Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Fysh, Sir Philip Oakley (1835–1919)

by Quentin Beresford

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

Sir Philip Oakley Fysh (1835-1919), politician and merchant, was born on 1 March 1835 at Highbury, near London, son of John Fysh and his wife Charlotte. He was educated at the Denmark Hill School at Islington until 13, when he began work in a London stockbroker's office. Two years later he secured a subordinate position with the London shipping firm of L. Stevenson & Sons. After ten years service the firm offered him the charge of their Hobart agency. Fysh arrived in Melbourne on board the Bombay in August 1859, and settled in Tasmania at the end of that year. Accompanying him were his wife Esther Kentish, née Willis, whom he had married on 14 October 1856 at the Union Chapel, Luton, according to the rites of the Protestant Dissenters, and their new-born son. In 1862, amid widespread depression, Fysh purchased his employer's wholesale agency, and within a few years, trading as P. O. Fysh & Co., general merchants, became the leading wholesale businessman in Hobart. Later in his political career he found it difficult to establish his credentials as a reformer for, as one radical newspaper expressed it, he was still 'the representative of the old order of things'. He retired from the management in 1894.

In June 1866 Fysh won election to the Legislative Council on a progressive policy of economic development. Throughout the 1860s and 1870s parliament was torn with factional fighting; political alliances shifted constantly, making it difficult for any government to survive. Fysh represented Hobart in the council until 1869 and Buckingham in 1870-73, when he was also chairman of the board of directors of the Van Diemen's Land Bank. During this time he advocated railway development and taxation on incomes, and came to be regarded as one of the most promising politicians of the day.

Fysh moved to the House of Assembly in August 1873, winning the seat of East Hobart, and served as treasurer in the Alfred Kennerley ministry. This experience broadened his political outlook, for the administration placed some emphasis on social reform. Fysh's main task was to secure the passage of an income tax bill through parliament, but, although a 'fluent and ornate speaker' and a clever tactician, he was defeated by the dominant landowning group.

In August 1877 Fysh formed his first government: it was not especially noteworthy. In March next year ill health forced him to resign. He served in the W. R. Giblin ministry without portfolio until November, and spent the next eighteen months holidaying in England with his family. While there he studied the liberal movement and returned to Tasmania an advocate of classical liberalism.

After several years expanding his business, Fysh in 1884 re-entered the Legislative Council as member for Buckingham when a local liberal movement began to flourish. He was constructive in identifying platforms which the liberals could adopt, and in stimulating public debate; his main concern was manhood suffrage. In March 1887 Fysh again became premier. His cabinet, with himself as chief secretary, included Andrew Inglis Clark and (Sir) Edward Braddon; in their efforts to reform the social and political structure of the colony they brought a new character to Tasmanian politics. Legislation was introduced to regulate health, employment and charitable institutions. In addition, trade unions were legalized, a technical education scheme established and provision made for the creation of a university. Payment of members and triennial parliaments were introduced. However, the government lacked the resolve to press parliament to pass manhood suffrage, and was unable to deal with the onset of economic depression. It fell in August 1892.

Despite the defeat of his government, Fysh continued in politics. When the liberal faction returned to power in April 1894 under Braddon's leadership Fysh, newly elected to the Legislative Assembly for North Hobart, served until December 1898 as treasurer and postmaster-general. During the 1890s, also, he was active in the Federal movement. In May 1892, while still premier, he visited mainland colonies to discuss intercolonial customs reciprocity. His commitment to Federation at this time and later was motivated by his belief that it offered the only solution to Tasmania's economic problems. He represented the colony at the Federal conventions of 1891 and 1897-98 and was a member of the Federal Council of Australasia in 1895 and 1897. Moreover, while in London as Tasmania's agent-general in 1899-1901, Fysh joined with Barton, Deakin and Kingston in securing final British approval for the Commonwealth Constitution bill.

With the establishment of the Commonwealth, Fysh entered Federal politics as minister without portfolio in 1901-03, and postmaster-general in 1903-04. As member for Denison during the last years of his political career he was forced into the role of a conservative in response to the growing influence of the Labor Party, whose creed he abhorred. He retired from politics in 1910 and farmed in the Derwent Valley.

Tall and willowy, Fysh was an impressive figure with his flowing white beard. Always a private man, he left very little of a personal nature on record. His keen sense of public responsibility, however, is shown in his involvement with numerous community organizations. Appointed justice of the peace in 1867, he was a city alderman in 1868-69, and later president of the Central Board of Health and chairman of the Metropolitan Drainage Board. Co-founder and sometime president of the Hobart Working Men's Club, he also supported the Ragged Schools Association, the council of Hobart High School, the Hobart Benevolent Society and the Tasmanian Political Reform Association. He held the rank of major in the Tasmanian Volunteer Rifle Regiment. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1896, an honour he had declined in 1891; he received an honorary Oxford D.C.L. in 1901. He died on 20 December 1919 at Lower Sandy Bay, survived by five sons and four daughters, his wife having predeceased him in 1912. A Congregationalist, he was buried in the family vault at Cornelian Bay cemetery. Over many years he had had few equals as a democrat and reformer in Tasmanian politics.

Select Bibliography

  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • Sydney Mail, 20 Mar 1897
  • Punch (Melbourne), 7 Sept 1905
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 Dec 1919
  • Q. J. Beresford, The Evolution of a Colonial Liberal (Litt. B., University of New England).

Citation details

Quentin Beresford, 'Fysh, Sir Philip Oakley (1835–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fysh-sir-philip-oakley-6262/text10787, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014