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Philp, Sir Robert (1851–1922)

by W. Ross Johnston

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

Sir Robert Philp (1851-1922), businessman and premier, was born on 28 December 1851 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of John Philp, lime-kiln operator, and his wife Mary Ann, née Wylie. Robert attended the Anderston Presbyterian Church School until the family migrated to Queensland. Arriving on 5 August 1862 they settled in Brisbane where John Philp took out a lease on the municipal baths (and was later involved in the cattle and sugar industries). Robert continued his education at the National (Normal) School until November 1863 when he started work for Bright Bros & Co., shipping agents and merchants, then joined the business of (Sir) James Burns at the goldfields port, Townsville, in 1874. Advancing £5000, Burns made him a partner in 1876.

After a destructive fire next year, Burns counteracted Philp's caution with larger premises and an expanded business. Foreseeing great returns from shipping and retailing enterprises in the north, Burns persuaded Philp not to leave the business after he married Jessie Bannister, daughter of James Campbell, on 1 February 1878 in Brisbane. 'You will end up independent as I did', he urged.

Burns, Philp flourished: Burns in the Sydney office from 1877 supplied the main impetus and direction with Philp as Townsville manager. Burns placed great faith in him. They corresponded frequently. As storekeepers they supplied townspeople and miners, pastoralists and farmers in the hinterland with groceries, hardware and drapery. Pastoral ties were strengthened through wool-buying. As creditor and supplier the Townsville centre helped to build up a network of small shopkeepers venturing into newly settled areas. From profits in Townsville several branches were opened in North Queensland.

The firm dominated Townsville trade by its command of the local 'mosquito' lighter fleet and its expanded shipping operations—as agents for the Queensland Steam Shipping Co. and other lines operating along the coast, and through operation of their own vessels in coastal and intercolonial trade. In 1881-84 Philp enthusiastically diverted some vessels to the labour trade, recruiting Melanesians to work in the expanding sugar plantations. Burns was not enthusiastic. A royal commission in 1885 into recruiting practices (involving some vessels sent out by Philp) brought shipping back to more customary forms of trade. Although profits were made from the labour trade they did not make an early or major contribution to later commercial success, as has commonly been stated. Subsequently, money was put into bêche-de-mer fishing off Cape York.

From 1879 Burns, Philp was involved in the northern timber (cedar) trade, shipping it from the coastal belt and helping to finance the milling of the Atherton Tableland scrub. Real-estate investment was another important activity, but here Philp also operated extensively in his own name, buying many allotments in Townsville and other developing centres. Rapid expansion of business led in April 1883 to the incorporation in Sydney of Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd, with Philp holding 21 per cent of the shares and sharing control of the directorate with Burns; in 1886 he became Queensland manager. The company expanded into insurance, forming in 1886 the North Queensland Insurance Co. Ltd, and was prominent in establishing the Bank of North Queensland in 1888.

The company generally steered clear of mining investment, mainly because of Burns's caution. Philp, however, had been interested in mining since his visit to the Stanthorpe tinfield in 1870, and he dabbled extensively in mining shares. He often lost heavily, as in his wild £5000 plunge on 'The Comet' mine on the Palmer field. In 1881 with three others he sought to stake a rich claim in the short-lived Star River silver rush. Through the 1880s he tried various gold, silver and lead ventures; in 1888 he bought a sixth-share in a Herberton tin-mine. Another speculative move suggested by Philp was an attempt at whaling in Malayan waters; after arrest of the captain of the Costa Rica Packet by the Dutch authorities and international arbitration, the company was eventually awarded damages in 1897.

By 1892 Philp had severely over-extended himself in mining scrip and especially in purchase of real estate. He had borrowed widely to mark out his stake in the colony's prosperity. From 1883 heavily indebted to the South Australian Land Mortgage & Agency Co., by 1889 he was mortgaged to the extent of £12,000, using the money to buy Brisbane land at £20,000 which three years later was valued at £16,230. He also owed £9000 to the North Queensland Mortgage & Investment Co. in respect of Townsville land, and had a £5000 mortgage relating to other land-purchases. He also owed money to five banks and various individuals.

Although Burns tried to help him, Philp had to sell his company shares and resign from the board of directors in 1893, and from the North Queensland Insurance Co. and the Bank of North Queensland. He was still in financial difficulties in 1898. After 1900 he seems to have been less adventurous in business, concentrating on land for subdivision in Brisbane and Townsville; he also acquired interests in Thylungra and other western stations. He still had mining and other shares (of a less speculative nature) and was a director of such companies as Mount Cuthbert, the Australian Mutual Providence Society (Brisbane board), Australian Estates, and the Queensland National Bank.

After briefly serving as alderman on the Townsville Municipal Council, Philp was persuaded by Sir Thomas McIlwraith to enter politics—another aspect of Philp's life that Burns did not encourage. A great admirer of J. M. Macrossan and the cause of North Queensland, Philp won the seat of Musgrave in 1886 and two years later transferred to Townsville. He was to be secretary for mines (1893-99, 1899-1903), public works (1893-96), public instruction (1894-95), railways (1895-97), treasurer (1898-99, 1899-1901, 1907-08), premier (1899-1903, 1907-08) and chief secretary (1901-03, 1907-08). It was thought in 1898 that he might take over leadership of the government after the sudden death of T. J. Byrnes; Philp had been a very able deputy in that administration which was dubbed 'Byrnes, Philp & Co.'. At the end of 1899 dissatisfaction had so increased with Dickson's leadership that his government fell; a Labor administration stood in a 'caretaker' capacity while the Ministerialists sorted out their problems, Philp emerging as leader. He rejected an offer of a place in the first Commonwealth ministry. His motives for renouncing the leadership of the conservative Opposition in 1904, and for retiring to the back-benches at the time of the Philpite fusion with the Kidston faction in 1908, are not clear.

His political philosophy stressed northern development. He argued strongly for northern separation in the mid-1880s and was a prominent member of the Townsville Separation League; this was the only subject of his first speech in parliament. He endorsed Federation in the 1890s, pointing to defence needs as well as wider markets for northern sugar. After the Commonwealth was created, however, he clashed with the Federal government over the continued use of Melanesian labour in the sugar industry; Philp wanted such labour to continue until it could be cheaply and efficiently replaced (mainly by machinery).

Philp was anxious to encourage the mining industry in the later 1890s to help economic recovery. In 1898 he was responsible for a major codification of mining regulations; through better terms and greater security he hoped to encourage overseas investment. His government also subsidized deep-sinking and established the Charters Towers School of Mines.

His managerial skills were also evident in his administration of the railways department with the government in financial difficulty. He cut salaries and imposed retrenchments and to enable railway construction, primarily to mining centres in North Queensland, supported private enterprise upon the land-grant system; the Chillagoe Pty Co. in particular received legislative endorsement to build new lines. According to the Worker Philp thus gained a reputation as champion of monopoly capitalism, as 'the Northern boodler … the godfather of black labour and the patron of the land-grant railway syndicate'. The parliamentary sittings of 1900 came to be called 'the private railways Acts session'; to overcome Labor stonewalling of private railway bills, Philp introduced the 'guillotine' for the first time in Queensland's parliament.

As an importer his natural inclination was to favour free trade but he had to compromise in the direction of McIlwraith's tariff policies. As treasurer, he stressed economy and hard work. He disapproved of extensive government borrowing, stressing individual independence and self-reliance. 'I believe the Government ought to be like a good merchant or a good citizen who always pays his way, and never expends more than his income'. 'I say it is this continual borrowing, lending, and spending of large sums of money that is sapping the independence of the people of the country and destroying the self-confidence which is inherent in the British race'. The establishment of the Agricultural Bank in 1901 benefited small cane-growers.

Financial mismanagement in 1902—and a severe drought and revenue short-falls following Federation—led to the downfall of his first government next year. What had earlier been described as a 'new look' conservative ministry degenerated into a dispirited, ramshackle combination, headed by a conservative business wing linked uneasily with a progressive, liberal faction. To head off budget deficits, an income tax (Philp's poll tax) was introduced in 1902—Queensland's first measure of direct taxation. Lacking the harrying instinct of successful Opposition leaders, Philp out of government was described as 'most mild and obliging'; during the 1904 election he was briefly replaced by Sir Arthur Rutledge as leader.

With a strong dislike of Labor and little understanding of the trade union movement, Philp did not hesitate to succeed Kidston when he resigned on 19 November 1907 over the Legislative Council's interference with wages board and electoral legislation. After the governor had granted Philp a dissolution, even though the Legislative Assembly had denied him confidence or supply, Philp failed to win the election in February. Believing in the two-party system, perhaps chastened by this constitutional debacle, and eager to check Labor, Philp brought his supporters into a non-Labor alliance with Kidston in October 1908.

Philp remained on the back-bench until he was defeated by a Labor candidate in 1915. From 1917 he chaired the Constitutional Defence Committee, designed to prevent abolition of the Legislative Council by the Ryan Labor government. In 1920 he led a delegation of this revived committee to London to make representations to Imperial authorities about increased pastoral rents, to seek appointment of a new governor and to deter loans to the Theodore government.

He tended to look upon education as at least partly a private affair, involving individual sacrifice. Thus he was an original subscriber to the fund designed to establish Townsville Grammar School. Initially (in 1889) he favoured a private university for Queensland: 'If people want still higher education, why should they not subscribe some part of the money?' Within ten years, however, he had accepted the concept of a state university, with a chair of mining in the forefront, earnestly helped to establish the University of Queensland, and in 1912 donated a public testimonial to him (of over £1300) for scholarship purposes. In 1916 he was elected the first warden of the university council.

A keen sportsman all his life, especially as boxer, athlete and cricketer, Philp was described as genial, easy-going and sociable; he liked to be part of a group. He was neither a natural leader nor a brilliant orator. His life was tinged by a gambling, speculative streak; otherwise he came to represent the archetypal conservative. After his wife's death following childbirth in 1890 he married on 20 April 1898, in Brisbane, Wilhelmina Fraser Munro, his late wife's cousin. An active Freemason and a Presbyterian, he was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1915. Having often suffered from malaria, Sir Robert died after an abdominal operation on 17 June 1922 in Holyrood Private Hospital, Brisbane, and was buried in Toowong cemetery. His wife and two sons and five daughters from his first marriage survived him. His estate, left almost entirely to his family, was valued for probate at £118,841.

Select Bibliography

  • H. C. Perry, Memoirs of the Hon. Sir Robert Philp, K.C.M.G., 1851-1922 (Brisb, 1923)
  • G. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • A. Birch and D. S. Macmillan (eds), Wealth and Progress (Syd, 1967)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • K. Buckley and K. Klugman, The History of Burns Philp (Syd, 1981)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Queensland), 1885, 2, p 797
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1886, p 552, 1888, p 370, 1889, p 1084, 1890, p 112
  • Politics, 6, no 1, May 1971
  • Worker (Brisbane), 4 Mar 1899, 16 Sept 1899
  • Bulletin, 29 June 1922
  • H. M. Griffin, Frontier Town: The Early History of Townsville and its Hinterland, 1864-1884 (B.A. Hons thesis, James Cook University, 1983)
  • Philp papers (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

W. Ross Johnston, 'Philp, Sir Robert (1851–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 27 October 2016.

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

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