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Fink, Theodore (1855–1942)

by Wilma Hannah

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

Theodore Fink (1855-1942), solicitor, politician, newspaper proprietor and educationist, was born on 3 July 1855 at St Pierre, Guernsey, Channel Islands, youngest son of Moses Fink, storekeeper, and his wife Gertrude, née Ascher. Benjamin Fink was his eldest brother; while Theodore lacked Benjamin's unrestrained panache in business dealings and the academic brilliance of his brother Wolfe (b.1853) he had a touch of the family audacity and an astute, cultivated intelligence.

Moses Fink and his family arrived at Geelong, Victoria, in April 1861. There, Theodore attended the Flinders National grammar school and then Geelong College, but the single most stimulating influence on him was the family's move to Melbourne in 1871. He entered Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he was a class-mate of Alfred Deakin, an admired friend from that time, matriculated, and won the school prize for poetry. The company of his brother Wolfe's friends, his membership with Deakin of discussion societies such as the Eclectic Association of Victoria, and a course of reading at the Public Library, all heightened his interest in the arts and politics. Like Deakin, and under his influence, he was to become an ardent worker for Federation.

In 1872 Theodore Fink joined the reputable firm of Henry J. Farmer as an articled clerk, studying law part-time at the University of Melbourne. He was soon initiated into various branches of the profession especially mercantile law, including insolvency proceedings and conveyancing. This later proved a most apt apprenticeship. In 1874 he became Farmer's managing clerk and three years later was admitted to practice as a solicitor. He steadily improved his knowledge of mercantile and constitutional law and in 1886 entered a legal partnership with Sir Robert Best and Philip Phillips. He also led an active social life. A writer of occasional verse from boyhood, Theodore became a well-known writer and public speaker, contributing to Melbourne Punch and other papers, and writing the occasional serious essay as readily as he composed topical verses for George Musgrove's pantomimes. He delighted in the company of artists, writers and intellectuals and gained a reputation as a wit and as a very practical patron of the arts.

In 1879 Fink became the youngest member of the Yorick Club. His close associates, then and later, included writers and journalists such as Marcus Clarke and Jules Francois Archibald and artists such as Charles Conder, William Longstaff, Sir Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Sir Edgar MacKennal, Tom Roberts and Phil May—to whom he was particularly helpful. He was a long-standing member of the Victorian Artists' Society. While enjoying Bohemian company, his own habits were temperate; he liked his garden and long walks in the countryside. On 6 July 1881, according to the rites of the Hebrew faith, Fink married Kate Isaacs at her father's home in South Yarra.

His varied and increasingly secure life was shattered by the collapse of the land boom. In 1886 land values were already high. The partnership flourished, but he began to speculate and by 1891 owed £70,000. Falling values made nonsense of his assets. Fink's speculations had largely been in ventures started by Benjamin, yet he defended his brother (and other land boomers) against accusations of culpably reckless speculation, preferring an explanation which stressed impersonal international factors as much as local greed for unrealistically high returns on investment. Theodore resolved his own financial difficulties by taking advantage of a procedure which avoided the scandal of a public bankruptcy. Such private compositions were in principle legal, but open to misuse. He himself made two private compositions of his debts, in January and July 1892. Furthermore, as a partner in the restructured firm of Fink, Best & Hall he arranged compositions for many of the major speculators.

In 1893 Fink showed both his resilience and his ability. In an address to the Bankers' Institute of Australasia, entitled 'Foreign Loans and a Young Democracy', he warned that it could not be assumed 'that the influx of capital into a colony is an unmixed blessing', and suggested that indirect taxation which pressed 'unfairly on the smallest incomes' should be replaced by direct taxation, and that the capital so raised, rather than foreign capital, should be the major source of government spending. In that same year his lengthy, complex, and successful defence of Sir Matthew Davies of the Mercantile Bank was greatly praised.

Another set of events was eventually to give Theodore Fink a different career. In 1889, on the death of John Halfey, joint-owner of the Herald, Fink bought three £1000 shares in a new company, the Herald and Sportsman Newspapers Co. Ltd. At the time of his secret compositions he had paid only £400 of this sum; these shares, which carried a directorship with them, would certainly have been lost to Fink had his insolvencies been public. In the event, their possession strengthened his interest in journalism and public affairs.

Fink's parliamentary career began in 1894, with his election to the Legislative Assembly as member for Jolimont and West Richmond. He held the seat until 1904, when he withdrew from State politics. He unsuccessfully contested the Federal seat of Kooyong in 1901. While in parliament he worked intelligently and tirelessly in a number of public causes. In 1899 he was appointed chairman of the royal commission on technical education. Interpreting the terms of reference very comprehensively, Fink began an extensive review not only of technical education but of the Education Department itself. The commission's findings led to two bills (February 1900 and December 1901) which initiated basic reforms, including an extension of the period of compulsory schooling and the freeing of the department from public service control. Throughout his chairmanship of this commission and the later commission on the University of Melbourne in 1902-04 he took a liberal and professional stance. The University Act of 1904 was more cautious than he had hoped, but the university grant was increased and new courses were offered. On his retirement from political life Fink was thanked by parliament for the work of these two commissions. Subsequently he served on the university council and the Council of Public Education, chaired conferences on apprenticeship (1906 and 1913) and an inquiry into the Working Men's College (1910), and helped to found the Victorian Council of Legal Education. He recognized Frank Tate's worth and strongly supported him.

During World War I Fink devoted his time to the Herald, of which he was then chairman of directors, and to the war effort. Ties formed during his trips to Europe, particularly that of 1909 when he was Australian delegate to the Empire Press Conference, were strengthened by the war (in which his eldest son was killed). As vice-chairman of the State War Council and later chairman for Victoria of the Commonwealth repatriation scheme, he defended the rights of ex-servicemen. In 1920 he appointed (Sir) Keith Murdoch as editor of the Herald and supported him strongly. Later, however, he resisted Murdoch's attempts to gain a directorship and hence access to the chairmanship. That position Fink intended for his youngest son Thorold, already a director. Ironically, Thorold was fatally injured in an accident only months after his father's death.

Although Fink's prolonged chairmanship of the Herald press group was in later life his main interest he continued to write the occasional humane but often politically conservative article. A youthful admirer of Herbert Spencer, he valued success but interpreted it broadly, resenting the vulgar error of equating success for those of Jewish origin with the mere making of money. He died at his Toorak home on 25 April 1942, survived by two sons and two daughters, the elder of whom, Hilda, was married to Robert Elliott. He was cremated after a funeral service conducted by Rabbi Jacob Danglow. Fink's estate was valued for probate at £55,266.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • E. L. French, Theodore Fink
  • Public Educationist ( Melb, 1966)
  • T. Fink papers and autobiographical notes (Dept of Education, University of Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Wilma Hannah, 'Fink, Theodore (1855–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fink-theodore-6171/text10601, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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