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Kerferd, George Briscoe (1831–1889)

by Margot Beever

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

George Briscoe Kerferd (1831-1889), by unknown engraver

George Briscoe Kerferd (1831-1889), by unknown engraver

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN23/05/68/8

George Briscoe Kerferd (1831-1889), premier and judge, was born on 21 January 1831 at Liverpool, England, son of Joseph Kerferd, bookkeeper, and his wife Rachel, née Blundell. Unhappily married, Joseph took a position in a merchant house at Zacatecas, Mexico, in 1843 and began trading on his own account. After being employed as a boilermaker and in two Liverpool merchants' offices, George migrated to Victoria. In the Albatross he arrived at Melbourne in April 1853. He spent most of the year mining at Bendigo, then worked with the merchants, W. M. Bell & Co., before setting up independently at Beechworth as a wine and spirits merchant late in 1854. With him was his wife Ann, daughter of William and Margaret Martindale of Salt Water River, whom he married on 17 December 1853 at St James's Cathedral, Melbourne.

In Beechworth Kerferd laid the foundations for his political and legal careers. Successful in business, particularly a brewery he started in 1855 and, confident that Beechworth could be the permanent centre of a thriving mining and farming district, he worked with energy and imagination for the development of the town. Spare hours he spent reading law and classics. First elected to the Municipal Council in May 1857, he was chairman for three terms between 1858 and 1864, and the driving spirit behind the establishment of the district hospital in 1856-57 and the benevolent asylum in 1861-63. He was largely responsible for the town's unusual water scheme which, though eventually successful and still in use, was not completed until 1874 because of engineering and funding problems. The storage area is known as Lake Kerferd.

Kerferd's entry into colonial politics seems to have been unplanned. An election campaign in spring 1864 brought complaints that Legislative Assembly members for the Ovens electorate spent their energies discussing political economy rather than demanding construction of roads and bridges. A representative was needed who had local interests at heart and was strong enough to win influence in government. Kerferd was an obvious choice and was persuaded to stand. Returned at the top of the poll in that first election, he held the confidence of Ovens voters until he retired twenty-two years later, a unique achievement in an era of turbulent and vindictive politics.

Such confidence was not misplaced. Though a free trader and constitutionalist, Kerferd was consistent in supporting progressive land laws on which success of settlement in his district ultimately depended, and in working for practicable local government legislation and decentralized justice, particularly local insolvency courts. He fought skilfully for construction of the north-eastern railway, later for a Beechworth branch line, argued regularly for adequate funds for Beechworth institutions and probably secured the mental hospital begun in 1865. Less successful was his claim for an industrial school, disputed by Wangaratta interests to such effect that the proposed school was lost to the north-east altogether. Beechworth and district did not live up to Kerferd's expectations but declined as mining activity decreased and attempts at agricultural settlement failed. The town's survival may have been due to Kerferd's influence in establishing and maintaining its institutions.

Strongly-built with square, firm features, Kerferd was most notable for his calm purpose and solid good sense. These are qualities not usually associated with daring, yet when he moved to Melbourne he sold the Beechworth brewery and turned to law, the object of his youthful ambition. For two years a pupil of Thomas Fellows, he took the examination required for entry to the Bar and was admitted on 12 December 1867. In 1871 with John Burnett Box he published A Digest of Cases Decided in the Supreme Court of Victoria from A.D. 1846 to A.D. 1871, an abstract of 2136 decisions of local importance, particularly cases in mining and pastoral matters not discussed by contemporary authorities.

Kerferd's prominence as a jurist came not from his small practice but from his work in government. He refused the post of solicitor-general in the Sladen administration in May 1868, preferring then the roles of minister for mines and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works. He became chief law officer in five conservative governments: appointed solicitor-general in the Francis ministry formed in June 1872, he succeeded James Wilberforce Stephen as attorney-general on 2 May 1874 and when Francis resigned in July assumed leadership as premier and attorney-general; he was again attorney-general under McCulloch in 1875-77, Service in 1880 and the Service-Berry coalition in 1883. In January 1886 he relinquished the office to become sixth judge of the Supreme Court.

In his one term as premier Kerferd's professed aim was to carry on the business of government following the virtual defeat of Francis's scheme for constitutional amendment and delays caused by the chief secretary's serious illness. He made no changes in the ministry except that James Service replaced the treasurer, Edward Langton, who apparently wanted the leadership himself and would not join him. Apart from passing the Local Government Act very little was achieved in the face of constant obstruction. When a test vote on Service's budget was carried only by one in August 1875 Kerferd requested a dissolution but was refused by the acting governor, (Sir) William Stawell, and resigned.

If unexceptional as leader Kerferd was highly regarded as a politician and, according to Service, more highly regarded within parliament than any other member. He rarely engaged in personal clashes, even during the most vituperative phases of the 1860s and 1870s, and despite strong views was rarely involved in ideological controversies. The core of his reputation was not the moderation of his conduct but his ability in shaping and handling legislation. Hard-working, quick to assimilate detail, smooth and lucid in debate, when in charge of a bill he was receptive to suggestions for amendment yet kept the House firmly to the task in hand. The even progress of the extensive legislative programme of the coalition in 1883-86 owed much to his skill in committee.

Kerferd also contributed effectively to moves towards Federation. A member of the 1870 select committees on intercolonial legislation and Federal union, he was appointed delegate to the Sydney Convention in 1883 and was one of the committee which drafted the constitution of the Federal Council. His judicial career ended his official share in the cause but in 1886 he privately accompanied Service and Berry to the Hobart session of the council.

Many objected to Kerferd's elevation to the bench in 1886. He was accused of political jobbery and the Bar refused him the welcoming courtesies usually offered a new judge. The press revived a controversy of 1869 when Kerferd had been suspected of bribing another parliamentarian to assist the passage of the infamous quieting of titles bill, although he was exonerated by the select committee which examined the charges. However, his performance as judge proved unfounded the fears and jealousies of those who believed he had insufficient knowledge of the law.

Kerferd died suddenly on 31 December 1889 at his holiday house at Sorrento and was buried in the Anglican section of St Kilda cemetery. His wife, three sons and five daughters survived him, inheriting an estate of £26,342, most of which was lost in the bank crashes of 1893.

Select Bibliography

  • J. L. Forde, The Story of the Bar of Victoria (Melb, 1913)
  • R. C. Harvey, Background to Beechworth 1852-1964 (Beechworth, 1964)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1864-85
  • Votes and Proceedings (Victoria), 1869, 2 (D3)
  • Ovens and Murray Advertiser, Sept-Oct 1864, 19 Apr 1884, Jan 1886, Jan 1890
  • Age (Melbourne), Jan 1886, Jan 1890
  • Argus (Melbourne), Jan 1886, Jan 1890
  • Once a Month (Melbourne), 1 Feb 1886
  • C. Woods, The Early History of Beechworth (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1970).

Citation details

Margot Beever, 'Kerferd, George Briscoe (1831–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kerferd-george-briscoe-3947/text6217, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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