Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Derham, Frederick Thomas (1844–1922)

by David Derham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

Frederick Thomas Derham (1844-1922), businessman and politician, was born on 8 January 1844 at Bristol, England, the third of ten children of Thomas Plumley Derham, a Somerset auctioneer, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Watts. The family arrived in Melbourne in 1856. His father died in 1867 and his surviving elder brother in 1869; at 25 Frederick found himself the senior member of the family in Australia. He had married Ada Anderson on 13 January 1864 and had two sons before his elder brother died. Apparently undaunted by his responsibilities, he embarked on an active and successful career in business and politics. He was good looking and early showed more than usual ability. After completing his schooling he gained some commercial experience with Callender Caldwell & Co. of King Street, Melbourne. He then established his own business as a mercantile broker and agent, and developed a thriving export business, particularly in wheat. His wife died on 9 October 1874 leaving him with three sons and one daughter.

In the early 1850s Thomas Swallow had started a biscuit business and in 1854 established at Sandridge the first machine-equipped biscuit factory in Melbourne. In partnership with Thomas Harris Ariell from 1854, Swallow developed the firm into a large business which made biscuits not only for local but also for overseas markets. In 1877 Ariell died and Derham became Swallow's partner. On 13 April 1878 he married his partner's daughter, Frances Dodd; in the next nine years they had three daughters and two sons.

Swallow and Derham developed fruit canneries and preserving works in country centres, and established sugar plantations, crushing mills and treacle and golden syrup refineries in Queensland; their largest intercolonial venture was the development near Cairns of the Hambledon Mill, now part of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd. In 1888 Swallow & Ariell was reformed as a limited liability company, with Swallow and Derham as joint managing directors. In 1890 Swallow died and the company was directed and managed by Derham until he suffered a serious illness in 1920. He died on 12 March 1922 at Kew and his eldest son, Frederick John, took his place as managing director.

Derham's political activities appear to have begun about the time of his partnership with Swallow. He was an outstandingly good public speaker and he became a member of the Sandridge Municipal Council and later mayor. In 1883 he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Sandridge (Port Melbourne) and, described as 'a slight aesthetic looking gentleman, with a mild manner', he retained his seat until 1892. As postmaster-general in the Gillies-Deakin ministry in 1886-1890, he introduced the penny post into Victoria and also parcel post and country telephone services. In 1889, when he heard of the pneumatic tube method which had been introduced in Berlin for distributing letters and telegrams, he put in such a tube between the G.P.O. and the new Stock Exchange building in Melbourne.

In politics he was conservative. He opposed whenever he could all measures which he saw as socialist in tendency. He was the founder and first president of the Victorian Employers' Union which he saw as a body necessarily called into being in answer to the 'ceaseless activities of the Labor Party' and to check 'rampant socialist legislation'. He opposed the legislation which established the Victorian Wages Board system and he thought that compulsory arbitration was a mistaken aim. He would have opposed the 'one man one vote' legislation had it been politically possible for him to do so. He was president of the Chamber of Manufactures from 1897 to 1903 and of the Victorian Millowners' Association. His last public political venture was as a candidate for the November 1903 Senate elections as an 'anti-socialist'. He was, none the less, a close friend of Alfred Deakin and they corresponded and worked together in politics without friction. He was himself a good, careful and successful employer who maintained high standards with respect to working conditions in his factories. Like that of so many contemporaries his fortune, which must have been considerable in the 1880s, was virtually destroyed in the great depression of the early 1890s. In 1892 he entered into a composition with his creditors and at that time, it has been reported, his liabilities exceeded his assets by an amount in the vicinity of £500,000.

In addition to business and politics Derham was also active in other affairs of a public and charitable nature. He was the first chairman of the Kindergarten Union and president of the Burnley Free Kindergarten. He was an active member of the Church of England and did much to support Holy Trinity Church, Port Melbourne, and Holy Trinity Church, Kew. He was a lover of good music and as an avid reader collected a large private library on a wide variety of subjects.

Frederick John Derham managed the company his father had done so much to develop until he died in 1932. His half-brother, Charles Alfred Melbourne Derham, M.C., managed the company until his death in 1959. The management then fell to Frederick Thomas's grandson, another Frederick Thomas Derham, until Swallow & Ariell Ltd was finally merged with a larger nation-wide organization.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Franklyn, A Glance at Australia in 1880 (Melbourne, 1881)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melbourne, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 3 (Melbourne, 1905)
  • J. W. Collinson, Early Days of Cairns (Brisbane, 1939)
  • J. W. Collinson, More About Cairns: The Second Decade (Brisbane, 1942)
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 1895
  • Table Talk, 1899, 1901
  • Scientific Australian, 1900
  • Table Talk Annual, 1904
  • Swallow & Ariell Ltd records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

David Derham, 'Derham, Frederick Thomas (1844–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/derham-frederick-thomas-3398/text5155, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 August 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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