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Sir Joseph Hector Carruthers (1856–1932)

by John M. Ward

This article was published:

Joseph Hector McNeil Carruthers (1856-1932), by unknown photographer, 1898

Joseph Hector McNeil Carruthers (1856-1932), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-6

Sir Joseph Hector McNeil Carruthers (1856-1932), politician, solicitor and investor, was born on 21 December 1856 at Kiama, New South Wales, sixth son of nine children born to Scottish immigrant, John Carruthers (Cruthers), and his English wife Charlotte, née Prince. He was educated at William Street and Fort Street schools, as a boarder at George Metcalfe's Goulburn High School, and at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1876; M.A., 1878). Articled to A. H. McCulloch, he was admitted as a solicitor on 28 June 1879 and soon made investment in land a sideline. On 10 December at St James's Anglican Church, he married Louise Marion, daughter of William Roberts, solicitor.

The same year Carruthers supported (Sir) Arthur Renwick against (Sir) Edmund Barton for the university seat. In 1887 he topped the poll for the four-member electorate of Canterbury on a platform of local interests, free trade 'pure and simple', social reform, land reform, industrial conciliation and arbitration, an elective legislative council, local government and local option. His maiden speech pleaded for a tramway from Kogarah to Sans Souci, where he lived, but he soon earned respect as a free trader, businessman and reformer. On 17 April 1888 he introduced a private member's bill for a non-compulsory conciliation board and blamed employers as well as employees for industrial unrest; a select committee was appointed but it never reported.

In 1889 Carruthers, who had helped to draw up the ephemeral Liberal Party platform of 6 March, became minister of public instruction in Sir Henry Parkes's last ministry. He wanted a centralized system, to include the independent schools and technical education, with the university as the apex. He introduced a bill to endow a women's college within the university. Abolishing the Board of Technical Education, he brought technical colleges under the Department of Public Instruction. In 1890 he announced that a teachers' college would be set up within the grounds of the university. He disapproved of payment of members of parliament on democratic grounds.

At the Australasian Federal Convention in Sydney in September 1897 Carruthers argued for Federation for the sake of 'White Australia'. When Parkes sought approval of the draft Federation bill, (Sir) George Reid and (Sir) George Dibbs began the manoeuvres that led to the dissolution of parliament. The elections left Parkes premier with Labor support; Carruthers emerged as the leading tactician of the cabinet. Labor's demand for an eight-hour day in mining legislation caused the ministry's resignation on 22 October. Reid became leader of the free traders.

Carruthers, in ill health, found opposition hard to bear, objecting to the 'Socialistic roughs' among Labor, to the selfish liberals, who failed to resist them, and to Barton's failure to promote Federation. He blamed the Dibbs ministry for much of the trouble during the 1892 strike at Broken Hill. Many of his opinions were refined in 1891-94. He did not dislike the principle of income tax, but opposed its introduction lest it delay the return of prosperity. Partly following Henry George, he rejected taxation of the improved capital value of land. He castigated the government's economy proposals to keep children under six away from school and to raise high-school fees.

Depressed by family problems and influenza, Carruthers saw the Free Trade Party in 1894 as split into factions led by Parkes, Reid and B. R. Wise. In June, however, he rallied to Reid's shrewd linking of free trade with direct taxation and retrenchment, and reforms of local government, the Legislative Council and the civil service. The elections next month were conducted on the new single-member seats, contested on the same day. Carruthers won St George and held it until 1908. He joined Reid's ministry as secretary for lands, a portfolio appropriate to his reforming interest, investment experience and legal practice. With many pastoral leases falling in, he proposed crown lands reform, chiefly by a system of homestead selections, which were virtually perpetual leaseholds, giving access to land to people with little capital; new improvement and settlement leases were made available; lands were classified and speculative selections hampered. The proposals gratified land reformers by encouraging genuine closer settlement, while relieving pastoralists' fears of reckless reforms by city-based free traders. Proclaimed in 1895, the Act was Carruthers' first political master-stroke. Public commendation helped him endure private affliction. Late that year he divorced his wife in an undefended suit and was granted custody of the children.

In June the Legislative Council rejected the government's land and income tax bill. Carruthers called for reform of the 'irresponsible' council and wanted an election to 'purify' the Free Trade Party. The government won the elections of 24 July and the council compromised on the taxation proposals. He continued to make his mark as an efficient and sympathetic secretary for lands, although a persistent drought was creating hardship from 1895. In 1897 in Adelaide he was inconspicuous among ten elected representatives of New South Wales at the Australasian Federal Convention, but he took charge of the resulting draft constitution bill while Reid was in London. Carruthers supported Federation without commending all the detailed proposals; he opposed equal representation of States in the Senate and foresaw conflicts between the Houses. At the referendum of 3 June 1898 a majority favoured the draft constitution but the minimum number of votes was not reached. Reid with Carruthers and other ministers formed a short-lived Liberal and Federal Party for the July general election, but the voters left them dependent on Labor, which was losing faith in Reid. Carruthers continued as secretary for lands until July 1899, when he became treasurer.

The new parliament met in the same month as Carruthers' son Jack died. To private grief, he added frustrations from the Federation movement, having to defend himself and Reid against charges of tergiversation. He was not prominent in the second referendum campaign, which culminated on 20 July 1899 in the acceptance of the constitution. Labor withdrew its support for Reid in September and (Sir) William Lyne became premier. Carruthers did not enter Federal politics in 1901 because on 15 January 1898 he had married Alice Burnett, aged 21, and enjoyed his new family life, and also because his solicitor's practice kept him in Sydney.

In 1901, after Lyne had gone into the Commonwealth parliament, (Sir) John See, leader of the Progressives, became premier and wanted party fusion in a non-Labor ministry, including Carruthers; he was tempted, but declined in April. C. A. Lee became party leader and Carruthers was prominent in the new Liberal Party of New South Wales, which absorbed the free traders before they lost the July elections. In August he opposed the vote for women, although praising those 'few women who have earnestly advocated' it. When he replaced Lee on 18 September 1902, he had been already seeking less public expenditure and denouncing 'over-government', on the lines of the Kyabram movement in Victoria. He did not join the People's Reform League, Kyabram's counterpart in New South Wales, preferring the Liberal and Reform Association which he had helped to found in 1902. As its president he encouraged working-class and lower middle-class members. He castigated the government for its financial mismanagement and the declining population growth.

Carruthers expected new political alignments, based on social and industrial matters, with non-Labor comprising Liberals and Progressives; but he misjudged the distorting effects of sectarian and temperance groups, which were linking up with the Liberals. His brother James Edward (1848-1932) was a Wesleyan minister. The P.R.L. accused Joseph of being too near Labor but he told the assembly on 12 November 1903 that, 'I would sooner sit till eternity on this side of the House than accept the domination by the labour party under which this government exists'. The L.R.A. was then strong, the government disintegrating and the electoral appeal of unity against Labor apparent. See resigned in 1904, and was succeeded as premier by Thomas Waddell. Labor was unprepared for such changes, and was still not strong in suburban electorates; victory at the elections of 6 July 1904 was Carruthers' second master-stroke, helped by 'an alliance of Liberalism, temperance and Protestantism'.

Carruthers, now both premier and treasurer, wanted a fusion ministry, but feared to split his own party, and the strong, reforming cabinet announced on 29 August was wholly Liberal. In the new parliament he required strict party discipline and kept ministers in touch with party members through regular meetings. In a third master-stroke he took advantage of better seasons to implement measures of economic recovery. He aided business by reducing public expenditure, reforming the civil service and cutting rail freights; he also stimulated regional initiative with local government reform, culminating in th Local Government Act, 1906, which set up the modern system of shires and municipalities and encouraged local participation through voting procedures.

Carruthers improved the State's financial standing overseas and tried to improve the quality of English immigration. In 1906 he merged the old Savings Bank, the Post Office Savings Bank and the Advances to Settlers Board into the new Government Savings Bank under independent commissioners, a decision which the Sydney Morning Herald doubted, and which the P.R.L. opposed. When J. S. T. McGowen supported Carruthers on it against the obstructive Upper House the Herald wrongly blamed the premier for allying himself with Labor. As the Progressives' difficulties increased, some sought coalition with the Liberals in 1907, but Carruthers wanted only fusion; Waddell agreed and in May joined the ministry as colonial secretary. Carruthers' success in marshalling anti-Labor forces in New South Wales was not matched federally. In 1905 he wrote to Alfred Deakin regretting that he and Reid had not 'come together' in a non-Labor government.

In June 1905 Albert Gardiner, Labor member for Orange, moved unsuccessfully that the royal commissioner inquiring into land scandals be empowered to investigate alleged abuses under Carruthers and other secretaries for lands. The charges recalled scabrous attacks made on him by John Norton in Truth in 1897, claiming irregularities in his divorce, immorality in his private life and land abuses under his administration. Carruthers had instigated a criminal libel action which ended with a divided jury. The 1905-06 innuendos again lacked foundation but, while leader of the Opposition, Carruthers had appeared in the Lands Appeal Court for R. Sims, whose agent W. N. Willis was a principal suspect in the scandals. In 1902 Carruthers had commended the work of W. P. Crick, secretary for lands, but the commissioner's report in 1906 claimed that Crick had taken bribes. Carruthers' law firm, without his knowledge and without impropriety, had acted for Willis in what proved to be dubious acts. He gave evidence eight times at the commission and produced his accounts and papers. The commissioner reported that he felt bound 'to add that nothing in the evidence … implicated Mr. Carruthers', who decided to give up his law practice temporarily to avoid future embarrassment.

In 1907, election year, some of Carruthers' opponents revived the scandals. He fought back hard, introducing or promising reforms that he had long advocated, and carried the Liquor (Amendment) and anti-gambling Acts. He induced banks to lower their interest rates to encourage investment, decided to erect the (D. S.) Mitchell wing of the Public Library of New South Wales and promised financial support to initiate teaching in agriculture and veterinary science at the University of Sydney. The Liberals were still supported by elements which regarded Labor as pro-liquor, socialist, and dominated by Roman Catholics, but which Carruthers now found tending to conflict with his outlook and his investments in race-courses.

Before polling day, 10 September, Carruthers launched a free-trade, States-right attack on the Federal government. When the Deakin ministry announced new protective duties, including a charge of 30 per cent on wire netting, his indignation overflowed. Up and down the State he attacked the duty as inimical to closer settlement and protective to manufacture of that product in Victorian gaols. Claiming that wire netting on Sydney wharves was State property, he had it seized despite protests from customs officers. Talking of secession, he said that unification would have been better than Federation for it would have prevented the aggressive provincialism of Victoria. His strong words on wire netting and the Federal capital were much criticized, but they directed attention from the land scandals to Carruthers as a vigorous leader, and helped him to win the elections.

The Liberals were less united than they had seemed at the elections. The land allegations had embarrassed them; Carruthers' vehemence against Labor offended some colleagues; his reform measures alarmed others; the wire-netting affair increasingly seemed a misjudgment that McGowen would exploit. Exhausted by campaigning and vilification, he suddenly resigned the premiership at the end of September, pleading ill health, and advised Governor Sir Harry Rawson to send for (Sir) Gregory Wade. After brief rest at his Manildra property, Carruthers remained in the assembly until October 1908 when he was appointed to the Legislative Council. He declined to be agent-general in London, but represented the State at the Franco-British Exhibition in London of 1908 and reported on immigration, fisheries, banking and overseas representation. In Britain he received the honorary degree of doctor of laws from the University of St Andrews and was appointed K.C.M.G.

Carruthers became active in the council. He approved the choice of Canberra as national capital, and supported an amendment of the Industrial Disputes Act to increase penalties on strikes. In 1910 he opposed amendments of the Australian Constitution sought by the Federal Labor government, fearing financial domination of the States. Next year he combated proposals to tax rents and incomes from farming and grazing on freehold land. Taxation on unimproved land values he would support; taxation of personal exertion he thought unsound in principle although sometimes expedient. In the 1912 debates on industrial arbitration, he defended trade unions but attacked compulsory unionism, partly because the unions were influential in the Labor Party. In 1913 he again opposed an eight-hours bill.

The outbreak of war did not surprise him. An ardent patriot, Carruthers had been active in instituting Empire Day in 1905 so that school children might commemorate Queen Victoria's birthday, 24 May, and Empire virtues. In 1915 he rebuked the government for going on with a land valuation bill when thousands of Australians were dying overseas; he assisted in recruiting and was strongly anti-German and anti-Turk. A conscriptionist, he now accepted a greater role for the Commonwealth, because the States had not done enough for the war. He criticized a 1916 bill to allow unions to help political parties or newspapers, supported the testator's family maintenance legislation, demanded funds for the Parliamentary Library and complained of miners and railwaymen who went on strike. In 1920 he opposed re-recognition of unions that had impeded the war effort. He had moved towards conservatism, but his basic liberalism remained strong: although he favoured W. A. Holman's National government, he opposed the sedition bill of 1918 as a threat to civil liberties. He was a constructive force in the council.

In 1919-20 Carruthers chaired a select committee on improvement of agriculture, and his work led to moves to make him premier again, uniting Nationalists and Liberals against Labor; but he was willing for only a subordinate post. His 'Million Farms' campaign, to settle a million farms with a million families, reflected his nineteenth-century formation and epitomized his attempts to emphasize enterprise and production. On 20 December 1921 he became vice-president of the Executive Council in Sir George Fuller's 'Seven Hours' Ministry'. He was active behind the scenes in the 1922 elections and was again vice-president of the council and leader of the government in the Upper House in 1922-25. He was acclaimed in the Sydney Morning Herald as a bulwark against Labor extravagance. When Labor regained power in 1925 under J. T. Lang on a platform including abolition of the council, and obtained 25 additions to it to ensure an abolitionist majority, he led 50 out of 98 members of the Upper House in publishing a strong protest. His own preference was then for a council elected on a restricted franchise. By 1929, however, in reaction to Lang and despairing of attempts to obtain agreement on an electoral system, he favoured nomineeism.

Carruthers had wide interests, despite ill health and a slight frame. At various times he was fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney, president of the New South Wales Chamber of Agriculture, a member of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales, a trustee of the National Park and of the National Art Gallery; he was an active supporter of cricket and in 1907 became president of the New South Wales Cricket Association; he played bowls well and enjoyed fishing and shooting. He was a trustee of the Mutual Life and Citizens' Assurance Co. Ltd from 1911 to 1932 and at various times a director of Kembla Grange Racecourse Ltd, Moorefield Racecourse Ltd, the Timor Oil Co., the Monaro Community Settlement Co-operative Society, the National Insurance Co. and the Australian Widows' Fund. His pastoral and other landholdings were enterprising, extensive and complicated.

Fascinated by Captain Cook, Carruthers was for many years chairman of the trustees of Cook's landing place at Kurnell; in 1928 he represented Australia at Hawaiian celebrations of his landing, and in 1930 produced Captain James Cook R.N.: One Hundred and Fifty Years After. He died on 10 December 1932 at Waverley, survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters. He was buried in South Head cemetery after a funeral service at All Saints Anglican Church, Woollahra. His estate was valued for probate at £19,490.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Syd, 1940)
  • J. Rydon and R. N. Spann, New South Wales Politics, 1901-1910 (Melb, 1962)
  • B. Dickey (ed), Politics in New South Wales, 1856-1900 (Melb, 1969)
  • D. I. Wright, Shadow of Dispute (Canb, 1970)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • J. D. Bollen, ‘The temperance movement and the Liberal Party in New South Wales politics, 1900-1904’, Journal of Religious History, 1 (1960-61), no 3
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Henry Parkes correspondence (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John M. Ward, 'Carruthers, Sir Joseph Hector (1856–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joseph Hector McNeil Carruthers (1856-1932), by unknown photographer, 1898

Joseph Hector McNeil Carruthers (1856-1932), by unknown photographer, 1898

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21399820-6

Life Summary [details]


21 December, 1856
Kiama, New South Wales, Australia


10 December, 1932 (aged 75)
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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