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Verdon, Sir George Frederic (1834–1896)

by A. G. L. Shaw

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

George Verdon, by John Harvey

George Verdon, by John Harvey

State Library of Victoria, H92.150/549

Sir George Frederic Verdon (1834-1896), politician and banker, was born on 21 January 1834 near Bury, Lancashire, England, son of a Dubliner, Rev. Edward Verdon, vicar of St Anne's, Tottington, Lancashire, and his wife Jane, née Hobson, daughter of a London doctor. At 12 he went to Rossall School and at 17 he sailed for Melbourne with a letter of introduction to (Sir) James Palmer. He was distantly related to Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe.

Verdon made a brief and unsuccessful visit to the diggings at Campbell's Creek, Mount Alexander; back in Melbourne La Trobe offered him a government post but he preferred to 'chance his arm' in business. Through R. W. Pohlman Verdon joined the firm of Heape and Grice, later Grice, Sumner & Co., and in 1853 he went to New Zealand to manage their business for a year. On his return he obtained a sub-agency of the Northern Assurance Co., and set up as a ship-chandler in Nelson Place, Williamstown; styled in 1856 Probert, Verdon & Co., merchants and sailmakers, Flinders Lane, it failed with 'losses great' and 'prospects dubious' in 1858. Meanwhile he had joined the volunteer force in 1854 and in 1857 commanded the Williamstown Company which was ordered out after the killing of J. G. Price. Interested in astronomy, in 1858 he was appointed honorary assistant in the observatory. He was elected to the committee of the Mechanics' Institute, and in 1856 to the Williamstown Municipal Council; two years later he chaired a conference on municipal institutions and wrote a pamphlet, The Present and Future of Municipal Government in Victoria, urging greater powers for local councils. In July 1857 he was elected to the Land Convention and in December contested a by-election in Williamstown as a radical candidate; he was beaten—in his view because of Catholic opposition to his objections to Denominational schools—but won the seat in 1859.

Verdon became treasurer in the R. Heales ministry in 1860; next year his slightly protectionist budget led to the government's defeat. On 28 March he married Anne Armstrong, daughter of a Melbourne solicitor, and while out of office he studied for the Bar; he was admitted in April 1863, though he never practised. In June he became treasurer in (Sir) James McCulloch's ministry. As public opinion changed from free trade Verdon resubmitted another mildly protective budget in 1864; to overcome probable opposition from the Legislative Council the ministry tacked the tariff to the general appropriation bill. When the council deferred it, Verdon supported collection of the unauthorized duties and co-operated in the doubtfully legal procedure by which the London Chartered Bank lent money to the government. He strongly criticized a petition to the Queen by former ministers who opposed the government's actions, and in September 1865 was cited with the attorney-general George Higinbotham in an action for conspiracy. Next year Verdon was equally active in renewed disputes with the council over the Darling grant.

He successfully advocated a new building and new instruments for the observatory, an increase in the salaries of the astronomer and his staff, assistance to Professor (Sir) Frederick McCoy in establishing a national museum, and to (Sir) Ferdinand Mueller in his botanical research. Verdon was a member of the royal commission on fine arts. He was also concerned about the defencelessness of Port Phillip. He went to London in 1866 and obtained from the Earl of Carnarvon, colonial secretary, the H.M.S. Nelson as a training ship, and £100,000 towards the cost of the armour-plated monitor Cerberus. He 'acquired the esteem and respect of everyone', got agreement for a Melbourne branch of the Royal Mint and negotiated a loan. Awarded a C.B., he remained treasurer until March 1868 and in August sailed for London as Victoria's first agent-general. His report on the Darling grant controversy led to Higinbotham's vigorous denunciation of Sir Frederic Rogers, permanent under-secretary in the Colonial Office. Verdon was elected a member of the Athenaeum Club and, in 1870, a fellow of the Royal Society. He went 'everywhere', revelling in the social prestige derived from an 'honorable and significant post'. He was created K.C.M.G. in 1872.

In April 1867 Verdon had been appointed to the Victorian board of the English, Scottish and Australian Chartered Bank; in 1869 he became a director in London, and Australian manager in May 1872. His appointment was twice renewed and his salary raised to £3500 a year in March 1885. He was chairman of the Associated Banks in 1889. He harmonized interest rates with the Bank of New South Wales, and his directors noted the advantages accruing from 'his former position in the government' when it was necessary to negotiate on any matter with the authorities. But in 1887 the London board sent out C. J. Hegen, a director, whose report was not wholly favourable to him. Criticism continued, and Verdon's comments on various accounts suggest that he authorized some unwise advances; although the bank's failure in 1893 was not his fault alone, he had allowed liquidity standards and coin and bullion ratios to fall. When he retired in May 1891 his management had not been an unmitigated success, but he received a substantial testimonial which he used to found a scholarship for art education at the Working Men's College.

Verdon always maintained his interest in the arts. As bank manager, a friend of Pugin and of William Wardell, he was largely instrumental in building, at a cost of £50,000, the magnificent banking chamber on the corner of Collins and Queen streets. He had a 'handsome summer mansion' on Mount Macedon. He was an active trustee of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery from 1872, becoming vice-president in 1880 and president in 1883-96, though described as 'pompous and over-bearing'. The most important event during his presidency was the opening of the new Verdon Gallery in 1886, and he helped to arrange for purchases from continental schools. He was also president of the Philharmonic Society, and of the Victorian Institute of Architects, for which he helped to obtain the 'Royal' patronage; he was one of the Board of Visitors to the Observatory, a royal commissioner for the Centennial International Exhibition of 1888-89, a member of the Shakespeare Society, and only ill health prevented him being vice-president of the literary section of the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science. A sufferer from gout he died of diabetes at the Melbourne Club on 13 September 1896, predeceased by his wife in 1889 and one of his four sons. He was commemorated at the old National Gallery and by the Verdon Library (1897) in the Janet Clarke Hostel.

Verdon was representative of the 'better' class of unassisted Victorian immigrants of the gold rush period, well educated, energetic, responsible, high minded. He sought a better Britain in the antipodes; when the radical objectives of his youth had been achieved, he was reluctant to 'advance' further politically; but he remained devoted to impartial public service, and made a substantial contribution to the artistic, intellectual and political development of Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • B. A. Knox, ‘Colonial influence on imperial policy, 1858-1866’, Historical Studies, no 41, Nov 1963
  • A. G. L. Shaw, ‘Sir George Frederick Verdon, a forgotten Victorian’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 43 (1972)
  • Carnarvon papers (National Archives of the United Kingdom)
  • Verdon letter-books (State Library of Victoria, Royal Historical Society of Victoria, and E.S.& A. Bank, Melbourne)
  • CO 309/67-68, 82, 88, 102.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

A. G. L. Shaw, 'Verdon, Sir George Frederic (1834–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/verdon-sir-george-frederic-4776/text7947, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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