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Forster, William (1818–1882)

by Bede Nairn

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

William Forster (1818-1882), by unknown photographer

William Forster (1818-1882), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, PX*D 624

William Forster (1818-1882), man of letters and politician, was born on 16 October 1818 at Madras, India, son of Thomas Forster, army surgeon, and his wife Eliza, daughter of Gregory Blaxland. His parents married in Sydney in 1817, went to India that year, to Wales in 1822 and Ireland in 1825. In 1829 the family returned to Sydney and settled at Brush Farm, Field of Mars, near Ryde. Forster was educated in India at the regimental school of the 14th Light Dragoons, in Ireland at Rev. J. Crawford's school at Donnybrook, and in New South Wales at William Cape's school and The King's School where in 1836 he won a prize for poetry.

From his parents' families Forster both absorbed the tradition of pioneering harsh but promising lands and acquired the financial resources to reduce the risks of squatting. He went on one of the first overland expeditions to Port Philip and from 1839 took up depasturing licences and leases and bought land. By 1840 he had a station near Port Macquarie and other property in the Clarence River district. In 1848 he moved into the New England district and in 1849-54 pioneered the Burnett and Wide Bay regions in the Moreton Bay District where he amassed runs of about 64,000 acres (25,900 ha). In 1867, when he had retired from active control of his properties, he still leased about 80,000 acres (32,375 ha) in Queensland. On 8 April 1846 at Parramatta he had married Eliza Jane, daughter of Colonel Charles William Wall and his wife Ann, née Atkinson. When Forster quit his active country life in 1854 and returned to Sydney they had two sons and three daughters; three more daughters were born before his wife died at 35 at Brush Farm in 1862.

Appointed a magistrate in 1842, Forster was removed from the lists in 1849 after a shooting incident in which an Aboriginal was wounded by Gregory Blaxland junior. Forster became one of the most successful squatters of the great pastoral expansion in eastern Australia. With his wife's help and associates he overcame great problems of exploration and settlement in inhospitable and, at times, dangerous regions. He adapted himself to the bush. Never a friendly man, his experience consolidated his independent spirit. To a degree he tamed his environment but it moulded him. He remained a bushman, honourable and unyielding, always an individual, and probably the most erudite and literate of the squatters. His insight enabled him to see himself and his work in a wide social framework. He argued that squatters had rights to security of tenure because of their financial and physical risks and intellectual deprivation; that colonial society gained economically by allowing squatters access to land on reasonable terms. But he also acknowledged that they were using land that did not belong to them and that vast tracts were falling into few hands, with the result that increasing population, which strengthened liberal opinion, would condition radical land reform. He also perceived the political disadvantages of the connexions of squatting with rule from Britain.

Forster somehow found the time to write fine poetry and prose. In the 1840s his country work and the nature of colonial politics both dictated the form of his writing and sharpened his political aspirations. He defended the squatters against Governor Sir George Gipps. He found a congenial forum in Robert Lowe's Atlas, a sardonic and satirical newspaper which published his best-known early poem 'The Devil and the Governor', of which Henry Mackenzie Green said 'with the doubtful exception of Deniehy's “How I became Attorney General of New Barataria”… Australia produced until the twentieth century no satire that could compare with it'. In 1866 George Barton claimed that Forster's writings 'would probably fill several octavo volumes'. He also shone as a critic, especially in exposing the pretentions of Frank Fowler. Much of his writing was political and he contributed to Deniehy's Southern Cross: notably in 1859 a witty piece on 'The Question of Moreton Bay Separation' in which he described Rev. John Dunmore Lang as 'The Great Apostle of National Disintegration', and insisted that the Clarence River district should not be taken from New South Wales. Forster discontinued his political essays when he became premier on 27 October 1859 but he kept up his poetry. In 1876 he published the verse play, The Weirwolf, in 1877 The Brothers and, finally in 1884 his second wife issued Midas. To Morris Miller, Forster's verse 'is proficient and convincing', while Barton sums him up as 'a pungent writer … [who if he] had devoted himself with more attention to letters than he has done, it can hardly be doubted that he would have gained distinction'. Though his wit is occasionally peevish, there is an inventiveness and technical skill in the whole of Forster's work that places it near the front rank of nineteenth-century Australian literature.

Politics was Forster's chief love. By 1855 his squatting had given him the means and his writing the incentive to enter parliament. In 1856 he won the seat of Murray and St Vincent at the first elections under responsible government. He differed from (Sir) John Robertson in land reform, especially on the detail of extended period of repayment for land selected before survey, and he was sceptical that any land legislation could do more than reduce the disorder associated with great changes in a new phase of colonial development. Though an Anglican by birth and conviction and one who saw the advantages of denominational schools, he considered that the great social and economic problems of a vast and sparsely-settled colony with its many kinds of Christians as well as non-believers and Jews made it inevitable that a national system of education should be established. In wanting church and state to be separated he joined the almost unanimous opinion of the colonial intelligentsia. Without a trace of bigotry, he could rebuke and restrain excessive religious or patriotic zeal; in the Melbourne Review, 1881 (21), he wrote of the extravagant 'loyalty and attachment to the mother country … which was exemplified … by a savage burst of indignation against the unfortunate maniac [Henry O'Farrell,] who shot the Duke of Edinburgh'. The Catholics admired him, but most were unresponsive to his liberalism. In the 1850s he also sought manhood suffrage and an elective upper house.

Forster served in all ten parliaments until his death in 1882, except the ninth in 1876-80. He held seven different seats at various times. At several elections he lost one seat but won another at a second attempt. In 1859-60 he was premier for five months and in 1863 and 1872 was asked to form ministries; in 1863-65 he was colonial secretary, 1868-70 secretary for lands and in 1875-76 colonial treasurer. He served under Sir Charles Cowper, Sir James Martin and John Robertson but was on good terms with none of them; Martin claimed that he was 'disagreeable as an opponent, dangerous as a supporter, but fatal as a colleague'. According to the Sydney Morning Herald in 1874, 'Mr. Forster seeks no friends in public life, makes no alliances, asks no one to help him, takes no one into his confidence, and is sometimes evidently repentant that he has ventured to confide in himself'. In 1861 he satirized the Chinese restriction bill and in 1868 he was one of two who voted against the treason felony bill. In 1875 as treasurer he transferred colonial funds from the Bank of New South Wales to the City Bank, of which he was a director, but no impropriety was involved. His durable conflict with Sir Henry Parkes stemmed in part from his criticism of Parkes's poetry, but more significantly from his belief that Parkes had forestalled him with the Public Schools Act, 1866. In 1871-76 and in 1881-82 Forster was a member of the Senate of the University of Sydney. In October 1875 as treasurer he went to London to rectify some financial and other troubles and was agent-general from February 1876. In England he had a resounding quarrel with Thomas Woolner over Captain James Cook's statue, offended polite society with his bushman's clothes and annoyed Parkes and Governor Sir Hercules Robinson with an anti-federation speech to the Royal Colonial Institute and his offhandedness with government business. In December 1879 Parkes peremptorily recalled him.

Despite his political nonconformity Forster was a major parliamentarian. His persistence, independence and honesty helped to check parliament's drift into futility. He insisted that the legislature should mirror society and that no people could prosper if they did not subscribe to the highest ethical standards; he took it on himself to ensure that parliament's actions should be judged on his view of what was right. He was respected and feared as well as hated. He set an example of rectitude so seasoned with waspish efficiency that parliament always listened and often learnt from him. He was also a leading legislator. He introduced over fifty bills, ranging from the regulation of cemeteries to the control of diseases in sheep.

On 8 November 1873 at Armidale he married Maud Julia Edwards; they had three sons and two daughters. He died on 30 October 1882 at Edgecliff and was buried at St Anne's, Ryde. His estate was sworn at £30,000. The Freeman's Journal's superlatives caught some of the essential man, 'The boldest, frankest, least selfish and most honourable man who has ever taken part in our public life has been taken away from us'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. B. Barton, The Poets and Prose Writers of New South Wales (Syd, 1866)
  • D. Dignan, The Story of Kolan (Brisb, 1964), Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1855, 3, 970
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1856-57, 1, 1207
  • Empire (Sydney), 16 Apr 1856
  • Town and Country Journal, 27 Mar 1875
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 8 Apr 1875, 25 Nov 1882
  • Bulletin, 13 Nov 1880
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 Oct 1882
  • Australasian, 4 Nov 1882
  • printed catalogue under William Forster (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/ 508-09, 523, 526-36, 597.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Forster, William (1818–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forster-william-3553/text5489, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 April 2014.

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

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