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Foster, John Leslie Fitzgerald Vesey (1818–1900)

by Betty Malone

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

John Leslie Fitzgerald Vesey Foster (1818-1900), civil servant, landowner and author, was born on 19 August 1818 in Dublin, the second son of John Leslie Foster, a Tory member of parliament and baron of the Irish Court of Exchequer, and his wife the Honorable Letitia Vesey, née Fitzgerald. His mother was a sister of Lord Fitzgerald and Vesci and in compliance with his will she and her son John assumed the surname of Foster-Vesey-Fitzgerald in 1860.

'Alphabetical' Foster, as he was known in Victoria, was educated privately and at 17 entered Trinity College, Dublin (B.A., 1839). After studying law for some months he sailed for Sydney and travelled overland to Port Phillip in 1841 and in 1844 went into partnership with his cousin, (Sir) William Stawell, on a neighbouring property, Ratherscar; Foster also acquired land on the Maribyrnong River near Melbourne. His pastoral ventures brought him no great fortune but with his family background they identified him with the colony's conservative squatting element. Although overshadowed by Stawell and often ridiculed in the Argus, he carved out a place in colonial society and in 1846-48 and 1849-50 was one of the Port Phillip representatives in the New South Wales Legislative Council. Forthright in speech but tactful in debate, he was very much aware of his responsibilities and personal honour. In 1843, angered by what he considered a fraudulent land deal, he refused to pay and challenged the seller, Dr F. McCrae, to a pistol duel. When the surgeon declined in provocative terms, Foster publicly horsewhipped him and his mount; the assault cost Foster a £10 fine and £250 in damages. Never courting public approval, he was unpopular with most colonists who saw him as a Tory and opportunist, yet even his enemies admitted his intelligence, capacity for hard work and later his administrative foresight and good sense.

In 1850 Foster sold his land rights and returned to Ireland where he married Emily, daughter of Rev. J. J. Fletcher, D.D., of Dunran, County Wicklow. He published The New Colony of Victoria, Formerly Port Phillip (London, 1851), a well-documented account of colonial achievements and prospects, intended as a handbook for prospective colonists and migration agents. Next year he applied for the colonial secretaryship and in 1853 returned to Victoria to take up the post on 20 July. He served under Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe until May 1854 and then acted as administrator of the colony until Governor Sir Charles Hotham arrived in June. In September 1853 Foster became a member of the committee chosen to draft a new constitution for Victoria. Determined to safeguard established interests, he and Stawell dominated the committee, and the Constitution, accepted with minor amendments, was skillfully framed so that its democratic features were more obvious than its conservatism.

Foster's executive positions in a time of financial difficulty and goldfield unrest made him the target of much criticism. He was blamed for the extravagant public works programme and growing gap between revenue and expenditure which so alarmed Hotham on his arrival. Certainly the Legislative Council had been rash in voting funds but the public finances were by no means out of control and Foster had foreseen the remedy of appropriating the land and immigration fund. More serious in its consequences for Foster was the goldfields question. While La Trobe had relied heavily on his advice and the Executive Council had met more than once a week early in 1854, Hotham bypassed his officers from the first. Foster bore little responsibility for Hotham's goldfields policy but he remained the focus of public resentment. Far from being oblivious of the miners' problems, he was well aware that economic distress led to social unrest, and proposed that the licence fee be abolished and replaced by an export tax on gold. The proposal was rejected and when Hotham arrived the licence system was more rigorously enforced, with dire results at Ballarat. Under strong pressure from Hotham Foster offered to resign on 4 December 1854; a week later Hotham accepted the offer and promised recompense for the loss of his £2000 salary and £1000 pension. Foster remained in the Legislative Council until elected in 1856 for the Williamstown seat in the Legislative Assembly; he was treasurer in the short O'Shanassy ministry. He also served on the Council of the University of Melbourne and as a local director of the London Chartered Bank and the Liverpool Assurance Co. In 1857 he returned to England.

Foster was never compensated. Hotham's promise was twice rejected by the Legislative Council and once by the Legislative Assembly. Foster defended himself in spirited letters to (Sir) James Palmer, published in Melbourne in 1855, and in 1867 visited the colony to give evidence to a select committee which in vain recommended his compensation. He admitted that he would not have resigned had he foreseen the lasting resentment against him; clearly he was made a scapegoat for Eureka.

Among his other works Foster published speeches of the Victorian constitution bill in 1853 and on the Eureka crisis in 1854, and Australia (London, 1881). He died at South Kensington on 3 January 1900, survived by a son and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • G. W. Rushen, History of Australia, vols 2-3 (Lond, 1883)
  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne (Melb, 1888)
  • P. S. Clearly, Australia's Debt to Irish Nation-Builders (Syd, 1933)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Henderson's Australian Families, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age: A History of the Colony of Victoria, 1851-1861 (Melb, 1963)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1854-55, 1, 425
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1856-57, 1, 49, 1867, 2 (D18)
  • G. R. Quaife, The Nature of Political Conflict in Victoria 1856-57 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1964).

Citation details

Betty Malone, 'Foster, John Leslie Fitzgerald Vesey (1818–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-john-leslie-fitzgerald-vesey-3559/text5501, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 3 September 2014.

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

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