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Sargood, Sir Frederick Thomas (1834–1903)

by John Rickard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Frederick Thomas Sargood (1834-1903), by unknown photographer

Frederick Thomas Sargood (1834-1903), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23504847

Sir Frederick Thomas Sargood (1834-1903), merchant and politician, was born on 30 May 1834 at Walworth, London, son of Frederick James Sargood (d.1873), merchant, and his wife Emma, née Rippon, daughter of a chief cashier of the Bank of England. Young Sargood, his education at 'private schools' in England presumably complete, arrived with his parents and five sisters in Melbourne in the Clifton on 12 February 1850. He worked briefly as a clerk in the Public Works Department before joining the wholesale softgoods business of Sargood, King & Co., which his father had already established. He spent some time on the Mount Alexander goldfields in 1852-54, and managed the firm's business in the Bendigo-Castlemaine district. In 1858 he married Marian Australia, daughter of George Rolfe, merchant and later a member of the Legislative Council; next year he became a junior partner in the firm. His father, a radical in politics and a voluntaryist in religion, was member of the Legislative Council for Melbourne in 1853-56 and of the Legislative Assembly for St Kilda in 1856-57 before returning to England. Meanwhile the firm had prospered, extending its operations to other colonies, including New Zealand in 1863. Partners came and went, but the Sargoods remained dominant.

Sargood entered the Legislative Council in 1874 at a by-election for the Central Province, and a merger in 1879 with the firm of Martin, Butler and Nichol gave him more time for public affairs. His wife had died in childbirth on 6 January and in March 1880 he resigned from the council to take his nine children to England. On 2 December at the Independent Chapel, Ventnor, Isle of Wight, Sargood married Julia Tomlin, aged 34, and the family returned in October 1882.

Sargood held the Legislative Council seat of South Yarra in 1882-1901. On 13 November 1883 he joined the Service-Berry ministry as Victoria's first minister of defence. He had long had an interest in the subject, having joined the Victorian Volunteer Artillery in 1859 as a private, rising to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Described as 'one of the best shots in Victoria' he was also closely involved in the rifle club movement; he had formed the St Kilda Rifle Corps in 1859. As minister Sargood backed an energetic programme to build up the Victorian navy, local fortifications and armament supplies, especially during the Russian war scare in March-May 1885. His task of organizing the change-over from volunteer to paid militia forces involved him in controversy with the new commandant, Colonel Disney, who believed that he should report direct to the governor. Sargood quickly disabused him and in 1885 appointed Major-General M. F. Downes as departmental secretary. This issue forced the Colonial Office to accept local control of defence. Many of Sargood's admirers considered the formation of the school cadet corps in 1884 his greatest monument. Commissioner of water-supply from April 1884 to 18 February 1886, he again held the defence portfolio, together with public instruction, in the Munro government in 1890-92 and for three months under Turner in 1894, when he was also vice-president of the Board of Land and Works. Created C.M.G. in 1885 he became K.C.M.G. in 1890.

In 1888 Sargood had succeeded W. E. Hearn as unofficial leader of the Legislative Council. Like many other free traders in Victoria he became reconciled to a lost cause, and 'did not trouble to state whether he was a Conservative or Liberal'; his opposition to 'One Man One Vote' and to land taxation reveal his conservatism. Nevertheless, when introducing the factory bill in the council in 1885, he deplored the long hours he had worked as a young man, and praised his father's part in the early closing movement. In 1895-96 he was a leader in the consensus supporting legislation to set up the first wages boards; and in 1900 he persuaded the council temporarily to accept new boards, thereby ensuring that the system would become the basis of industrial relations in Victoria. A firm believer in the role of the Upper House, Sargood was tactful and reasonable in his dealings with the assembly; indeed, by avoiding constitutional crises he consolidated the council's authority. A supporter of Federation, he was omitted from the Age list, and missed out on the 1897 Convention but, appropriately, was elected to the first Senate in 1901.

Sargood was a commissioner of savings banks in 1874-80 and of the Melbourne Harbor Trust in 1877-80, also a director of the Commercial Bank until about 1895. By the 1880s he was very wealthy, with land-holdings in New South Wales including Ellerslie (Tumut) and Jerilderie (Urana). Although he has not been identified as a 'land boomer', as president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce in 1886-88 he did not doubt the sound basis of 'this unprecedented wave of prosperity'. His firm actually expanded in the depression of the 1890s. He was closely involved with the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, but his appointment as executive vice-president of the organizing commission provoked the resignation of Chief Justice Higinbotham from the presidency. Under Sargood the exhibition was a success but expensive.

Sargood was dapper and of medium height, with conventional beard and moustache and more than a suggestion of military style. With common sense, cool judgment and grasp of detail, he combined kindness and a sense of duty. Sidney and Beatrice Webb found him pleasant and sensible. Although a prominent supporter of the Congregational Church he refrained from joining, reputedly because he held opinions on rites and ceremonies similar to those of the Quakers. As a philanthropist he was 'not ostentatious in his charity, but large in his gifts'. He was also renowned as a generous host at his exuberant and famous mansion, Rippon Lea, designed by J. Reed, built in 1868-69 and set in superb gardens and grounds, complete with miniature rifle range.

Sargood died suddenly on 2 January 1903, on a holiday in New Zealand. On a scorching day in Melbourne thousands watched his funeral procession, which included eight massed bands, 1200 cadets and a firing-party of 300. He was buried in St Kilda cemetery, where members of the Metropolitan Liedertafel, of which he had been president, sang Sullivan's 'The Long Day Closes'. He was survived by Lady Sargood and their daughter, and by five sons and four daughters of his first marriage. His estate was valued for probate at £680,000; he also had substantial property in New South Wales, Western Australia and New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • F. Strahan, ‘Rippon Lea’, National Trusts of Aust, Historic Houses of Australia (Melb, 1974)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1885, 2199, 1902-03, 1530
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1885, 24 Apr 1888, 3, 19 Jan 1903
  • Age (Melbourne), 3, 5, 19 Jan 1903
  • Table Talk, 8 Jan 1903
  • Punch (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1907
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Sargood, Sir Frederick Thomas (1834–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sargood-sir-frederick-thomas-4538/text7435, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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