Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Jephcott, Sydney Wheeler (1864–1951)

by Ken Stewart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sydney Wheeler Jephcott (1864-1951), poet and farmer, was born on 30 November 1864 at Nariong, Upper Murray, Victoria, fifth child of Edwin Jephcott and his wife Susannah, née Sansome, ribbon weavers from Coventry, Warwickshire, England. On his cattle-farm at Ournie, Upper Murray, Edwin established an arboretum of diverse species of exotic trees grown from seeds provided by (Sir) Ferdinand Mueller on a visit in 1874. Sydney and his family collected rare native specimens, including grevillea Jephcottii, for Mueller, who in 1886 sent Charles French on an alpine botanical expedition with Sydney as guide.

Jephcott, who never attended a school but read widely from his father's library, claimed that living alone in a tent in the mountains from the age of 12 was the 'chief formative influence' on his mind. He began to write verse in the late 1870s, after meeting Henry Kendall; the first of his poems in the Sydney Bulletin appeared in December 1889. The poet John Farrell introduced him to several writers, including Francis Adams who in England saw Jephcott's The Secrets of the South: Australian Poems (London, 1892) through the press. Jephcott then completed an unpublished critical selection of Adams's poems. Through Rose Scott he became an avuncular confidant of the young Stella Miles Franklin. A novel in progress about the Monaro, discussed with her in 1905, was never published. His poems Penetralia (Melbourne) appeared in 1912.

Bardic and meditative, Jephcott's verse pursues ethical and metaphysical speculations in a mood of solitary, sensuous loftiness frequently evoked in relation to mountainous Australian landscape. Despite poetic overcrowding and crudity, at its best it is urgent and vital and, in the tradition of Charles Harpur and Francis Adams, seeks to open 'new avenues of sensation to … Truth and Beauty' in order to cultivate public awareness of 'the vital Ideal in our national existence'. A democrat and Federationist, Jephcott discerned a prevailing Australian spiritual and political complacency, and to his long-time correspondent Alfred Deakin castigated 'the besotted worship of selfishness in national affairs'.

Jephcott remained a cattle-farmer throughout his life. On 29 January 1896 he had married Rebecca Snadden Dickson (d.1935) at Richmond, Melbourne, in a service of the Australian Church performed by Rev. Charles Strong. The couple lived first on the Upper Murray's Victorian bank, moved across to Ournie, then after the 1902 drought to Crewar in the southern Monaro, New South Wales, returning to Ournie in 1914 after the theft of their cattle. Jephcott campaigned for Deakin's Liberal Protectionists, and wrote political leaders for the Albury press. He served on the Towong Shire Council (Victoria) for one term and on the Tumbarumba Shire (New South Wales) for two. At Ournie he fondly maintained and extended his inherited arboretum, and contributed articles on trees and pasturage to the Sydney Morning Herald. Described by Nettie Palmer as 'full of humour and vision', he wrote verse and kept up literary friendships until he died at Albury on 3 July 1951. Survived by three sons and two daughters, he was buried in the Anglican section of Corryong (Victoria) cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • B.P. Magazine, Sept 1941
  • Australian Quarterly, Mar 1944
  • Southerly, 13 (1952)
  • Riverlander, Dec 1963, Jan, Feb, Mar 1964
  • Corryong Courier, 31 July, 7 Aug 1968
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ken Stewart, 'Jephcott, Sydney Wheeler (1864–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jephcott-sydney-wheeler-6842/text11849, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014