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Lewis, Sir Neil Elliott (1858–1935)

by Scott Bennett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Neil Elliott Lewis (1858-1935), by unknown photographer

Neil Elliott Lewis (1858-1935), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-23

Sir Neil Elliott Lewis (1858-1935), lawyer and premier, was born on 27 October 1858 in Hobart Town, son of Neil Lewis, merchant, and his wife Anne Maria, née Cox. He was a grandson of Richard Lewis and nephew of David Lewis, colonial treasurer in 1878-79. He was educated at the High School, Hobart, winning a gold medal in 1875 and a Tasmanian scholarship which earned him a place at the University of Oxford, where he graduated from Balliol College (B.A., 1878; M.A., B.C.L., 1885). He rowed for his college.

In 1882 Lewis entered the Inner Temple and was called to the English Bar in June 1883. On his return to Hobart he was admitted to the Tasmanian Bar in December 1885 and began private practice. He formed a partnership in 1888 with his English friend Tetley Gant that was expanded to Lewis, Gant & Hudspeth and, in 1918, to Lewis, Hudspeth, Perkins & Dear. Lewis took a particular interest in constitutional cases. He served as vice-president of the Articled Clerks' Association and as president of the Southern Law Society. He was still in daily attendance at his law office at his death. On 15 January 1896 at Perth, Tasmania, Lewis married Lina Henrietta, daughter of Sir James Youl.

He early displayed an interest in politics (he reportedly campaigned for the Conservative Party while at Oxford) and in July 1886 was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Richmond which he retained until April 1903. From March 1887 he sat in opposition to the Fysh government until he became attorney-general in the Dobson ministry of 1892-94.

Lewis was leader of the Opposition until November 1897 when he resigned over the Great Western Railway controversy. He had been a member of the Federal Council of Australasia and was a quiet member of the Tasmanian delegation to the 1897-98 Australasian Federal Convention. He was overshadowed by his flamboyant senior Sir Edward Braddon; Alfred Deakin described Lewis as 'a thoughtful and gentlemanly young lawyer'. He was thrilled to take part in the successful campaigns for the acceptance of the Constitution bill in 1898 and 1899. A fitting reward for this convinced Federalist was his appointment as minister without portfolio in the Barton ministry of 1901, but Lewis, then premier, sought no Commonwealth seat and relinquished the position in April. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1901 and K.C.M.G. in 1902.

When the Braddon ministry had fallen in 1899, the leader of the Opposition Bolton Bird recommended the governor to commission his colleague Lewis. On 12 October he thus became the youngest premier to that time, with Bird as his treasurer; Lewis was also attorney-general. Although his government survived until April 1903, its history was far from illustrious. The economic times were shaky for Tasmania. As opponents of Federation had predicted, the loss of customs duties to the new Commonwealth, under the Constitution's financial arrangements, was a severe handicap. The cost of the Tasmanian contingent to the South African War was an added burden. The first Lewis government was persistently besieged, and was eventually accused by the Mercury of having 'failed to grasp the financial situation'. In the 1903 election all three ministers in the House of Assembly lost their seats. Sir Elliott Lewis had chosen to leave Richmond to contest Central Hobart, the only time a Tasmanian premier has suffered personal defeat in a general election. In 1906 he again lost to (Sir) Herbert Nicholls, despite offers of other seats.

The introduction of the Hare-Clark voting system in 1909 made election easier for a man with a widespread following and Lewis won Denison as an Anti-Socialist. When the Labor Party won twelve of the thirty seats Premier (Sir) John Evans exhorted its opponents at a specially called meeting to combine against the Labor threat. He indicated his preparedness to step aside if need be and was taken at his word. Lewis was elected leader with a pledge of twelve months support. As premier for the second time and treasurer, Lewis called for party support and organization and encouraged the formation of the Tasmanian Liberal League during 1909.

Despite the loyalty pledge, a faction of the Liberals led by Norman Ewing began to criticize Lewis for lack of leadership, and in October 1909 Ewing successfully moved a vote of no confidence, carried with Labor support. The governor called on John Earle to form the first Labor government. It was obvious that this government would fall when parliament resumed: during the one week of its existence Lewis canvassed firmer support and succeeded in forcing Ewing to disown any ambitions he had for office. Lewis duly succeeded Earle and remained in power until 1912 when, despite having led his party to victory in the election, he resigned the leadership to Albert Solomon after further internal criticism from the Liberals. Lewis did not join the Solomon ministry, but in the (Sir) Walter Lee Liberal and Nationalist government from April 1916 he was treasurer until March 1922, minister for mines until June 1922 and chief secretary briefly in April-June 1922. He then retired from parliament. He was a member of the committee which investigated Tasmanian disabilities under Federation (1925). He had been a member of royal commissions into charitable institutions (1888) and public debts sinking funds (1915). In 1933-35 he was lieutenant-governor of Tasmania.

Lewis inherited the Werndee estate, at Lenah Valley on the outskirts of Hobart, as well as a keen interest in rural affairs. Bulky in his later years, with walrus moustache and bushy eyebrows, he 'always gave the impression that he was a country gentleman who had somehow or another become immersed in legal and political life'. He was a man of many parts—an active volunteer officer in the Southern Tasmanian Artillery, a member of the Anglican synod, a Freemason and president of the Tasmanian Amateur Athletic Association. He was vice-chancellor of the University of Tasmania in 1903-09, chancellor in 1924-33 and served on council for many years. Both as lawyer and politician Lewis was active in encouraging economic enterprises of various kinds. He was a director of the Hobart Gas Co. and of mining and insurance companies. A keen walker, he was fit enough to climb Mount Field East when over 70 and advocated exploration of the neglected south-west. His clubs were the Tasmanian and the Naval and Military.

On Sunday 22 September 1935 Lewis attended church as usual. Later in the day he walked his dog, returned home, complained of tiredness, and died in the late afternoon. His family preferred a private burial to a state funeral but on the way to Cornelian Bay cemetery the cortège stopped at St David's Cathedral for a service. His wife and sons Arndell Neil and Hubert Charles survived him.

Sir Elliott Lewis was not a fluent speaker, being hindered by a lifelong nervous manner, but he believed firmly in a patriarchal obligation to serve. A Labor opponent described him as 'the ideal of a cultured Christian gentleman, and political differences could not in any way affect the sweetness of his disposition'. In 1894 James Backhouse Walker named him as 'one of the very, very few, prominent politicians in whom public spirit is at all marked', while the Mercury noted that his life was 'singularly free from enmity'. Lewis possessed great administrative flair, and once when he left office proudly showed reporters an empty desk. The backroom work of the administrator perhaps suited him better than the full glare of political life.

Select Bibliography

  • P. B. Walker (ed), Prelude to Federation (1884-1898) (Hob, 1976)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 27 Feb 1903, 23, 25 Sept 1935
  • Examiner (Launceston), 23 Sept 1935.

Citation details

Scott Bennett, 'Lewis, Sir Neil Elliott (1858–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lewis-sir-neil-elliott-7188/text12429, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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