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Forsyth, Archibald (1826–1908)

by Martha Rutledge

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

Archibald Forsyth (1826-1908), ropemaker and politician, was born on 10 March 1826 at Garmouth, Morayshire, Scotland, the ninth and youngest son of John Forsyth, carpenter, and his wife Helen, née Young. At 17 he reputedly worked on railway construction and later in the timber trade. In 1848 he migrated to Sydney and became a cedar-getter on the northern rivers where 'his fine stature' impressed his fellow axemen. In 1851 when gold fever struck he tried Ophir, the Turon diggings and then the Victorian fields. On 21 January 1854 he married Sarah Corbett in Melbourne. Later he seems to have been a sawmiller in Apollo Bay, and in 1862 he founded Forsyth & Anthony, general merchants.

Persuaded by the ropemaker James Miller, a boyhood friend, Forsyth sold out in 1864 and the next year founded Sydney's first 'rope and cordage' works on four acres (1.6 ha) at the corner of Bourke and Lachlan Streets, Waterloo. In 1868 he made his nephew John (1846-1915) a partner. Starting business at an expansive time in Australia's maritime enterprise, Forsyth had proved his product equal in quality and price to imported rope before free trade was established in New South Wales. By early 1875 the firm had a warehouse and offices in Kent Street and in 1876 A. Forsyth & Co. founded the Kangaroo Rope Works in East Brisbane. In that year his first wife died and on 24 October 1877 at Sandhurst he married Sarah Emmett.

In 1873 Forsyth was a founder of the committee of the Animals Protection Society; he was appointed a magistrate in 1875, joined the committee of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts in 1878 and later he became a governor of Sydney Hospital. An 'ardent bowler', he was the founding president of the City Bowling Club in 1880-83, and also a founder of the Randwick Bowling Club.

In July 1885 Forsyth called a meeting to found a Chamber of Manufactures and as its first president drafted a constitution. The plan was premature and it collapsed, but a decade later his nephew John helped to found the permanent chamber. Retired from active business, Forsyth was elected in October 1885 to the Legislative Assembly for South Sydney as an avowed protectionist. He claimed 'he had been a Chartist' and favoured payment of members. He strongly believed that the shareholdings of cabinet ministers in public companies should be limited by statute, and introduced an unsuccessful amendment to the Arbitration Act, but a critic called him a 'bore of the first magnitude'. In September 1886 Forsyth became leader of the new Protection Union. He published many pamphlets and letters on the benefits of Federation and the protection of native industries. His 'conservative, careful policy of management' saved the firm in the 1892-94 depression. In 1894 A. Forsyth & Co. was turned into a private company with 65,000 £1 shares held by his relations. He was chairman of directors until 1897 when he visited Europe. In 1900 electricity and automatic spinners were installed in the Waterloo factory and production rose to over 1500 tons of rope and twine a year.

Well known as a philanthropist, Forsyth presented a new horse-drawn ambulance to the Civil Ambulance Brigade. In 1897 he published Rapara or the Rights of the Individual in the State, the history of a utopian settlement in the South Pacific founded on protection and land nationalization. Although the book was criticized in Liberty, it was 'admitted that Mr. Forsyth has the welfare of humanity at heart'.

Stern but just, generous and idealistic, he had his children schooled in Germany. In his last years Forsyth felt the heat and built an 'ice-room' in his house, Elgin, Randwick. He died there on 15 March 1908, survived by four sons and five daughters of his first wife, and by his third wife Harriet Grace Walker, whom he had married at 80. He was buried in the Congregational cemetery at Long Bay by a Presbyterian minister. He left £43,500 to his descendants and £625 to ten charitable institutions. A. Forsyth & Co. Pty Ltd was still on its original site in 1972.

Select Bibliography

  • Ex-M.L.A., Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Syd, c1886)
  • D. S. Macmillan, One Hundred Years of Ropemaking 1865-1965 (Syd, 1965)
  • Sydney Chamber of Commerce, Inc., We're in Business (Syd, 1968)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1885-86, 6, 1033
  • Liberty (Sydney), Jan 1898
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12, 14, 17 Oct 1885
  • Australian Star (Sydney), 16 Mar 1908
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Forsyth, Archibald (1826–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/forsyth-archibald-3555/text5493, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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