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Francis Abigail (1840–1921)

by G. P. Walsh

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Francis Abigail (1840-1921), leather merchant, manufacturer and politician, was born in London, son of William Abigail, wine cooper, and his wife Hannah, née Coney. He arrived in Sydney in 1860 where he worked as a journeyman boot-closer for William Alderson. About 1866 he entered into partnership with H. Hilder, and later with John Biggs, setting up a boot manufacturing, leather and grindery business in Sydney; the partnership with Hilder was dissolved in the late 1870s and Abigail continued business on his own in George Street.  

Abigail, a friend and political associate of Henry Parkes, entered the Legislative Assembly as a member for West Sydney in November 1880. He quickly proved himself an active and energetic parliamentarian, with a vast number of political interests; he introduced six public and three private bills in 1883-91. His speeches in the assembly reveal him among other things as an Orangeman, teetotaller, ardent free trader and opponent of state aid. He was secretary for mines from January 1887 to January 1889 in Parkes's fourth ministry. In March 1889 Abigail, Thomas Garrett and four others prepared a tentative platform for the abortive Liberal Party. He served on the New South Wales Commission for the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition of 1888 and for the Exhibition of Mining and Metallurgy held at the Crystal Palace, London, in 1890. In that year because of ill health he visited England and was cordially welcomed by various Orange organizations there and in northern Ireland. On 21 May in evidence to a House of Commons royal commission on mining royalties he stated that he preferred New South Wales mining law and administration, where minerals were mostly controlled by the government, to the English practice: 'private people work largely for profit; the Crown works for safety and the public advantage'. He told the commission that he had framed a bill to allow mining on private property, which he hoped to introduce in the Legislative Assembly. He returned in October but was defeated in the elections of June 1891 by the Labor candidates Jack Fitzgerald, A. J. Kelly, G. Black and T. M. Davis, coming second last in a field of nine. Thus ended his political career in which he always exhibited 'high social visibility'; short in stature, energetic, and somewhat impulsive in his public utterances, he was a favourite subject for the Bulletin cartoonists, Livingston Hopkins and Phil May. As well as his leather business, political activities and directorships of at least two public companies, Abigail was also an active philanthropist, serving on the boards of Sydney Hospital and the Benevolent Society of New South Wales.

In October 1892 Abigail and six others were brought to trial in Sydney on a charge of falsely representing the affairs of the Australian Banking Co. of Sydney. Abigail was chairman of directors, having been elected in July 1887 to the board of this bank, known first as the Australian Loan Discount and Financial Co. With the manager, Roderick M'Namara, and another director he was found not guilty. However, at a second trial before Mr Justice Sir William Windeyer, where Parkes vouched for his old friend's character, both Abigail and M'Namara were found guilty of conspiring to issue a false balance sheet with fraudulent intent, and on 3 November 1892 Abigail was sentenced to five years hard labour in Darlinghurst gaol.

After his release Abigail tried to re-enter politics: he stood for the Federal Senate in March 1901 as an unselected free trade candidate with fellow Orangemen, John Neild and John Kidd, but polled poorly. Later he lived in retirement with a daughter at Botany. He died at Ashfield on 23 July 1921 and was buried in the Congregationalist section of Rookwood cemetery. At Sydney in 1862 he had married Mary Ann Wenner; they had five sons and seven daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine Centennial History of New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 July 1877, 4, 14, 17, 25 Oct, 2, 4 Nov 1892, 25 July 1921
  • Bulletin, 3 Apr 1886, 19 Feb, 5 Mar, 27 Aug, 3 Sept, 8, 15 Oct, 5 Nov 1887
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Abigail, Francis (1840–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 24 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Francis Abigail, c1887

Francis Abigail, c1887

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22527170

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


23 July, 1921 (aged ~ 81)
Ashfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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