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Wright, Francis Augustus (1835–1903)

by Martha Rutledge

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

Francis Augustus Wright (1835-1903), by unknown photographer

Francis Augustus Wright (1835-1903), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23529547

Francis Augustus Wright (1835-1903), carrier and politician, was born in August 1835 in London, son of Captain Frances Augustus Wright, R.N., and his wife Eliza, daughter of Robert Lunn, archivist and librarian of the Society of Arts, London. He probably arrived in New South Wales on 30 October 1836 in the Jess with his parents, who settled at Parramatta. He was educated there by W. Breathom and S. Owens and at The King's School. In boyhood he went to sea as an apprentice. Finding himself in London when his articles ended, he joined the office of Laugher, Dwyer & Co., architects, in Poland Street.

Learning of the discovery of gold, Wright sailed for Melbourne and arrived in the Kent in September 1852. He worked on the Victorian and New South Wales goldfields until 1855, when he went to sea in the service of the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. and became a first officer. In 1858 he joined the ill-fated Port Curtis, Queensland, gold rush. He returned destitute and worked as a labourer in (Sir) Peter Russell's foundry, before returning to the New South Wales goldfields. On 19 December 1864 in Sydney he married Alice Marcia Williams, daughter of a goldminer.

In January 1865 he began a carrying business with Edward Barber, styled Wright, Barber & Co. In 1868-72 Wright was in partnership with David MacNeill. In 1875, when Edward Heaton (d.1894) joined them, the firm became Wright Heaton Barber & Co., general carriers and forwarding and commission agents, with capital of £14,000. The business expanded rapidly and the firm moved to a new office in Pitt Street designed by T. Rowe and shifted their stables to Redfern near Wright's home, Carisbrooke. In 1878 they won a five-year contract to carry all the copper from the Great Cobar Copper Mining Co. to the railhead; and in 1880 they handled 120,000 bales of wool. Wright managed the Sydney office and dealt with the Department of Railways. In February Wright Heaton & Co. Ltd was incorporated with Wright as chairman and managing director.

He represented Belmore Ward on the Redfern Borough Council in 1873-87 and was mayor in 1882-84. An avowed free trader and friend of H. Copeland, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Redfern on 11 January 1882 and later modified his free-trade principles 'as revenue must be raised'. In January 1883 Wright became postmaster-general in (Sir) Alexander Stuart's ministry; to enable him to take office, Wright Heaton & Co. was turned into a public company with twenty-three shareholders, achieved by giving ten clerks ten shares each. On 28 May he took over as secretary for public works at a time of rapid railway expansion. In March 1885 he enthusiastically managed the dispatch of the Sudan Contingent. On 30 September J. P. Garvan failed with a motion disapproving of Wright as secretary for works owing to his connexion with Wright Heaton & Co., the 'most extensive carrying firm in the Colony'. On 5 October the Sydney Morning Herald commented that he 'had been the best-abused man on the Ministerial side. But it is admitted on all hands that as a Minister he has been capable, independent and straightforward'. After the resignation of the Stuart government he became secretary for mines in (Sir) George Dibbs's ministry but had to resign ten days later when he lost his seat.

In the 1880s Wright Heaton & Co. recklessly expanded into Queensland; by 1886 it had fifty-nine branches and total overdrafts of £92,000. After allegations made by F. Abigail, Wright, with Heaton and others, was committed for trial for conspiring 'to cheat and defraud the Commissioner for Railways … of divers large sums of money' since 1880. Committed for trial at the Water Police Court on 3 August 1886, Wright was released on bail of £500. He claimed that his trial was 'a persecution of a political character' and that the 'system of averaging wool has grown up, and if not expressly permitted by the railway officials has been known to them and tacitly acquiesced in for many years', and was used by every carrying firm in the colony. The trial was delayed by the illness of a juror, the death of Chief Justice Sir James Martin and the appointment of Wright's counsel (Sir) Frederick Darley as his successor, an appeal against a new trial, and the Crown's 'search for its wandering witnesses'. On 22 June 1887 Mr Justice M. H. Stephen refused another adjournment and the defendants were discharged. In 1889 the scandal was revived by the royal commission inquiring into the alleged unfitness of William Fehon for appointment as a commissioner of railways because of his connexion with Wright Heaton & Co.

Wright took over total management of the New South Wales business in 1887, and by selling land and buildings, retrenching employees and reducing salaries, managed to reduce the overdraft and slowly to restore profits: in 1894 the firm again paid a dividend and in 1898 took over the McCulloch Carrying Co. Ltd. He became chairman of directors in 1895. In 1889-1903 he represented Glen Innes in the Legislative Assembly as a protectionist.

In 1873 Wright had been commissioned as an ensign in the Sydney Battalion of the Volunteer Infantry and was promoted lieutenant next year, major in 1885 and lieutenant-colonel in 1898. In evidence to the 1892 royal commission into the military service of New South Wales he recommended stricter discipline, less drilling and more practical training for the volunteers, and dismissed the rifle clubs as useless. In 1897 he was responsible for establishing the 6th Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Australian Rifles. He retired in 1902 with the honorary rank of colonel. A magistrate, Wright was a trustee of the Savings Bank of New South Wales, and of Ku-ring-gai Chase, Hawkesbury River, and a new South Wales commissioner for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London 1886, and for the World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. He was a prominent Freemason and deputy district grand master under the English constitution.

Survived by his wife, two of their five sons and three of their five daughters, Wright died of diabetes and apoplexy at his house, Putney, near Ryde, on 1 October 1903 and was buried with military honours in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. His intestate estate was valued at £39,463.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Digby (ed), Australian Men of Mark, vol 2 (Syd, 1889)
  • A History of Wright Heaton & Co. Ltd., Sydney, 1862-1962 (Syd, 1962)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1883-84, 5, 707, 1889, 5, 131, 1892-93, 5, 1159ff, 7, 568ff, 1896, 4, 427ff, 1900, 5, 600ff
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1885, 1st s, 503-551, 578-627
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Jan 1882, 5 Oct 1885, 24, 27-31 July, 4 Aug, 6-9, 12-15, 27 Oct 1886, 23 June 1887, 3 Oct 1903
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 26 July 1894
  • CO 201/603/467.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Wright, Francis Augustus (1835–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wright-francis-augustus-4891/text8133, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 19 January 2019.

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

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