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Knox, Sir Edward (1819–1901)

by A. G. Lowndes

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

Sir Edward Knox (1819-1901), sugar-refiner and banker, was born on 6 June 1819 at Helsingör, Denmark, one of eight children of George Knox, a Baltic merchant, and his wife Elizabeth Frances, née Mullens. His father died in 1830 and Edward was educated by his mother's family at a Danish school and Soröe College. At 16, after commercial training in Lübeck, he entered his uncle's London merchant house as a junior clerk. Promotion was slow and he quarrelled with his uncle and decided to seek fortune in Australia as a pastoralist.

Knox reached Sydney on 26 February 1840 in the Sophia. After some time at Bayly Park, near St Marys, he joined the Australian Auction Co. and in 1843 became manager. In August he transferred to the Australasian Sugar Co. at a salary of £250 and 'more when times mended'. With two associates he bought Bowden's refinery and Robert Cooper's distillery which he leased to the Australasian Sugar Co. On 4 June 1844 at Hunter's Hill he married Martha, sister of William Rutledge. Later that year Knox was appointed official assignee. He traded in real estate and accumulated capital and recognition in the business community. He was a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney in 1845-1901 and in his four absences overseas acted as a London director. In July 1847, after the managing director had been dismissed for embezzling £10,700 out of capital of £72,000, Knox became manager, with orders to 'devote his whole time to the management' of the bank. In 1851 he resigned as manager, became a director of the Sydney Tramway and Railway Co. and helped to found the Sydney Chamber of Commerce.

In 1854 the Australasian Sugar Co. went into liquidation after dissension among the partners. On 1 January 1855 Knox founded the Colonial Sugar Refining Co., holding a third of its capital of £150,000. The new company bought the refinery and distillery from Knox and his associates. He was its first chairman of directors and except when overseas held the post until 1901. For two years the company flourished and all raw sugar was imported. In 1856 a dividend of 50 per cent was declared. In 1857 the Victoria Sugar Co. was formed with half the capital subscribed by C.S.R. shareholders and half by Victorian merchants. As its superintendent and chairman Knox arranged for a refinery to be built at Sandridge. He sold his home and some shares in C.S.R. and went to England but world prices fell, leaving the company with costly stocks of sugar. Losses of £120,000 appeared probable and Knox faced ruin. He returned to Sydney to find that Ralph Robey planned to build a rival refinery. When the directors refused to sell his equity in C.S.R., Robey threatened legal proceedings to dissolve the company. Knox restored the confidence of some anxious partners, and gradually put the company's affairs in order. He determined that profits would never again be lavishly distributed but withheld to establish adequate reserves and to finance expansion. He discouraged competition by take-overs and fostered internal strength and efficiency. With shrewd judgment of world raw sugar markets he maintained a voluminous correspondence with overseas agents and kept abreast of technical developments in refining and milling. With a genuine interest in his employees he established one of the first staff provident funds and rarely had industrial trouble. Under his leadership refineries were established in other Australian colonies and New Zealand, and mills were built to crush cane from independent farmers in New South Wales, Queensland and later Fiji. In 1880 he handed over the general management of the company to his second son Edward William but remained chairman until 1901.

Knox had many other business and public interests. In the 1860s with Montagu Stephen he held Whiteside, 24 sq. miles (62 km²) in the Moreton Bay District, and six runs in the Burnett District. He served on the advisory committee of the Australian Agricultural Co. and as executor supervised the operations of other pastoral properties. In the early 1870s he was a director of the Sydney Exchange Co. and chairman and trustee of the local board of the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Co. In 1893 he had returned from England and been reappointed chairman of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney only two months before it suspended payment on 15 May. It reopened for business on 19 June after Knox had devised a scheme of reconstruction acceptable to both shareholders and depositors.

A devout Anglican, Knox had been a member of the Diocesan Committee in 1857 and a lay member of the Board of Missions. From 1866 he was a member of each Sydney, provincial and general synod, and active on many committees. He was associated with All Saints, Woollahra, and St Andrew's Cathedral. He was sometime a director of the Benevolent Society and the Sydney Infirmary and Dispensary, a founding director and chairman of the (Royal) Prince Alfred Hospital and vice-president of the Carrington Centennial Hospital for Convalescents, Camden. A friend described him as doing 'good by stealth in religious and charitable matters'. Knox was a member of the first Legislative Council in 1856-57 and was reappointed in 1881, but resigned in 1894 through illness. Political life had no great appeal to him but in the 1880s he organized opposition in the council to Sir Alfred Stephen's divorce bills and gave painstaking attention to legislative details.

Knox was a founding member of the Union Club in 1857 and president in 1882-1901. In 1864 he had built a large Georgian-style house, Fiona, on New South Head Road, and later bought beautiful mirrors and Persian carpets in Paris. Devoted to his family, he took great pride in his sons and in 1894 celebrated his golden wedding and fifty years association with the 'sugar company'. In 1898 he was knighted. He died at his home on 7 January 1901 and was buried in Waverley cemetery, survived by his wife, four daughters and three of his four sons. His eldest son George (d.1888) was a lawyer, Edward William succeeded his father as chairman of C.S.R., Thomas Forster became managing director of Dalgety & Co. Ltd and Adrian chief justice of the High Court of Australia. Fiona became part of Ascham Girls' School, Darling Point.

Portraits are in the Union Club, Colonial Sugar Refining Co. archives and Christiansborg Palace, Copenhagen. The east window in St Thomas's Church on Carwoola station was donated by Knox and his wife.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Lowndes (ed), South Pacific Enterprise (Syd, 1956)
  • Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney, Half-Yearly Reports (1845-1901)
  • Banking and Insurance Review, 21 Jan 1901
  • M. Rutledge, Sir Alfred Stephen and Divorce Law Reform in New South Wales, 1886-1892 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1966)
  • Knox papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Archives (Sydney).

Citation details

A. G. Lowndes, 'Knox, Sir Edward (1819–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knox-sir-edward-573/text6261, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 31 August 2014.

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

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