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Dibbs, Sir George Richard (1834–1904)

by Bruce E. Mansfield

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

George Richard Dibbs (1834-1904), by unknown photographer

George Richard Dibbs (1834-1904), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24207599

Sir George Richard Dibbs (1834-1904), politician, was born on 12 October 1834 in Sydney, the third son of Captain John Dibbs (b.1790) and his wife Sophia Elizabeth (1809-1891). His father arrived in 1820 at Sydney and in 1822-27 was master of ships serving the Pacific stations of the London Missionary Society; when married at Scots Church on 16 December 1828 he was captain of the Lady Blackwood; in 1834 he disappeared. His resolute wife reared George and his brothers Thomas Allwright and John Campbell.

George's education was practical and commercial; he attended St Philip's Church of England School and at about 11, probably through his mother's influence with John Dunmore Lang, entered the Australian College. His lifelong admiration for Lang, the 'pure-minded patriot', did not check the family's drift from Presbyterianism into the Church of England, to which the mother was devoutly attached. In 1848 Dibbs became a junior clerk in William Brown & Co., wine merchants. At about 20 he joined his brother in J. C. Dibbs & Co., commission agents. The association was temporarily broken when George married Anne Maria (b. Staffordshire, 1835) at St Stephen's, Camperdown, on 18 March 1857 and joined her father, Ralph Mayer Robey, first in his shipping agency and then in a sugar-refining and distilling business. It was sold in 1859 to the Colonial Sugar Co. and Dibbs returned to J. C. Dibbs & Co., as manager of the Newcastle branch and later the Sydney office.

Features of Dibbs's career indicated an impatience to live more adventurously than in an office. In 1855 he had sailed with (Sir) Augustus Gregory to the Victoria River, and then visited Singapore and perhaps India. A more revealing adventure began in 1865 when J. C. Dibbs & Co. decided to open a branch at Valparaiso under his charge. He sailed in September with his wife, son and three daughters in the Mary and Edith with coal for Chile; she was to return with Chilean wheat to Sydney where scarcity promised good prices. Although Chile was at war with Spain and the coast blockaded Dibbs got into Valparaiso, on one account by displaying the Union Jack and facing down 'the beggars', on another by abandoning his cargo and taking in a launch at night. He lived at Valparaiso as a corn factor until the failure of the Agra Bank brought down his branch and the company in 1866. The brothers worked hard to repay their creditors; in 1875 they were cleared by the Bankruptcy Court and able to extend into importing and shipowning, projects which had taken Dibbs to Britain in 1869.

By the early 1870s Dibbs was tolerably well known in Sydney's mercantile life. He was appointed to the Marine Services Board in 1872 and in 1873 challenged the Chamber of Commerce and the collector of customs with a pamphlet on Wharfage Accommodation … in the Port of Sydney. In 1874 he responded for the shipping interest at the merchants' annual dinner and in December was returned for West Sydney to the Legislative Assembly as a supporter of local business and city interests. His election was also a victory for the Public Schools League, newly formed to advocate 'national, compulsory, secular and free' education. He adhered to this cause less from sectarian rancour than from devotion to the principle: the `absolute duty of the state to educate every child in it'. This led him to oppose the Parkes ministry which was then unwilling to disturb the balance created by the Education Act of 1866.

In June 1875 Dibbs fulfilled his electoral promise by proposing a bill to withdraw support from denominational schools but was defeated by 21 votes to 7; (Sir) John Robertson who had replaced Parkes as premier, promised to bring in a bill without any decisive change in policy and Parkes opposed the Public Schools League and any bill that would arouse denominational opinion. While the league waited hopefully for Robertson's bill Dibbs retained loose association with the ministry, but at a great public meeting in March 1876 he denounced Robertson's promised bill as a sham and betrayal. He then joined the group around Parkes, a connexion important in appreciating the relations between the two men. In division after division Dibbs voted with Parkes and after Parkes became premier in March 1877 assured him of support. In the October elections this political friendship was at its height. Before the elections Dibbs had won repute as an enemy of labour by supporting the government's policy of assisted immigration, a question that brought an upsurge of working-class political activity. His meetings in West Sydney were plunged into 'uproar indescribable'. Even Dibbs quailed before the challenge, suspecting that working-class political action was a rising of 'brute force' against intelligence. Like Parkes he lost his seat.

One sequel to the campaign was the seamen's strike against the Australian Steam Navigation Co. It began in November 1878 when the company, pressed by competitors, extended its use of Chinese labour from Pacific island routes to the Australian coast, a decision which Dibbs as chairman of directors may not have approved. Attitudes soon hardened, partly because the strike became caught up in a wider agitation against Chinese immigration, partly because Dibbs, once the strike began, gave the directors and shareholders a pugnacious leadership. Although the company accepted a compromise in January 1879, it had been stubbornly opposed by the unions and a section of the press, while Parkes had accused it of provocation. As the company's lightning conductor, Dibbs seemed to have wrecked his political career but relief came from an unexpected quarter. His temperament, active but not cool, courageous but not disciplined, was litigious. While fighting the company's battles he was also gathering evidence for the divorce proceedings of his brother John whose wife had committed adultery with her solicitor, John Shepherd. Shepherd brought an action for slander and obtained a verdict for £2000 with costs. When Dibbs refused to pay, a writ of ca. sa. was issued and Shepherd, eager for the arrest, haunted the sheriff's office. At 11 p.m. on 7 May 1880 Dibbs was at last apprehended; he calmly undressed and challenged the bailiff to move his large bulk. What Shepherd's vindictiveness and his own savoir-faire began, was completed by patience and a good press during his year in gaol. In this 'cheery, pleasant retreat where one can do martyrdom for principle's sake with every comfort', he entertained his friends and restored his health by the manual labours that he loved, especially on the lathe supplied by Parkes. The new Bulletin became his champion: 'He holds the respect and esteem of the vast majority of the community, of all who admire steadfastness of character and the maintenance of principle against all consequences'. His imprisonment prepared the way for his return to parliament.

Dibbs also made overtures to political enemies. In October 1882 he read to the Trades and Labor Council a paper advocating as an alternative to strikes a court of conciliation on the French model, with wise adjudicators representative of both capital and labour putting faith not in legal machinery but in 'the unwritten law of a common interest ratified by mutual consent'. Exonerated by the former secretary of the Seamen's Union from responsibility for the strike, Dibbs stood for St Leonards in the December elections. He joined the Opposition under Alexander Stuart in condemning the refusal of the Parkes-Robertson coalition to reform the land laws and in favouring more orderly settlement and greater security for all occupiers of land, whether squatters or selectors, than was possible under the existing system. He was returned and, to the surprise of the press, was appointed colonial treasurer, although he claimed to have neither solicited nor bargained for office.

When Dibbs made his first financial statement in February 1883, the crucial decision had been firmly taken to suspend land sales. In a sanguine mood he proposed no new taxation, no tariff changes and no cut-back in public works. Later he recognized the decision to deprive the government of land revenue without alternative taxation as 'the gravest political blunder of my life'; it was a cabinet decision but the odium was to be his. He saw clearly what had to be done. In his budget of January 1884 he proposed to create new revenue by a property tax to raise £1 million and, at the other end of the scale, increased duties on tea and tobacco. The press was well disposed and the ministry was not shaken by the clamours of the property-owners or by the threat of censure in the assembly, but the government's followers declined to support the property tax and Dibbs failed in this first attempt at the fiscal reform which was long to preoccupy the colony's politics. However, in the faith that the country's future depended on a bold and comprehensive railway system he won the support of parliament for an unprecedented loan of over £14 million. His courage was admired, but he lacked the prudence to warn him that a revulsion of political feeling would leave him with an ineradicable reputation for extravagance.

Dibbs was taken by surprise when William Bede Dalley, the acting premier, offered colonial troops for service in the Sudan in February 1885. At first he was cautious, but Dalley's boldness was congenial to him and to the Stuart administration, 'younger men', as B. R. Wise put it, 'of Australian birth, for whom the word “unconstitutional” possessed no terror'. He threw himself into the preparations and quickly pushed through the necessary legislation when parliament met in March.

The Sudan aroused patriotic fervour but did not reduce the government's difficulties: Stuart's illness; a long dispute with the Bank of New South Wales from which Dibbs withdrew the government's account; and the complexities of floating a large loan in London. In October Stuart retired and, when Dalley refused the call, Dibbs began to form his first ministry. According to the Daily Telegraph he had an impetuous temperament and imperious manner, British stubbornness, a rich manhood and a robust if undisciplined intellect. Anxious to be kingmaker, the Telegraph was looking for a new combination of 'the young and vigorous and progressive'; the paper preferred Edmund Barton but Dibbs offered to be its leader. He reassembled the remnants of Stuart's ministry and added some younger men although failure to enlist Barton as attorney-general left his ministry weak.

In the elections of 1885 Parkes stood against Dibbs at St Leonards, attacked him mercilessly and won; Dibbs found refuge in the Murrumbidgee electorate. Throughout the colony the government polled rather badly yet Dibbs decided to meet parliament. In the new assembly he narrowly survived a censure vote but his ministry was destroyed by the revelation of a deficit of more than £1 million, the outcome of land policy, drought and failure to enforce new taxation.

In February 1886 Patrick Jennings became premier with Dibbs as his colonial secretary. The government's solution for the financial crisis included direct taxation and ad valorem duties on which public attention concentrated. The ministry was said to be 'sneaking in protection' and the Sydney Morning Herald, hitherto sympathetic, turned sharply against Dibbs. Although he called himself every inch a free trader and denied that ad valorem duties of 5 per cent were protective, he organized protectionist support and carried the measure in turbulent, all night sittings. Other measures were rejected by the Legislative Council and early in 1887 the ministry was dissolved.

The February elections decimated Dibbs's following and left the assembly divided. His only way out of political isolation was to join the Opposition to Parkes's free trade government. Opinion echoed Dibbs, who often quoted scripture, in referring to the road to Damascus when he publicly announced his adherence to protection in July. The change had been predicted in the Murrumbidgee election and was sincere, although he was always impatient with ideologies and remained suspect to the more doctrinaire protectionists. He gave experienced leadership to the large but unsteady protectionist party. Although he was not a social reformer, the 'inherent Toryism' often ascribed to him was hardly consistent with his support of law reform, divorce extension, one man one vote, courts of conciliation and even 'municipal socialism'. His relations with Parkes deteriorated in the crisis over Chinese immigration in May 1888. Dibbs's restless probing of the government's actions provoked Parkes to attack his 'genius for destruction, for degradation and for confusion' and to refer to his year's imprisonment, evidence to Dibbs of the tyrannous disposition of the 'mean, despicable, dastardly man'. When the Parkes ministry fell in January 1889, Dibbs formed a minority administration of sound men likely to reconcile different elements among the protectionists; his ministry was characterized above all as 'the country ministry'. He obtained a dissolution and campaigned on the tariff for solving the revenue problem and providing employment by protection against foreign competition. The protectionists swept the country electorates. Dibbs provocatively filled a number of Legislative Council seats, but when the assembly met he was defeated by 68 votes to 64 and Parkes returned to office.

Dibbs had never looked generously on other Australian colonies and his coolness to Parkes's revival of the federal question in 1889 was no surprise. Concluding that Dibbs would not wish to attend the Federal Convention of 1891 Parkes nominated James Garvan but the outcry forced a ballot in which Dibbs was elected. Alfred Deakin called him 'the Ishmaelite of the Convention', isolated from the New South Wales delegation and opposed to everything brought forward by Parkes. Dibbs asserted Sydney's right to be federal capital and argued for a strong senate, but saw that colonial union was certain and that the most direct way of bringing it about was 'a federation of everything in common', based initially on a customs union.

In October 1891 Dibbs replaced Parkes with whom he had become partly reconciled during their illnesses in 1890. Again Dibbs chose the less doctrinaire of his party for his new ministry: 'the proselytes', said (Sir) George Reid, 'have crowded out all the apostles'. Barton could not lightly join Dibbs, a severe critic of his strong federalism, but accepted office as attorney-general in return for Dibbs's undertaking to allow him a free hand in federal matters and not to hinder open discussion of the convention bill in the assembly. Dibbs appears to have respected these obligations and the ministry was generally judged to be strong and intelligent. He began with characteristic bravura; the Herald called it 'a dangerous sense of exaltation'. He publicly renounced autocracy and rejoiced in colleagues with opinions of their own. Never a deep reader, he was largely indifferent to political ideas but he had clear notions of what constituted good government, above all, the equitable protection of all sections of the community. His immediate problem was to secure his own position. Despite his impulsiveness he shrewdly saw that Labor disunity on the fiscal question was the weak point in the political situation. With as little debate as possible he hastened through a customs duty bill. It gave an earnest to his party, though its protective effect was limited; it was lucrative, though the need for revenue did not then seem desperate; its immediate advantage was political, for it attached a group of Labor protectionists to the government and secured a majority. Dibbs saw the bill's weakness as a protectionist programme, but argued for proceeding by stages towards a fully protective tariff and a complete system of direct taxation. The government moved on with bills for electoral reform and conciliation and arbitration: the former, despite Legislative Council resistance, gave the colony one man one vote in 1893, but the latter provided no compulsion and its effect was small.

Dibbs visited London in 1892 hoping to improve his health and to convince critics that the Australian colonies were not extravagant or over-solicitous of their working classes. To English audiences he insisted on the purity and economy of administration in New South Wales, the security of its lands and public works, and the responsibility of its trades unions. He had promised Barton to speak 'in quiet style and with moderation' and on the tour he was never a prey to his temper. Although he made little progress in his financial business, his ease and tact won good opinions for himself and sympathy for the colony. Yet his steps in other areas threw his ministerial colleagues into alarm. His plans to persuade the French government to cease convict transportation to New Caledonia were thought to include recognition of a French protectorate in the New Hebrides; he cabled back, 'total misapprehension', and abandoned his visit to Paris. Provocatively he accepted a knighthood, finally on the insistence of the Queen and from her hands, but against the advice of Barton who thought refusal would be a politically inspiring gesture. To Dibbs his reception in England was 'like a dream' but he was not carried away by vanity. He was accused of succumbing to the aristocratic embrace and of apostasy to his republicanism, but it was 'only skin deep' and reflected the common colonial belief in eventual independence; in London he was careful to avoid identification with the Imperial Federation League.

Dibbs returned in September to a fulsome public welcome but a censure vote by the Opposition under Reid. On the same day the ministry ordered the arrest of strike leaders at Broken Hill for conspiracy. Reid and his supporters joined the government in rejecting a Labor amendment censuring its actions at Broken Hill, and four Labor protectionists helped Dibbs to survive Reid's censure. Assertions that he sided with the Broken Hill employers cannot be proved. On the contrary he urged them to hold out the olive branch and to use the new machinery for arbitration. He was hard on disorder but without vindictiveness, and towards Labor he was neither hostile nor obsequious. Though he preferred self help he had founded the Labor Bureau in February 1892 to bring together the unemployed and employers, but he refused to fix wages and condemned demonstrations by the unemployed.

By the beginning of 1893 the colony was moving into a great financial crisis. As usual Dibbs was too sanguine as catastrophe approached but bold and decisive when it struck. In 1892 the government resisted demands for retrenchment but next January it had to reduce its estimates and attempt to pass a new income tax bill. By April the estimates were still not adopted and Dibbs had to threaten with a dissolution those of his own party who wanted retrenchment. The Legislative Council threw out the income tax bill, but attention now had to be concentrated on the collapse of the banking system.

In that kind of emergency Dibbs came into his own. When panic threatened the Savings Bank of New South Wales he appeared at its doors and wrote in his own hand a proclamation guaranteeing its deposits. Continuing runs on the banks required more systematic action. Dibbs had foreseen such a catastrophe ten years earlier and had worked out a solution. A cabinet committee produced a simple measure making bank notes a first charge on the issuers' assets. Its purpose, said Dibbs, was not 'to assist the banks of this colony, because with private business and banking this Parliament has nothing whatever to do' but to 'save some thousands of our fellow-citizens from severe loss and misery'. The bill was accepted by large majorities in both Houses in May and he told Acting-Governor Sir Frederick Darley that its mere passage would 'prove effective for the restoration of confidence'. The banks, however, 'unnerved by the swift march of destruction', lacked the will or the public spirit to take advantage of it and most of them closed their doors and prepared for reconstruction. Sir Timothy Coghlan later claimed that without his 'bold, well conceived, and successful' action the crisis would have been worse than it was. 'For six weeks', wrote Dibbs himself, 'I never left my office to go home—but once—the storm is over—the ship saved'.

Success did not improve the government's position and in December it was defeated. Dibbs shrugged this off as a vote of no consequence and prorogued parliament because the new rolls and electorates required by the 1893 electoral reforms were not yet fixed. Dibbs ironically called this manoeuvre 'Cromwellian' and was accused of dictatorship. In early 1894 his opponents' indignation turned to hysteria: he was compared with Strafford, Alva and the Czar. With less abandon the government was attacked by the more radical or doctrinaire protectionists for his treachery in refusing to bring in a properly protective tariff. His defence was that amid his difficulties (worse, said the Bulletin, than had fallen to the lot of any cabinet in the colony's history) he could not face that long uphill struggle.

In 1894 the government passed its estimates and prepared the new electoral machinery. After long disdain of the federal question Dibbs suddenly appealed directly to the Victorian premier to begin a unification of New South Wales and Victoria into which the smaller colonies would eventually be drawn, but the idea fell flat. In the elections of mid-1894 the government was on the defensive while the Opposition promised social reform and solution of the fiscal problem by free trade and direct taxation. The protectionists, whose country support made them cautious about a land tax, were reduced in numbers but the existence of three parties, none with an absolute majority, permitted Dibbs's familiar manoeuvre of waiting to meet the new parliament. He even repeated the attempt to make appointments to the Legislative Council but the governor, Sir Robert Duff, refused the request and forced his resignation. As leader of the Opposition to Reid's ministry in 1894-95 Dibbs espoused a conservatism which has misleadingly coloured his whole career. He rejected payment of members and opposed measures he had long supported. A loose alliance with Parkes was prepared by intermediaries. In the circumstances the move was not so unholy as contemporaries pretended but it failed miserably. In the 1895 elections Reid presented Dibbs and Parkes as reactionary and unprincipled and both were defeated. Dibbs sympathized with Parkes on his handling by Reid and 'his revolutionary mob followers', claiming that such a defeat was more honourable than victory.

Dibbs was appointed managing trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales. Despite occasional speculation about his return to lead the protectionist party and his own opposition to the form of Federation, he remained in political retirement until his death from heart disease at Passy, Hunter's Hill, on 5 August 1904. His wife, nine daughters and two sons survived him. He was buried at St Thomas's cemetery, North Sydney.

A portrait by Percy Spence, presented as a testimonial in 1893, is in the Public Library of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Parkes, Fifty Years in the Making of Australian History (Lond, 1892)
  • B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900 (Lond, 1913)
  • T. A. Coghlan, Labour and Industry in Australia, vols 3-4 (Lond, 1918)
  • B. E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat: The Career of Edward William O'Sullivan, 1846-1910 (Syd, 1965)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • A. R. Crane, ‘The New South Wales Public Schools League 1874-1879’, in E. L. French (ed), Melbourne Studies in Education, 1964, pp 198-229
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1883-95
  • N. B. Nairn, ‘The Political Mastery of Sir Henry Parkes: New South Wales Politics 1871-1891’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 53, part 1, Mar 1967, pp 1-51
  • B. Dickey, ‘The Broken Hill Strike, 1892’, Labour History, no 11, Nov 1966, pp 40-53
  • N. J. Hubbard, Some Aspects of the Social and Political Career of George Dibbs in N.S.W. (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1968)
  • Colonial Secretary's papers, special bundles, 1885-93 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Edmund Barton papers and uncatalogued manuscripts (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bruce E. Mansfield, 'Dibbs, Sir George Richard (1834–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dibbs-sir-george-richard-3408/text5179, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 July 2014.

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

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