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Sir Joseph Palmer Abbott (1842–1901)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

Joseph Palmer Abbott,  1880s

Joseph Palmer Abbott, 1880s

National Library of Australia, 21223661

Sir Joseph Palmer Abbott (1842-1901), solicitor and politician, was born on 29 September 1842 at Muswellbrook, New South Wales, son of John Kingsmill Abbott, squatter, and his wife Frances Amanda, née Brady. He went to the Church of England school at Muswellbrook, at 9 to John Armstrong's school at Redfern, then to J. R. Huston's Surry Hills Academy and to The King's School, Parramatta. In 1857 he returned to the family station Glengarry, near Wingen on the Upper Hunter, where his mother had gone from Muswellbrook in 1847 on the death of his father. 

In 1858-59 Abbott was articled to his uncle Robert Palmer Abbott and later to Alexander Dick, M.L.A. for Liverpool Plains. In 1863 Abbott was manager of the common law branch of Montague Consett Stephen's office. In 1865 he was admitted a solicitor and set up practice with G. Pilcher in West Maitland but soon returned to Murrurundi where for fifteen years he specialized in the land cases that resulted from John Robertson's 1861 Land Acts. In 1872 he was appointed commissioner of the Supreme Court of New South Wales for the circuit district of Maitland. He soon won renown as an expert in land law and for his interest in the intricate nexus between land and politics as the squatter-selector conflict became more complicated after the formation of free selectors' associations.

In January 1866 Abbott had campaigned against the re-election of Marshall Burdekin for the Williams but did not contest the poll. In 1880 he moved to Sydney and founded the firm of Abbott & Allan. He also decisively renewed his interest in politics by winning the new seat of Gunnedah in the Legislative Assembly enlarged by Parkes's Electoral Act. In the next tumultuous decade Abbott played a leading role in major changes in land and fiscal legislation, parliamentary procedure, and the structure of politics. In the 1870s he had started a warm personal correspondence with Parkes and on his election was regarded as a supporter of the Parkes-Robertson coalition, but he was strongly opposed to Robertson's outmoded land views, which Parkes passively accepted as government policy, and gradually separated politically from Parkes. This partly accounted for his later change from free trade to protection. In December 1881 he declined Parkes's offer of a stipendiary magistracy for the City of Sydney: 'I do not feel justified at my time of life in sacrificing all my professional prospects and the freedom which that profession gives to me'. In the 1880s he was one of the leading private members responsible for filling the gap made by the shortcomings of several cabinets in initiating and carrying legislation through both Houses; he introduced fifty-two bills, including nineteen as a minister. With his special interest in law reform, his 1881 Justices Appeal and Small Debts Recovery Acts were outstanding contributions, although he did not succeed in amalgamating the two branches of the legal profession. He was also concerned with reform in medical administration; his valuable 1881 Hospital Acts Amendment Act led to his appointment as an honorary life governor of several hospitals.

Abbott had a lawyer's objective view of the land problem: he favoured remission of interest on conditional purchases and sought reform in the auctioning of crown lands by means of refined amendments, the establishment of local boards and a land court. He helped to defeat Robertson's 1882 crown lands bill and in January 1883 became secretary for mines in Alexander Stuart's ministry, which took a year to carry the Crown Lands Act of 1884. When the ministry was reconstructed under George Dibbs in October 1885 Abbott became secretary for lands.

By this time the New South Wales parliament, never a haven of repose in the nineteenth century, was in turmoil; old factional bonds were strained and broken, with new groups constantly forming as treasury deficits reflected economic depression and falling land revenue, and demanded radical political, fiscal and administrative reforms. Abbott was in the thick of the commotion as four loose parliamentary groups emerged in 1885-87 headed ostensibly by Dibbs, Robertson, Parkes and Patrick Jennings, all professing adherence to free trade. In January 1885 Robertson formed a ministry but was replaced after two months by Jennings, under whom Abbott declined to serve. Parkes formed a ministry in December 1887 and immediately called for a general election. In these confused months each ministry had been faced with an increasing deficit and had sought new forms of revenue, including an income and property tax hitherto always rejected. In 1886 Jennings had succeeded in carrying a radical Customs Duties Act which replaced the colony's traditional free trade policy with 5 per cent ad valorem duties.

Abbott had carefully watched the trend to new fiscal policies in 1885-86. He realized that new sources of income were necessary and gradually came to consider that customs duties were the best. When the Protection Union, formed on 10 November 1886, persuaded him to preside at a great demonstration in the Sydney Domain on 13 November he had not renounced his free trade views. In January 1887 he became depressed by the constant political crises and decided to retire from politics.

In the general election he did not contest Gunnedah but was returned without his consent to Wentworth, a large pastoral and mining electorate in the far south-west of New South Wales. The new parliament was dominated by Parkes and superficially divided into a free trade government and a protection Opposition, but most members still asserted their independence. Many free traders now declared themselves protectionists, among them Abbott who was elected leader of the Opposition on 9 March; he resigned on 19 May because he supported, against his followers, Parkes's plan to reduce obstruction by reforming the standing orders. Abbott then became the virtual leader of a third group, nicknamed 'the law and order party' for being sensitive to parliament's reputation as 'the bear garden of Macquarie St.' Increasingly he deprecated partisan politics and sought to restore his relations with Parkes. In the 1889 elections he failed to win East Sydney, but earlier had been elected unopposed at Wentworth. He was now recognized as a senior statesman with national objectives. As representative of an electorate where the futility of intercolonial border duties was obvious, he became more certain that customs policy was irrelevant to colonial politics. He became an influential federationist as his fiscal views were modified. His great capacity for objective analysis of conflicting arguments had prompted him to withdraw his opposition to divorce reform, to support Sir Alfred Stephen's enlightened campaign and in 1889 to bring down the divorce extension bill. In 1889 he lost the Speakership by only two votes but was elected chairman of the public works committee where he strengthened the process of administrative reform begun by Parkes's 1888 Public Works Act. In 1890 he became Speaker unopposed.

Abbott was now able to exert pressure for Federation and parliamentary reform. His great influence, exerted indirectly for the most part, stemmed from his personal prestige and outstanding record of disinterested achievement. In parliament he consolidated the forces of reform; his firm and dignified control was illustrated by a ruling in 1892 that 'it was necessary for members, whenever they addressed the Speaker, to rise from their seats and stand uncovered … to make their objections audibly, instead of blurting out “'ject” in the slipshod fashion which had hitherto prevailed'. By 1893 he had intercolonial repute as an authority on parliamentary procedure. In 1900 he resigned as Speaker and retired from parliament in 1901. He had been appointed K.B. in 1892 and K.C.M.G. in 1895.

In 1891 Abbott was a New South Wales delegate at the National Australasian [Federation] Convention where he was an efficient chairman of committees: he stressed the need to consult the people and in proving his point dryly revealed that New South Wales would have joined the Federal Council in 1884 had not some of Stuart's supporters been watching the Melbourne Cup. In 1892-96 he continued his quiet but effective work for Federation and was elected a delegate to the 1897-98 Federal Convention. Although unable to play a leading role because of a heart condition, he contributed a reasoned analysis in favour of the Privy Council as the ultimate Court of Appeal.

Abbott was an active and devout member of the Church of England. In 1864 he had been initiated a Freemason in Sydney and later associated with lodges in country districts: in 1894 he was pro-grand master of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales and grand master in 1895-99. A tall and commanding figure, he was generous and tolerant with a lively sense of fun behind a dignified and sometimes frosty exterior. In 1894 when presenting regatta prizes at St Ignatius College he revealed that after he had been to 'a convent in the Darling district at the invitation of his friend Fr. O'Connor, a little girl had related to her parents that Saint Joseph had visited their school and given them a half-holiday'. He added that 'he held the opinion, and had frequently expressed it, that education without religion was absolutely worthless'. Like most conservative politicians Abbott was a member of the Union Club where political matters were often discussed. He was fond of good company and always ready for social functions such as the first 'smoke concert' of The King's School old boys where he led the audience in singing 'There is a tavern in the town'.

In 1886 Abbott had become a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and as chairman of the board in 1891-1900, travelled extensively on society business. In 1898 George Reid offered him the New South Wales agent-generalship; but he declined 'for health reasons and the ages of his eldest son and his mother'.

In 1873 at West Maitland Abbott married Matilda Elizabeth, daughter of Dr Michael Macartney and Matilda, née Laird. She died in 1880, leaving two sons and a daughter. In 1883 at East Maitland he married Edith, daughter of James Solomon, merchant, and Emma, née Singleton; they had one son and three daughters. Abbott died on 15 September 1901, and was buried in the Church of England section of the Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Bulletin, 17 June 1882
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 16 Sept 1901
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Sept 1901
  • Joseph Palmer Abbott scrapbook (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Abbott, Sir Joseph Palmer (1842–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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