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Eagar, Geoffrey (1818–1891)

by P. N. Lamb

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

Geoffrey Eagar (1818-1891), by unknown photographer

Geoffrey Eagar (1818-1891), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24209561

Geoffrey Eagar (1818-1891), accountant, banker, politician and public servant, was born on 17 February 1818 in Sydney, the second son of Edward Eagar and his wife Jemima, née McDuel. He attended the schools of John Dunmore Lang and William Timothy Cape, winning prizes for mathematical and classical studies. He left school at 15 and worked for ten years as a book-keeper for various employers and for another ten years as managing clerk in the large mercantile firm of Thacker & Co. In 1854 he was invited by the board of the Bank of New South Wales to an important new position in the bank's service. As the first branch (later chief) accountant Eagar was responsible for new accounting procedures and the supervision of a rapidly growing number of branches. He was well paid, travelled extensively and established an outstanding reputation as a banker. The directors of the bank were astonished when he submitted his resignation in September 1859 in order to accept appointment to the Legislative Council of New South Wales. His close friends, however, were not surprised, for he had displayed an early and mounting interest in political issues. From 18 he had been an anonymous contributor to many of the colony's newspapers and periodicals, writing with boldness and a reforming zeal on public questions. His former schoolfellows, William Forster, James Martin and John Robertson, had become active politicians and Eagar was anxious to join them.

A liberal, he advocated land reform, compulsory and secular education, and measures to counter political corruption. He believed that the government should play a major role in promoting economic growth, mainly by the judicious construction of public works and a carefully devised fiscal policy. From the beginning of his parliamentary career his brilliant oratory commanded attention but won him few friends, for he had a disconcerting habit of analysing political clichés to show up the inconsistency and shallowness of many of his political associates. This did not prevent him from gaining ministerial office; after only a month in the council he was selected as secretary for public works in Forster's ministry. This ministry survived for only four months and Eagar surrendered his seat in the council in November 1860. He put his private affairs in order by opening an office in the heart of Sydney, from which he conducted a lucrative business as a consulting accountant and agent. In January 1863 he entered the Legislative Assembly as member for West Sydney and commenced a sustained attack on the Cowper ministry's management of the public finances. When James Martin replaced Cowper as premier in October 1863 he selected Eagar as colonial treasurer in the knowledge that no member of the assembly was better equipped to deal with budgetary difficulties and administrative inefficiency in the Treasury and related departments.

As treasurer from October 1863 to February 1865 and from January 1866 to October 1868, Eagar implemented sweeping financial and administrative reforms. He was primarily responsible for the abandonment of the famous Deas Thomson free trade tariff, the imposition of stamp duty taxation, the establishment of an efficient mechanism for raising overseas loans and the creation of a powerful Treasury organization. He also introduced new accounting procedures and greatly strengthened the staff, thereby making possible for the first time effective Treasury control of expenditure. His measures aroused widespread hostility and he was undoubtedly one of the most controversial figures in the colony's politics. He ruled the Treasury at a particularly difficult time of unavoidable deficit financing associated with a balance of payments crisis. Although a determined reformer and forceful administrator, he was impatient of criticism, almost tyrannical in his treatment of subordinates and inclined to move too swiftly in advance of public opinion on the general question of taxation.

His departure from the political scene followed what appeared to be a fairly straightforward administrative decision affecting the Customs Department. The collector of customs, William Duncan, was an influential and highly independent public servant with powerful political supporters, especially Henry Parkes. Duncan resisted Eagar's plans to bring the Customs Department completely under control of the Treasury and was charged by Eagar with insubordination. Duncan apologized on the advice of Parkes but Eagar refused to accept the apology; instead he insisted on Duncan's dismissal, thereby provoking Parkes to resign from the ministry. The 'Duncan affair' quickly became a major topic of interest to parliament and press and Eagar was branded as a tyrant. The ministry resigned partly as a result of the adverse publicity and in 1868 Eagar retired, firmly convinced of the correctness of all his actions as treasurer.

Within months of leaving politics he was financially embarrassed. From this predicament he was rescued in 1871 by the premier, Martin, who found Eagar a senior position in the Treasury and promoted him permanent head in February 1872. Eagar retained this key post until 17 February 1891. The Treasury was very much an institution of his own moulding and, as permanent head, he was in a powerful position to advise the sixteen treasurers who held office between 1872 and 1891. His influence was widely recognized and his ability at times gratefully acknowledged by politicians with some understanding of the complexity of financing a rapidly accelerating flow of government spending on railways and other costly services without resort to heavy taxation. Eagar was the master mind behind the large-scale overseas borrowing programme and skilfully manipulated available funds to keep the government solvent. Like some other public servants whose work outside the public limelight has never been properly investigated Eagar played a role as important for the colony as many of the leading politicians.

Besides his duties in the Treasury, from 1885 Eagar was a member and three times chairman of the Civil Service Board appointed to correct some of the abuses of the patronage system. He was also a member of the History Board which recommended in March 1891 the publication of the Historical Records of New South Wales. From 1859 until his death he was auditor for the University of Sydney. He was well known to literary circles as a fine essayist and a fair poet, his main leisure-time activity in his last years being the translation of the Odes of Horace into English verse. His death from a stroke on 12 September 1891 was noted by every Sydney publication in lengthy obituaries and was the cause of a special resolution of the Legislative Assembly on the motion of Henry Parkes, who called him one of the last of the 'most striking figures who watched over the introduction of parliamentary government' in New South Wales.

On 7 March 1843 he had married Mary Ann Arabella Bucknell and made his home at Glebe Point, Sydney. He also acquired a property on the Blue Mountains, with Eagar's Platform (Valley Heights railway station) at his front door. He was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery and left an estate of about £3000. He was survived by his wife and three of their four children.

Select Bibliography

  • P. N. Lamb, ‘Geoffrey Eagar and the Colonial Treasury of New South Wales’, Australian Economic Papers, vol 1, no 1, Sept 1962, pp 24-41
  • CO 201/508.

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Citation details

P. N. Lamb, 'Eagar, Geoffrey (1818–1891)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/eagar-geoffrey-3464/text5297, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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