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Felton, Alfred (1831–1904)

by J. R. Poynter

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

Alfred Felton (1831-1904), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 8 November 1831 at Maldon, Essex, England, the fifth child of six sons and three daughters of Thomas Felton, tanner, and his wife Hannah. He was probably apprenticed to a chemist before migrating to Victoria in 1853. He is said to have made money carting goods to the goldfields before establishing himself as a merchant in Melbourne. In 1857 he was a commission agent and general dealer and in 1861 a wholesale druggist in Swanston Street.

In 1867 Felton bought the wholesale drug house of Youngman & Co. in partnership with its manager, Frederick Grimwade. Renamed Felton, Grimwade & Co. the firm expanded rapidly in the next twenty-five years, and although the depression of the 1890s reduced both its trading and manufacturing activities it remained the largest drug house in the colony and a sound and profitable business, with subsidiary interests in drug houses in New Zealand and Western Australia. The two men also founded other enterprises: in 1872 the Melbourne Glass Bottle Works (ancestor of Australian Glass Manufacturers Ltd) and an acid works which was merged in 1897 with Cuming Smith & Co.; in 1882 the Adelaide Chemical Works Co., in partnership with the principals of Cuming Smith & Co., and the Australian Salt Manufacturing Co., the only failure among their ventures; and in 1885 J. Bosisto & Co., in partnership with Joseph Bosisto founder of the eucalyptus oil industry in Australia. Felton also bought two large estates, Murray Downs and Langi Kal Kal, in partnership with Charles Campbell, senior partner in Cuming Smith & Co. When Felton died on 8 January 1904 his assets were valued at more than £500,000.

Shrewd and upright in business, Felton was mildly eccentric in his private life and opinions. Although probably self-educated, he had a strong interest in literature and the arts, and the bachelor rooms in the St Kilda Hotel in which he spent his last twenty years were crowded with books, pictures and objets d'art. He sought no public office, and his many benefactions were usually discreet and anonymous, though he did not shun public controversy in his warm support of the Australian Church, founded by Charles Strong. After his death his will gained him more renown than he had ever sought in life: it established a trust fund, originally of £383,163 but later increased to more than £2,000,000, under the control of a Felton Bequests' Committee of five. Half the income was to be given to charities, especially those for the relief of women and children, and the other half spent on works of art for the Melbourne National Gallery, works judged 'to have an artistic and educative value and be calculated to raise or improve the level of public taste'. In its first sixty years the committee spent £1,237,000 on works of art, to the inestimable benefit of the gallery's collection.

A portrait by Sir John Longstaff from a photograph is in the National Gallery; it shows Felton in old age, in amiable mood on a seat in his partner's garden at Caulfield.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Bage (ed), Historical Record of the Felton Bequests, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1923, 1927)
  • R. Grimwade, Flinders Lane: Recollections of Alfred Felton (Melb, 1947)
  • E. D. Lindsay (ed), The Felton Bequest, an Historical Record 1904-1959 (Melb, 1963)
  • J. R. Poynter, Russell Grimwade (Melb, 1967)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9, 11, 13 Jan 1904
  • R. Grimwade papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Felton papers (held by Trustees and Executors Agency Co. Ltd, Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Felton, Alfred (1831–1904)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/felton-alfred-3508/text5393, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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