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Fitzpatrick, Michael (1816–1881)

by Brian Dickey

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

Michael Fitzpatrick (1816-1881), by unknown photographer

Michael Fitzpatrick (1816-1881), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08214

Michael Fitzpatrick (1816-1881), public servant, land agent and politician, was born on 16 December 1816 at Parramatta, son of Bernard Fitzpatrick, convict, and his wife Catherine, née Milling, a schoolteacher, who arrived in Sydney from Dublin in the Providence in July 1811. After teaching by his mother, Michael attended St Joseph's denominational school, Beveridge's Mercantile Academy in 1829-31 and John Dunmore Lang's Australian College in 1832-34 where he formed a lasting friendship with Rev. Henry Carmichael. In 1835-37 Fitzpatrick was an usher at Carmichael's Normal Institution. He became a clerk in the Lands Office in October 1837, a permanent first-class clerk by 1844 and clerk of the Executive Council in 1851. (Sir) Edward Deas Thomson employed him as his secretary in Legislative Council business.

After the granting of responsible government in 1856, Fitzpatrick was appointed under-secretary to the Department of Lands and Works, and after the department was divided in 1858 became involved in John Robertson's advanced land laws of 1861. His most significant administrative contribution was the reorganization of the department in 1867, but he lamented that his failure to get a 'Mining Minister' led to inefficiency in the Lands Department after he had retired in 1869. He promptly sought election to the Legislative Assembly; he failed to win the Lachlan seat but held Yass Plains until 1881. His campaign adumbrated positions that he supported throughout his political career: free trade, assisted migration, reorganization and retrenchment in the civil service and more railways. Fitzpatrick was an apt candidate for Yass Plains, an area which held many Catholics and was affected by agrarian radicalism. He favoured the Public Schools Act, 1866, which strengthened the national system of education and his well-formed, progressive land views, while supporting squatters, did not neglect selectors. He supported the Cowper-Robertson faction until Robertson joined Sir James Martin in 1870; in 1872-77 Fitzpatrick followed (Sir) Henry Parkes. Although a member of some importance, he had also become a land agent. Many of his clients were Riverina squatters for whom his inside knowledge of the Lands Department was useful. David Buchanan and Tom Garrett often accused him of unethical behaviour for a legislator but Fitzpatrick heatedly denied it.

After the elections of October 1877 Fitzpatrick was second-in-command of a faction of malcontents led by James Farnell and became colonial secretary when Farnell took office in December. Fitzpatrick carried the Lunacy Act, the Sydney Corporation Act and a Water Supply and Sewerage Act. He also attended to some long overdue administrative issues and took a firm stand against any violence towards the Chinese. As Opposition leader in 1879 he supported amendment of the matrimonial causes bill so that it would receive royal assent. His last years in the assembly were enlivened by the controversy over public education. In the angry atmosphere of 1879-80, when Parkes and Archbishop William Bede Vaughan were steering close to mutual slander, Fitzpatrick managed to upset both in his principled adherence to the system set up in 1866. As well as state-supported denominational schools he wanted the public schools better organized under a proper department with general religious instruction from visiting clergy. He voted against the third reading of the public instruction bill, and so earned Parkes's biting hostility, which he returned with Irish intensity.

Fitzpatrick died suddenly from apoplexy on 10 December 1881 at his home in Croydon. He was buried in Petersham cemetery without Catholic rites but after a public outcry the Church gave him a requiem mass at St Mary's Cathedral and a graveside service. He was survived by his wife Theresa Anastasia, née Small, whom he had married on 1 August 1846, and by four sons and two daughters.

Administrative ability, liberal views, Catholic faith and capacity for deft negotiation were mixed together in Fitzpatrick. He was never of the first rank, rather an organizer behind the scenes, occasionally betrayed by Irish ebullience and often in difficulties as a politician because of his ability to see several sides to most questions. He was a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1881
  • Select Committee on the Administration of the Land Law, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1873-74, 3, 905
  • E. J. Lea-Scarlett, ‘Columbus Fitzpatrick, a Neglected Historian, and His Family’, Descent, vol 2, part 4, 1965, pp 143-55
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 10 Mar 1875, 24 Dec 1881
  • Echo (Syd), 23, 26 Aug 1878
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Dec 1881
  • Australasian, 17 Dec 1881
  • Town and Country Journal, 17, 24 Dec 1881
  • Bulletin, 29 Sept 1888
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/584, 587, 591, 595.

Citation details

Brian Dickey, 'Fitzpatrick, Michael (1816–1881)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fitzpatrick-michael-3534/text5447, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 October 2014.

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

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