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Fehon, William Meeke (1834–1911)

by K. J. Cable

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

William Meeke Fehon (1834-1911), by unknown photographer

William Meeke Fehon (1834-1911), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

William Meeke Fehon (1834-1911), railway administrator, was born in March 1834 in London, son of John Fehon, printer, and his wife Sarah, née Greenhaus. Educated at Brixton school, he entered a commercial firm and in 1851 joined the Eastern Counties Railway Co. as a clerk and was later in the engineer's office. He worked for the Great Western Railway Co. of Canada from 1856 until his brother invited him to come to Australia. Arriving in Melbourne in April 1858, on 1 May Fehon married Ann Gumm (d.1907). He was employed by the Victorian Railways Department and rose to be traffic manager in 1870. Two years later, he became a partner in William McCulloch & Co., a large carrying organization and, when it was made a limited company about 1876, managing director. From 1880 the company expanded by its association with the New South Wales firm of (F.A.) Wright, Heaton & Co. Ltd. Fehon became a public figure in Victoria as a member of the Central Board of Health, a justice of the peace and a licensing magistrate.

Fehon resigned from McCulloch's in 1883 and visited Europe. He reported on railways for the Service government and assisted in the selection of Richard Speight to head the Victorian railways. On his return Fehon went in for sugar-growing and pastoral pursuits, but with little success. Badly shaken, he found an opportunity to return to railway work when the Parkes ministry removed the New South Wales railways from direct political control. Under the Government Railways Act of 1888, Fehon was appointed second commissioner on 22 October, under E. M. G. Eddy; C. N. J. Oliver under-secretary for lands was the third.

His appointment aroused a storm: J. H. Want declared that Fehon had shown partiality to McCulloch's before leaving the Victorian railways and had later been involved in land and wool scandals associated with Wright Heaton. Parkes's reluctance to take the charges seriously contributed to his loss of office in January 1889. The Dibbs government appointed a royal commission which, somewhat dubiously, exonerated Fehon. The railways commissioners faced bitter criticism. The railways system needed major reconstruction. Labour relations deteriorated and political criticism grew as Eddy's vigorous reforms were pushed forward. Fehon, who greatly admired Eddy and supported him loyally, acted as a moderating influence, especially with the unions.

Reappointed in 1895 Fehon, not unwillingly, became third commissioner at a lower salary. After 1897 Oliver, unable to maintain Eddy's (d.1897) professional primacy, fell out with the abrasive David Kirkcaldie, second commissioner, on policy and personal issues: Fehon, though anxious to keep the peace, tended to side with Kirkcaldie. By 1905 the situation had aroused such service and political disquiet that the royal commission into railway administration was appointed, partly to inquire into 'inharmonious relations between the commissioners'. Its divided report generally placed least blame on Fehon, who was portrayed as a conciliator.

His appointment ended on 11 April 1907 and he retired with only a year's salary, being ineligible for a pension. He served on the royal commission of inquiry on forestry in 1907 but resigned in January 1908 because of increasing deafness. After a visit to Britain, Fehon lived in retirement mainly at the Warrigal Club. He died at his son's Homebush residence on 4 February 1911 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery with Anglican rites. He was survived by a son and daughter and left an estate sworn for probate at £3283 in New South Wales and £500 in Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1889, 5, 121
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1906, 4, pt 1
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1888, p 1065, 1511, 1889, p 1856, 1906, p 845
  • New South Wales Railway and Tramway Magazine, 1 Dec 1920, p 750
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Feb 1911
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

K. J. Cable, 'Fehon, William Meeke (1834–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fehon-william-meeke-6152/text10563, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 25 July 2014.

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

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