Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, Francis Grey (1827–1900)

by Geoffrey Blainey

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

Francis Grey Smith (1827-1900), banker, was born on 23 February 1827 at Cambridge, England, the eldest son of John Jennings Smith and his wife Ann, née Timberlake. His father was an Anglican clergyman (M.A., Cambridge, 1831), who ran a boarding-school at Turnham Green, Middlesex, before migrating with his family to Sydney in 1839.

At 13 Grey Smith joined the Bank of Australasia; and after eight years as a clerk at Maitland and Sydney and one year as accountant at Geelong, he moved in February 1849 as teller to the bank's Melbourne office which was soon to become possibly the busiest banking chamber in Australia. Appointed accountant in 1851, assistant manager in 1853 and manager in 1863 he was one of the first colonial clerks to win a major position in banking. In 1868 he moved from Melbourne to Adelaide to join the Bank of South Australia, a London firm which dominated South Australian banking though it owned no branches elsewhere. After three years as chief officer he returned to Melbourne in July 1872 to become the chief manager of the young National Bank of Australasia, best known for the quarrels amongst its shareholders and directors. As the bank was directed by rival and bickering boards which met in Melbourne and Adelaide, Grey Smith's experience in both cities was an asset. His reputation for caution was also valuable, for the National Bank specialized in rural business and had more farmland branches than any other Australian bank.

Grey Smith was said to have been unusually dignified and courteous when a young banker, but as he aged his dignity, presence, and facial expression became forbidding. His face was clean-shaven with narrow eyes, tight mouth and stiff jaw, and seems so ferocious in surviving photographs that one wonders how he could retain that expression for more than a few seconds. In the banking chamber he was a man of few words: 'No' was the most frequent. Privately he was affectionate, tactful, fond of news and gossip, and so conscientious that he was inclined to worry.

His favourite recreation was cricket, of which he was a dignified player when young and a courtly spectator when old. From the 1880s his business visits to Adelaide often coincided with an important cricket match, and he was proud that his bank employed two famous players, 'The Demon' Frederick Spofforth and Hugh Trumble. He would have been proud to know that from 1906 until the 1960s every Test innings at the Melbourne Cricket Ground began with the teams emerging from the Grey Smith grandstand.

Grey Smith's attitudes to banking and cricket were similar; both were exciting and intensely competitive games to be played according to firm rules. In both games he preferred a defensive innings to a lightning century, liked a longstop behind the wicket-keeper, and suspected that behind every clear sky were stormclouds. During the long late-century boom he differed from most Australian bankers in his firm belief that banking was hazardous, and he spied risks in odd corners. He confided in 1878 that some of the Graham Berry liberals were 'red-hot revolutionists and communists', and in the Russian war scare of 1885 he wondered whether his bank should accept deposits from female customers because they tended to be excitable in a banking crisis. A few years later the exclamation marks spattered on the pages of his private letters as he denounced the high prices of land and shares in Melbourne and the risky policies of rival banks. On rare occasions he was deaf to his own advice. His confidential clerk, the man 'to whom I gave my unreserved confidence', was also deaf, and by 1888 had lost nearly £40,000 of embezzled money on the share market.

The National Bank shared Grey Smith's personal prestige. He was president of the Melbourne Club for one year, of the Melbourne Cricket Club in 1886-1900, and lay canon and treasurer of St Paul's Cathedral. At the peak of the boom in 1888 he was chairman of the Associated Banks—the big ten—and to his delight he kept the banking account and guided the silver speculations of Governor Sir Henry Loch. It was a measure of his reputation that the Melbourne Herald should have called him 'the most trusted and cautious financier in Australia'.

Grey Smith did not deserve to be a victim of the 1893 financial disaster. When frightened depositors bled the National Bank of 45 per cent of its gold coin in April 1893, it was still solvent. Nevertheless the directors, on his advice, decided on 1 May to suspend payment and reconstruct rather than risk the loss of all their gold coin. The bank reopened after eight weeks, but Grey Smith felt humiliated. Much of his old verve vanished, his face became fiercer and his health frail. A high sense of honour made him work on beyond his seventy-third birthday in the hope of meeting all the bank's obligations. He died in his St Kilda house on 1 May 1900, on the eve of the meeting at which he was to announce formally that the bank's debts to its depositors had been repaid. His own estate was sworn for probate at £21,711.

In 1849 Grey Smith had married Susanna Amelia, daughter of a Dublin solicitor, Joseph William Belcher. They had eight sons and three daughters; a grandson, Sir Ross Grey-Smith, was chairman of the Victoria Racing Club.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper (Melb, 1958)
  • K. Dunstan, The Paddock that Grew (Melb, 1962)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 19 May 1900
  • Chief manager's letter-books (National Bank of Australasia Archives, Melbourne).

Citation details

Geoffrey Blainey, 'Smith, Francis Grey (1827–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-francis-grey-4602/text7567, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 September 2014.

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

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