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FitzGibbon, Edmund Gerald (1825–1905)

by Bernard Barrett

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

Edmund Gerald FitzGibbon (1825-1905), civic administrator, was born on 1 November 1825 in Cork, Ireland, son of Gibbon Carew FitzGibbon and his wife Catherine, née Hurley. He claimed descent from the White Knight of Kerry and in Victoria enjoyed the title but outside the colony his claim was disputed. According to a newspaper interview, he professed to have lived in London from the age of 5 and never attended school; 'my education was obtained principally from association with the cultured men who formed my father's circle of friends'. After working as a clerk in London he migrated to Victoria, arriving in September 1852. After a year on the Forest Creek goldfields he read proofs of the papers for the second session of the Legislative Council. In 1854 he became a clerical assistant in the Melbourne City Council office. In 1856 the town clerk, William Kerr, resigned and his deputy died after a day in office, throwing heavy responsibilities on FitzGibbon. To cope with a severance crisis in Smith ward (Carlton), FitzGibbon was gazetted town clerk of that ward in June. Soon afterwards he was appointed town clerk of Melbourne.

As town clerk FitzGibbon helped to obtain crown land for public markets, and fiercely opposed attempts to alienate parkland. He prevented the Melbourne Gas Co. from selling its grant of crown land at West Melbourne, and survived an attempt by leading gas shareholders to unseat him as town clerk. He was a pioneer advocate of asphalt paving which replaced broken metal and facilitated the introduction of tram tracks. His prevention of a private tramway company from gaining permanent possession of Melbourne's streets later enabled the tramways to become the property of a trust comprising the interested municipalities. He blocked attempts by electric lighting companies to erect poles in the streets and made possible the public ownership of the city's lighting system. He also campaigned against the pollution of the Yarra by effluent from factories.

From the mid-1860s FitzGibbon negotiated with governments and suburban councils to form the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works to introduce sewerage and to control water supply. Suburban councils resisted until FitzGibbon helped to obtain for them the most favourable terms possible. His appointment in 1891 as full-time chairman of the new board inspired optimism for its future, but he was later criticized by the press for involving the board in more capital expenditure than had been anticipated. He went to London and raised large loans which, according to George Meudell, could have been done more cheaply in Melbourne. However, in FitzGibbon's fourteen years as chairman Melbourne's sewerage system was completed and its water catchments consolidated.

FitzGibbon's abilities overshadowed those of the part-time amateurs on the City Council and the Board of Works Commission. After part-time study he was admitted to the Bar in 1860. In 1861 he unsuccessfully contested South Bourke electorate as a free trade candidate advocating assisted immigration, the abolition of state aid to religion and a uniform system of secular education with facilities for religious teaching. In the 1860s he was active in the movement to abolish the transportation of convicts to Western Australia. He was a prominent Anglican layman. Through pamphlets, lectures and letters to the press he advocated from the 1870s that the city's administration should serve as a model for the whole colony, and that party conflict should be abolished by involving all parliamentarians in executive government, with departments administered by committees instead of by individual members. To some extent his ideas were realized in the Board of Works. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1892. In Melbourne on 26 July 1873 FitzGibbon married Sarah, née Dawson. He died on 12 December 1905 at his home, White Knights, South Yarra, survived by five sons.

A statue is in St Kilda Road near Prince's Bridge. The Melbourne City Council and the Board of Works have portraits.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Meudell, The Pleasant Career of a Spendthrift and his Later Reflections (Melb, 1935)
  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • Observer (Collingwood), 10 Sept 1874, 20 Sept 1883, 4 Jan 1906
  • Australasian, 4 Oct 1884, 4 Oct 1890
  • Table Talk 1 May 1891
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 June 1903
  • Punch (Melbourne), 28 Jan 1904.

Citation details

Bernard Barrett, 'FitzGibbon, Edmund Gerald (1825–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fitzgibbon-edmund-gerald-3530/text5439, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 July 2014.

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

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