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Freehill, Francis Bede (1854–1908)

by Ruth Teale

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

Francis Bede Freehill (1854-1908), solicitor, was born on 22 November 1854 in Sydney, son of Patrick Freehill (1817-1899), a baker of Ballyconnell, County Cavan, and his wife Margaret, née Cosgrove. His parents arrived in Sydney on 29 April 1844 as bounty immigrants in the United Kingdom and by the 1850s Patrick was an organizer of most Irish Catholic movements in Sydney. Francis was educated at St Mary's College, Lyndhurst, and St John's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1874; M.A., 1876). In 1884 he was elected a fellow of the college; in his will he endowed a scholarship. He was articled to his elder brother and admitted a solicitor on 30 June 1877. He practised in Cowra and Bathurst before inheriting the goodwill of his brother's Sydney firm in January 1880; in 1894 he became a notary public. About 1885 Freehill had become a founding director as well as solicitor of the City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd, and remained a director when it was taken over by the Citizens' Life Assurance Co. Ltd. He was a founder of the Catholic Press in 1895 and until 1907 a director of the Australian Newspaper Co. Ltd, which also published the Australian Star and Sunday Sun.

Freehill was first involved in colonial support of home rule for Ireland in 1883, when he promoted the visit of John Redmond and his brother William. Later he organized the visits of John Dillon, Michael Davitt and other Irish delegates. In 1885 he replaced Joseph O'Connor as president of the Irish National League in New South Wales, and showed 'a capacity to govern which few of his friends anticipated'. He ran the St Patrick's Day festivities at Botany and in 1886 he canvassed funds for Ireland among construction workers on the Prospect dam. When the Papal Rescript was published in 1888, he publicly maintained that papal infallibility did not cover politics. In an article, 'Colonial Know-nothingism', in the Centennial Magazine (Sydney, 1889-1890), Freehill defended the colonial Irish against Bernhard Ringrose Wise. Though he never succeeded in entering parliament he was a foundation member of the executive committee of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales in 1893; in 1897 he was treasurer and a member of its finance committee and in 1899 of the united federal executive formed to co-ordinate the 'yes' campaign for the second referendum on the Commonwealth bill.

In 1896-1908 Freehill was consul for Spain in Sydney. About 1895 he helped to recruit the Irish Volunteer Rifles; commissioned captain in May 1896, he became major in 1900, lieutenant-colonel in 1904 and retired in 1906. In September 1903 he was created a papal chamberlain. A founder of the Lewisham Hospital, he became secretary and president of its board, giving generously to it and other Catholic charitable institutions.

As a platform speaker, Freehill was fluent and cultivated; his writing was commanding and rich in sarcasm. He spoke French, Italian and Spanish and had an excellent library which he left to the University of Sydney. In 1907 he visited England, Ireland, Spain and the Vatican. He died at Lewisham Hospital on 12 March 1908 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife Eileen Marie, née Molony, whom he had married in Melbourne on 14 April 1888. His assets allowed her to contribute generously to Catholic causes. She was an admirer of Archbishop Michael Kelly and the first Australian woman to become a papal countess in her own right. In 1930 she gave £1000 to found a lectureship in Italian at the University of Sydney. In the 1930s she gave St John's College the gate tower and lady chapel therein and the east oriel window and mosaic floor in the main chapel. She died on 12 June 1942.

A portrait of Freehill is in the dining hall of St John's College.

Select Bibliography

  • P. S. Cleary, Australia's Debt to Irish Nation-Builders (Syd, 1933)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 June 1886, 19 Mar, 16 June 1888, 16 Mar 1908
  • Catholic Press (Sydney), 17 June 1899
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 16 Mar 1908
  • Bulletin, 19 Mar 1908
  • G. M. Tobin, The Sea-Divided Gael: A Study of the Irish Home Rule Movement in Victoria and New South Wales, 1880-1916 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1969): manuscript catalogue under Freehill (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Australasian Federation League of New South Wales papers, MS47 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Ruth Teale, 'Freehill, Francis Bede (1854–1908)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/freehill-francis-bede-3574/text5531, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 27 August 2014.

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

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