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Shenton, Sir George (1842–1909)

by B. K. De Garis

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

Sir George Shenton (1842-1909), merchant and politician, was born on 4 March 1842 at Perth, Western Australia, son of George Shenton and his wife Ann, née Cousins. In 1855 he went to England to complete his education at the Wesleyan Collegiate Institute (Queen's College), Taunton. On his return in 1858 he entered the family business and assumed control in 1867 on his father's death. In the following year he married Julia Theresa, daughter of Lieutenant-Colonel Eichbaum of the imperial military station in Perth.

Shenton quickly made a name as a shrewd businessman: his shop became one of Perth's biggest emporiums, with a reputation for progressive management (it was the first to use life-size models in its window displays); after 1881 he gradually handed it over to his brother Ernest. He retained control of the family import agency at Fremantle which became a major shipping and importing firm, holding the local agency for Lloyds of London, and closely involved in the trade with Singapore of which Shenton was a pioneer. In 1903 with its country affiliates the firm joined with Elder Smith & Co. to form Elder Shenton & Co., of which Shenton remained chairman until 1909. He was also a member of the syndicate that organized the expedition which led to the discovery of the (L. R.) Menzies goldfield, on which the Lady Shenton was amongst the best-known mines. This project was a comparatively rare instance of local investment in gold-mining. Between 1886 and 1909 Shenton was chairman of the board of the Western Australian Bank. When the Perth Chamber of Commerce was founded in 1890, he was the logical choice as its first president.

Shenton had early made his mark in public life as a member of the Perth City Council; elected in 1867, he was chairman in 1875-77. In 1880-84 he was the first mayor of Perth and was mayor again in 1886-88. In 1870 Shenton was elected to the first Legislative Council for Greenough. Re-elected in 1872, he lost the seat on appeal when the chief justice ruled that the Electoral Act had been breached; it was accepted that he had been the victim of an overzealous agent but Shenton's pride was hurt. However in 1875 he won the Toodyay seat which he retained without difficulty until 1890, aided by his close business, personal and political relationship, despite his own staunch Wesleyanism, with Bishop Salvado. Although finance limited the scope of 'roads and bridges' politics, he secured a railway into the heart of his electorate, and as a country member he supported tariff protection of agriculture. On the most controversial question of the period, responsible government, he was very cautious; he flirted with it in the early 1870s but thereafter opposed its introduction until 1889, by which time it was almost a foregone conclusion.

Under the new Constitution in 1890, Shenton opted for a seat in the nominated Legislative Council but, invited by John Forrest to join the colony's first cabinet as colonial secretary, he remained for a time at the centre of affairs. In October 1892 he resigned and was elected president of the Legislative Council, a position which was probably more to his liking and which he held until his retirement from politics in 1906. After 1894, when the council ceased to be nominated, he represented the Metropolitan province. In later years Shenton's services were much in demand for boards and committees, including those of the Public Library and Museum, the Central Board of Education, the King's Park and the Perth Public Hospital, of which he was the first chairman. In 1897 he became chairman of a provisional committee for the establishment of a children's hospital; after eleven years of fund-raising it opened a few days after his death. One of the most notable Wesleyans in a predominantly Anglican colony, he served his Church as Sunday school teacher, treasurer, organist and choirmaster.

Though Shenton profited from the gold rushes of the 1890s, he epitomized the old order which they overturned; he was one of the last great representatives of the 'six hungry families' who dominated the colony in the nineteenth century. Very 'English' in his attitudes and life-style, he loved the city and country of his birth, and served them unstintingly. He took great pride in the symbols of status and authority: the mayoral chain, the president's wig, and the knighthood conferred on him in 1893.

Shenton died on 29 June 1909 in London. Predeceased by his wife he was survived by six daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £186,627, much of it in the form of real estate. His riverside home, Crawley House, and more than 100 acres (40 ha) of land surrounding it were sold to the government and became the site of the University of Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • P. W. H. Thiel & Co., Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia (Perth, 1901)
  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vols 1-2 (Adel, 1912-13)
  • Possum (Perth), 8 Oct 1887
  • West Australian, 1 July 1909
  • Weekend Magazine (Perth), Sept 1967
  • J. A. Mackenzie, Survey of West Australian Politics in the Period of Representative Government, 1870-1890 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1936)
  • W. F. P. Heseltine, The Movements for Self-Government in Western Australia from 1882-1890 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1950)
  • E. Willis, The Life of Sir George Shenton, and Shenton-Salvado letters (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

B. K. De Garis, 'Shenton, Sir George (1842–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shenton-sir-george-4571/text7503, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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