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Speight, Richard (1838–1901)

by Michael Venn

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

Richard Speight (1838-1901), by unknown engraver, 1884

Richard Speight (1838-1901), by unknown engraver, 1884

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN20/02/84/28

Richard Speight (1838-1901), railway commissioner, was born on 2 December 1838 at Selby, Yorkshire, England, son of Richard Speight (d.1851), railway officer, and his wife Ann, née Bray. Richard rapidly made a name for himself as an employee of the Midland Railway Co. and on 1 May 1860 at Derby he married Sarah Knight. After only nine years experience he was attached to the general manager's office and in 1877 became assistant general manager. With his salary at £1500, in November 1883 he accepted an offer of £3000 to head the new three-man Board of Commissioners established under the Victorian Railways Act of 1883, which aimed to remove the railways from political influence. He arrived in Melbourne in the Lusitania on 10 February 1884 with his mother, five sons and five daughters. He overshadowed his fellow commissioners, A. J. Agg and R. Ford, who were both unskilled in railway affairs.

Speight faced daily interference by politicians, problems with fledgling railway unions, public clamour for better service and government attempts to make the railways pay. Genial and gifted, he handled these pressures firmly, establishing cordial relations with his ministers, the unions and the press, but inevitably he had critics. Successful in his initial aim of managing the state-owned monopoly both as a 'business speculation' and as a public service, he showed an average profit of £6548 in 1883-88. In 1889 his salary was increased and he visited England and the United States of America; but his profit balance was wiped out by the large deficit of 1889-90, partly because of the opening of many new lines that were not initially well patronized.

Speight had implemented the Railway Construction Act of 1884 which authorized fifty-nine new lines and additional works. Optimistic of future traffic growth, he favoured solidly made, durable railways built to conservative standards that avoided the high maintenance and operating costs of the cheap light lines being advocated by ex-ministers of railways (Sir) Thomas Bent and J. Woods. This policy resulted in some monumental white elephants and excessive costs. In March 1891 the Age attacked his administration. Duncan Gillies, who had defended him, lost office in October 1890 and relations rapidly deteriorated between the new minister William Shiels and the commissioners. Under the influence of David Syme and the financial depression, Shiels demanded cost reductions, but Speight, fearing an implied censure, made only token economies. The minister's Railways Act of 1892 relieved the commissioners of railway construction and reduced much of their power. Becoming premier, Shiels suspended the commissioners on 17 March. They later resigned when the government offered liberal compensation.

Speight issued a writ for £25,000 against Syme and two libel actions ensued between June 1893 and September 1894. The Argus and conservative forces rallied to Speight hoping to damage Syme, who pleaded 'fair comment'; the final verdict was for Syme on nine counts and Speight on one, for which he received one farthing in damages. In the action J. L. Purves had accused Speight of causing the depression, and he seemed a perfect scapegoat: a stocky little Englishman heading the colony's largest public enterprise, having no personal financial power or family influence. Table Talk, 2 October 1891, observed that 'on railway matters he is a walking encyclopaedia, but outside his profession he is nothing more than an average citizen in the matter of shrewdness or literary and artistic tastes'.

After the litigation Speight entered business in Melbourne. He liked club life and was a member of the Athenaeum. Refused a new trial in November 1895, he rejected a Privy Council appeal as too expensive. He moved to Perth in 1898 where he became involved in arbitration cases and railway inquiry boards, and was managing director of the Jarrahdale Jarrah Forests and Railways Co. In April 1901 he was elected M.L.A. for North Perth; but he died on 19 September of cirrhosis of the liver and ascites, survived by four sons and four daughters. He was buried in the Karrakatta cemetery after a service at St Alban's Anglican Church. He left Victoria a notable legacy: most of his works, seemingly extravagant in the 1890s, became the basis for thirty years of railway expansion.

Select Bibliography

  • H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria, vol 2 (Lond, 1904)
  • R. L. Wettenhall, Railway Management and Politics in Victoria, 1856-1906 (Canberra, 1961)
  • G. Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance (Melb, 1966)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 Feb 1884
  • Morning Herald (Perth), 20, 23 Sept 1901
  • M. A. Venn, The Octopus Act and Empire Building by the Victorian Railways During the Land Boom (M.A. preliminary thesis, University of Melbourne, 1973).

Citation details

Michael Venn, 'Speight, Richard (1838–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/speight-richard-4626/text7619, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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