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Old, Francis Edward (1875–1950)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Francis Edward Old (1875-1950), farmer and politician, was born on 24 November 1875 at Dingee, near Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, sixth child of Thomas Spear Old, farmer from Cornwall, and his Irish wife Charlotte, née Mitchell (d.1881). Frank attended the local state primary school and in 1891 began wheat farming at Ultima with two elder brothers. Six years later he selected the first of three blocks of his own at Nineteen Mile.

The drought in 1902 forced Old to work on the construction of the Mildura railway line. He married Marion Richardson at Ultima on 27 September 1904. As a young man Frank was a prominent Australian Rules footballer and captained Goschen to three premierships in 1905-07. In 1907 the Olds selected land at Wakool, New South Wales. Frank joined the local Farmers and Settlers' Association, being elected to its executive council in 1914. From 1912-13 he was a Wakool shire councillor. Varicose veins thwarted his attempts to enlist for both the South African and World War I.

The family returned to farm in the Swan Hill district in 1919 when Old was elected unopposed as the Victorian Farmers' Union member for the Legislative Assembly seat of Swan Hill, rendered vacant by Percy Stewart's transfer to Federal politics. In 1922-24 Old served as deputy leader of the V.F.U./ Victorian Country Party and was minister for railways and agriculture in the 1923-24 National/Country Party government led by (Sir) Harry Lawson. The instability of Victorian politics was reflected in the fact that there were five different governments in office in 1924. Old failed to attain ministerial rank in the Allan-Peacock coalition (November 1924–May 1927). In 1926 when (Sir) Albert Dunstan and his supporters left the V.C.P., charging that it had compromised its independence by entering coalition ministries, and formed the Country Progressive Party, Old remained a member of the V.C.P. and worked assiduously to effect a reconciliation. However, his public suggestion in May 1927 that the V.C.P. be replaced by a single, non-Labor Party earned him a stern rebuke from the central council. Old played an active part in the 1930 unity conference which finally healed the breach and created the United Country Party.

From 1930 to 1935 Old was the U.C.P. whip and, despite his earlier differences with Dunstan, served as minister for water supply and electrical undertakings in the minority Country Party governments between 1935 and 1943. An ardent advocate of irrigation, he initiated improvements to schemes on the La Trobe, Avon and Snowy rivers. He was again deputy leader from 1936 and was intermittently acting premier in 1936-37 when Dunstan was ill and in England for the coronation of King George VI. His decisive and compassionate response as acting premier to the 1937 Wonthaggi mine disaster was praised by the Labor Party and the trade unions. He did not hold ministerial office after 1943, but during World War II was chairman of the State Fuel, Power and Light Committee.

By 1945 Old had been the member for Swan Hill for twenty-six years and had won eleven consecutive elections. But the 1944 electoral redistribution substantially altered the constituency and controversy surrounded the Country Party pre-selection ballot. The local district council of the party endorsed three candidates, including Old, but was overruled by the central council which endorsed only Old. One of the rejected candidates, 45-year-old Lieutenant-Colonel J. A. Hipworth, contested the seat as an unendorsed candidate. Old performed poorly in the areas recently added to the seat and finished third behind Hipworth and the Labor candidate. Hipworth defected to the Liberal and Country Party in 1949 and the Country Party regained Swan Hill in 1952.

Old's political activities did not cease on his departure from parliament and in 1946-49 he was a C.P. central councillor and chairman of the Countryman board of management. A 'tall, powerful man', Old was active in the Victorian Wheat and Wool Growers' Association, the Methodist Church, Freemasonry and local school and hospital committees. During his parliamentary career he lived at Swan Hill and maintained an irrigation farm at nearby Lake Baker. He died at Swan Hill on 19 May 1950 and after a state funeral was buried in the local cemetery. His wife, three sons and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Old, By Bread Alone (Melb, 1950)
  • J. M. Old, The Heritage of Faith (Bendigo, Vic, 1970)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 20 June 1950
  • Farmers' Advocate, 27 Nov 1919, 6 June 1924
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 3 June 1927, 6 June 1929, 3 July 1936, 17 Sept 1937, 26 May 1950
  • Swan Hill Guardian, 16, 23, 26 Oct 1945, 23 May 1950
  • private information.

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Old, Francis Edward (1875–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/old-francis-edward-7898/text13733, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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