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Draper, Alexander Frederick John (1863–1928)

by Catherine May

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

Alexander Frederick John Draper (1863-1928), businessman and politician, was born on 5 April 1863 at Williamstown, Victoria, eldest of seventeen children of Henry John Mollett Draper, pilot, and his wife Eileen, née Young. At 16 he entered the Bank of Australasia and served in country towns of New South Wales and Victoria. He was transferred in 1884 to Townsville, Queensland, then to Charters Towers. When he settled at Cairns as manager, his ability, energy and interest in local affairs soon became apparent in the railway league, hospital committee, fire brigade, whose board he frequently chaired, progress association and sporting bodies. He was also a captain of volunteers. He married Georgina Mary Capron at Williamstown on 9 April 1885.

Recognizing the agricultural and mineral potential of the Cairns district, Queensland, Draper left the bank that year. In 1884 he became one of the first shippers of bananas, which were grown by immigrant Chinese, and which during the 1890s were the economic mainstay of Cairns. More than any other European, he maintained close connexions with the industry until its virtual demise about 1913. With W. D. Hobson and others, he bought the ill-fated Hop Wah sugar plantation in 1886. The partnership was dissolved when the plantation continued to fail and Draper set up on his own as an auctioneer and commission agent. A. J. Draper & Co. financed many local farmers.

He supported the conservative candidate R. A. Kingsford at both the divisional board elections of 1885 and the Legislative Assembly elections of 1888. Elected next year to the Cairns Town Council, he rapidly became prominent, served as mayor in 1892-93, 1896-97, 1902, 1918, and 1924-27, and resigned from the council only when defeated for the mayoralty in April 1927. His insistence on economy in the 1890s was not entirely popular; his outspokenness made political enemies, and because of close Chinese friendships he was often labelled pro-Chinese. Secretary also of the Barron Divisional Board in 1893-1919, he helped to found the Cairns Stock Exchange and chaired both the board of enquiry into hydro-electricity and the Patriotic League.

Though urged to enter Federal politics, Draper stayed in Cairns because he believed in the importance of local issues and because of his extensive business interests. In January 1885 he and Hobson had founded the Cairns Chronicle supporting Sir Thomas McIlwraith. Draper's brother Edwin (d.1901) was involved, as editor, in a horsewhipping, a libel action and much besides. In 1893, partly as a result of the depression, Draper was briefly in voluntary liquidation and lost control of the Chronicle, but he recovered rapidly and never again looked back. By the turn of the century, he had interests in mining and an increasing involvement in the sugar industry.

The Mulgrave mill was the first central sugar-mill established in the district under the Sugar Works Guarantee Act of 1893. In 1897 Draper was appointed chairman of directors and was largely responsible for heavy borrowing to extend the mill's facilities. When loan interest payments proved burdensome, the shareholders threatened revolt but good results in 1899 restored Draper's reputation and he remained a director until his death. He himself grew cane at Babinda, encouraged others and actively campaigned for a mill which was established there in 1911.

Threats to the future of Pacific island labour at the turn of the century caused widespread apprehension among sugar-planters and Draper was among those urging its continuation. He admitted later that his fears had not been realized. Nevertheless, the first twenty years of the century were an uneasy period for planters. Draper was foundation chairman of both the Queensland Sugar Producers' Association (1907) and the Cairns Cane Growers' Association (1911), formed to combat labour problems. The latter was partly a response to increasing strength and militancy of the unions; consistently an anti-unionist, Draper was anathema to the labour movement. His interest in the Cairns Post, revived by E. Draper & Co. in 1895, led to the establishment about 1900 of the Labour-oriented Cairns Times, eventually taken over directly by the unions. During the strike of 1925 he was member of a committee to organize the loading of sugar by farmers in defiance of striking wharflabourers, and headed the procession of farmers through Cairns to the wharf; the incident possibly helped to lose him the mayoralty.

Thereafter, Draper abandoned politics but remained active in the sugar industry. During a trip to Brisbane to attend meetings of the Australian Sugar Producers' Association and the Cane Growers' Council, he died of vascular disease on 21 March 1928, survived by his wife and six daughters. He was buried at Cairns and left an estate valued for probate at £49,989.

Select Bibliography

  • Cairns Post Pty Ltd, The Life of A. J. Draper (Cairns, 1931)
  • D. Jones, Trinity Phoenix (Cairns, 1976)
  • Australian Sugar Journal, July 1976, p 196
  • liquidation files, SCT/11/W8/1893 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

Catherine May, 'Draper, Alexander Frederick John (1863–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/draper-alexander-frederick-john-6016/text10281, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 November 2017.

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

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