnership was dissolved in 1885 when Denham followed his brother to Sydney and to a partnership in John Melliday & Co. He opened a branch of that firm in Brisbane in 1886. In 1890 the Denhams bought out Melliday and changed the company's name to Denham Bros, produce and grain merchants. Eventually the Brisbane and Sydney establishments became separate companies, and Denham began new businesses at Warwick, Clifton and Rockhampton. In 1893, against the advice of his brother, he opened the Silverwood Butter Factory at Warwick in partnership with John Reid; he and Reid later opened a cheese factory at Yangen. Denham became associated with several other companies: in the early 1900s he was chairman of directors of the New Swanbank Colliery Co. and one of the leading businessmen in Brisbane.

In 1893 Denham entered local government as a member of the Stephens Divisional Board where he served for nine years, four as chairman. In June 1902 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Oxley. His decision to enter parliament reflected his ambition, but he also desired to inject more business influence into politics and to oppose a State income tax which Robert Philp's government proposed. Denham joined a group of Brisbane businessmen who in 1902-15 enjoyed their last period of political influence in a State dominated by rural interests. Changing his views on the income tax, after he became premier in 1911 Denham remarked that it was not high enough.

In September 1903 Philp's government had resigned when its income tax measures were narrowly passed with three supporters, including Denham, crossing the floor. A Liberal-Labor coalition government headed by (Sir) Arthur Morgan was formed and Denham, after some hesitation, accepted the home secretary and agriculture portfolios. In April 1904, Denham became minister for agriculture and for public works. When William Kidston, Morgan's successor as premier, retained office in January 1906 in a minority government, Denham's ambition kept him in the coalition, as secretary for agriculture and railways; but he was uneasy at having his true political allies opposed to him. In February 1907, sensing that a new anti-Labor coalition could be formed, he resigned his portfolios. Kidston was forced out of office and Philp headed a new conservative ministry in November. Denham, home secretary, became the second ranking minister. Philp lost office in the February 1908 election, but when Kidston amalgamated his own and Philp's party that year, Denham returned to the ministry as secretary for public lands. In February 1911 he succeeded Kidston as premier. Denham refused a knighthood in 1913.

As an administrator he had a reputation for efficiency, but as home secretary he produced few reforms. His period in agriculture saw a return to good seasons and increased production without much need for innovation. Denham's major contribution was the 1910 Land Act, which consolidated the Acts and amendments of the previous fifty years and removed much confusion. He was widely praised for his grasp of the legislation.

During his period as premier Denham saw the emergence within his own party of a farmers' parliamentary group, a reaction against his legislation which farmers regarded as benefiting urban produce merchants and companies like the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Denham had further problems at the end of 1911 over a liquor bill, which the Legislative Council refused to pass. A major constitutional crisis which threatened to split the Liberal Party was averted only when the tramway and general strike erupted in Brisbane on 18 January 1912. The Courier called the strike a 'godsend to the government'.

During the strike Denham received many telegrams praising his efforts to maintain law and order; but he was widely criticized for the violence of the police and special constables towards the strikers. It is apparent that he genuinely feared a revolution. When the Commonwealth rejected his request to supply troops to put down the strike, Denham discussed with the governor, Sir William MacGregor, the landing of troops from a German warship then off the Queensland coast, to assist in maintaining law and order. Having the full support of MacGregor, Denham called an immediate election; he lost seats in Brisbane, but won others in rural areas and retained office.

After the election Denham carried the Industrial Peace Act (1912) which established an Industrial Court that did not recognize trade unions. By 1913 he was running into increasing problems with the farmers' representatives in his party. At the end of that year, prior to his visit to Britain, Denham exacerbated his problems by holding a plebiscite among his parliamentary colleagues on the acting premiership rather than making the customary nomination. At the outbreak of war, however, he exhibited firmness in introducing legislation to deal with meat companies and other businesses which had tried to exploit the confusion. At the election in May 1915, the Liberals were defeated and Denham lost his own seat.

Following his defeat, he refused all requests to re-enter politics, and returned to his business, having spent almost twelve years as a cabinet minister during one of the most turbulent periods of Queensland politics. Denham's political career had coincided with the emergence of Labor as the then most efficient party in Queensland, and with the division of the non-Labor forces into rural and urban parties. He remained essentially a nineteenth-century liberal. Business, not politics, was his primary interest and, as premier, he did not devote his time wholly to the latter. Nevertheless Bernays described him as 'among the best of our public men'.

In the late 1920s he established a branch of Denham Bros at Maryborough and became a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society, Queensland Trustees Ltd, and Walker's Ltd in Maryborough. His produce businesses again prospered and his employees were made shareholders. A strongly religious man who, after his arrival in Brisbane, changed from an Anglican to a Baptist, Denham was a deacon at the City Tabernacle; the pulpit there was donated by his daughter Winnifred in his and his wife's honour. He keenly supported the establishment of the University of Queensland and the building of its Women's College. He also worked hard in support of a Queensland ambulance service.

Denham died on 10 May 1944 at Annerley, survived by his wife and children. His family declined a state funeral. Denhams in Brisbane went into voluntary liquidation but the companies in Maryborough and Rockhampton continued. Denham's estate was valued for probate at £44,085.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • Brisbane Courier, 17 Sept 1903, 13 Mar 1907
  • Denham papers (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Denham, Digby Frank (1859–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/denham-digby-frank-5953/text10155, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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