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Foster, Richard Witty (1856–1932)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Richard Witty Foster (1856-1932), by Hammer & Co., 1910s

Richard Witty Foster (1856-1932), by Hammer & Co., 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24282572

Richard Witty Foster (1856-1932), storekeeper, farmer and politician, was born on 20 August 1856 at Goodmanham, Pocklington, Yorkshire, England, son of William Foster, farmer, and his wife Rachel, née Witty. Educated commercially at Prospect House, Tockwith, he was then apprenticed to a draper and trained in the London softgoods trade. He migrated to South Australia in 1880 and after serving as a Wesleyan ministry probationer, he settled at Quorn as a grocer and general provider. Here on 25 September 1884 he married Elizabeth Lees.

In 1887 Foster was elected to the Quorn council becoming mayor in 1890-93, when he was elected to the House of Assembly for Newcastle. From 1902 he was member for Flinders. He was influenced by Hugh Price Hughes's ideas on social Christianity and in 1893 he espoused policies that he never abandoned: parliamentary reform, closer land settlement, progressive land taxes, reduced duties on the necessities of life, and increased intercolonial trade. Although committed to free enterprise, he supported government action to control monopolies.

Foster generally supported the Liberal faction: he was commissioner for public works (1899-1904) and minister for industry (1902-04) in the (Sir) F. W. Holder and J. G. Jenkins ministries. On 4 July 1904, desiring 'to draw closer together the parties in the House, thereby putting an end to the unseemly and unjustified plotting and scheming for personal advancement', he resigned his portfolios, but supported Jenkins until his ministry fell next year. Foster was commissioner for public works and minister for agriculture in (Sir) Richard Butler's 1905 ministry. He was appreciated by colleagues for his 'breezy and approachable personality', but next year he lost his seat.

In 1909 Foster won the Federal electorate of Wakefield. He was implacably opposed to Labor and socialism and was a member of the 1914 commission on electoral law. In World War I he supported W. M. Hughes, favoured conscription and demanded harsh penalties for those disloyal to King and Empire. In 1921, after a cabinet reshuffle and as a sop to the South Australian Liberals, Hughes appointed him minister for works and railways, but he was not included in the 1923 Bruce-Page ministry. Suspecting that Page planned to destroy the power of the States, he refused to join the Country Party. At the 1928 election, he was defeated by one of their candidates.

In Federal politics, although blunt and outspoken, Foster remained a lack-lustre back-bencher who placed independence above political advantage. In 1913-26 he served on the Joint House Committee. On 5 January 1932 he died at St Peters, Adelaide, and was buried in Payneham cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • Pictorial Australia, Apr-May 1893
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1897 (94), 1898-99 (77), 1902 (22), 1903 (23, 32), 1904 (20)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 Jan 1893
  • Quorn Mercury, 3 May 1895
  • Register (Adelaide), 7 Apr 1902, 30 Oct 1906, 17 Aug 1909
  • Observer (Adelaide), 4 Feb 1922
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 7 Jan 1932.

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Foster, Richard Witty (1856–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-richard-witty-6219/text10699, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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