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Sir Francis Grenville (Frank) Clarke (1879–1955)

by R. J. Southey

This article was published:

Sir Francis Grenville (Frank) Clarke is a minor entry in this article

Sir Rupert Turner Havelock Clarke (1865-1926), 2nd Baronet of Rupertswood, pastoralist and entrepreneur, William Lionel Russell (known as Russell) Clarke (1876-1954), pastoralist and member of parliament, and Sir Francis Grenville (Frank) Clarke (1879-1955), member of parliament, pastoralist and company director, were sons of Sir William John Clarke. Rupert was born on 16 March 1865 at Rupertswood, Sunbury, Victoria, eldest son of Sir William and his first wife Mary, née Walker. He was educated at Hawthorn Grammar School, Wesley College, Melbourne, and Magdalen College, Oxford, but took no degree.

In 1891 he leased his father's Cobran station, near Deniliquin, New South Wales, and later inherited the Sunbury properties of Bolinda Vale, Red Rock and Rockbank, totalling some 130,000 acres (52,608 ha). He sold these over a period, except for a reduced holding at Bolinda Vale and 800 acres (324 ha) near Rupertswood named Kismet Park, on which, after the sale of Rupertswood to Russell, he built a house. Rupert successfully carried on his father's stud of English Leicester sheep and Derrimut Shorthorn cattle. As his holdings in Victoria diminished, he developed pastoral and other interests elsewhere, notably in Queensland, where he later owned Isis Downs in partnership with R. S. Whiting.

Succeeding to the baronetcy on his father's death in May 1897, Rupert followed him into the Legislative Council of Victoria as member for Southern Province, retaining the seat until 1904. Early that year he addressed a meeting of some 10,000 in support of his kinsman Dr William Maloney, the Labor candidate, who was challenging the validity of Sir Malcolm McEacharn's return to the Federal seat of Melbourne.

Rupert took his father's place as governor of the Colonial Bank of Australia. Other business interests over the next thirty years, not all successful, included a rabbit cannery and a butter factory at Sunbury, gold-mining at Coolgardie, Western Australia, in 1895, banana and peanut farming, and a rubber and coconut plantation (also with R. S. Whiting) in Papua. In 1914 he financed and led an expedition up the Fly River in his yacht Kismet. In the early 1900s with John Gunn and Clyde Meynell he leased the Theatre Royal, Melbourne, and the Criterion, Sydney; in July 1911 Clarke and Meynell amalgamated with J. C. Williamson Ltd, and Clarke became a director of the company.

Rupert had served in his father's Rupertswood Battery of horse artillery. At the outbreak of World War I he went to England and was commissioned a lieutenant in the (British) Army Service Corps in 1915; he served at Salonica, Greece, and was invalided out in 1917. He was a fine horseman, and horses which he owned won the Victoria Derby, Oaks and Caulfield Cup, though the Melbourne Cup eluded him. He was also a first-class shot.

On 22 December 1886 he had married Amy Mary (later she called herself Aimée), daughter of Thomas Cumming. They had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce in 1909 and on 6 November 1918 in Sydney he married 22-year-old Elsie (later Elise) Florence Tucker; by her he had two sons and a daughter. Apart from his country properties and 12 Bank Place, Melbourne, Clarke owned several houses in Sydney, two in England (Brockwood Park, Alresford, Hampshire; and Old Place, Sussex) and a villa in Monte Carlo, where he died on 25 December 1926.

Rupert Clarke was a controversial figure, showing from boyhood an unsettled temperament. He was 6 when his mother died, and his stepmother Janet Marion Clarke, née Snodgrass, was a dominant personality. In the words of Frank, who was fond of him, 'Rupert … did resent … his own mother's fading memory and in consequence he spent much of his time when young in England playing polo and in travel … When he did return to Rupertswood … he was obviously not happy in his surroundings'. His lifelong inability to remain anywhere for long necessarily precluded him from that part in Australia's public life suggested by his inheritance, and possibly by his talents. The same restlessness may also in part explain the instability of his first marriage; though the testimony of their daughter Phyllis Power suggests that Aimée Clarke shared some responsibility for a divorce which was damaging to Rupert's career.

His half-brother Russell was born on 31 March 1876 in Melbourne, third child of his father's second marriage. He was educated at Miss Templeton's school, South Yarra, Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and Scotch College; followed by Trinity College (University of Melbourne), where he passed the first two years of a three-year B.A. course in 1895-98; New College, Oxford (M.A., 1902) and Wells Theological College. With his half-brother Ernest he owned portion of Dowling Forest, near Ballarat, later subdivided for closer settlement; he also owned Hawksview, Albury, New South Wales, and Rupertswood from 1910 to 1922, when he moved to Melbourne.

Russell was a member of the Legislative Council for Southern Province from 1910 to 1937. He was commissioned second lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, on 1 September 1916 and served abroad in the 12th Brigade, Australian Field Artillery. Returning to Australia in February 1919, he was active in furthering ex-servicemen's interests; he was a strong advocate of the building of hospitals as the most suitable form of war memorial. He was a lay member of the Anglican Synod, a council-member of Trinity College, and a benefactor of that college, of its associated Janet Clarke Hall and of the Ballarat Art Gallery. Among many sporting interests he was vice-president of the Moonee Valley Racing Club.

He had married Florence Douglas (Lute) Mackenzie on 23 September 1908 at St John's Church, Toorak; they had two sons and a daughter. Russell Clarke died in Melbourne on 14 May 1954 and was cremated, leaving an estate valued for probate at £366,875. A retiring disposition made him less publicly known than Rupert or Frank, but his influence, especially on education and on the building of hospitals, was lasting.

His brother Frank was born on 14 March 1879 at Rupertswood, fifth child of his father's second marriage. He was educated at Scotch College, Trinity College (taking Latin I in 1896) and Exeter College, Oxford, where he did not graduate. He farmed at Port Fairy, at Thule, south-west of Deniliquin, and at Murchison, but as his political and business interests developed his farming activities waned. He was a director of the Colonial Bank and later (after an amalgamation) of the National Bank of Australasia, becoming its vice-chairman. Other directorships included those of Goldsbrough Mort & Co. and the Victorian board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society.

Frank was best known in politics. He was elected to the Legislative Council in 1913, representing Northern Province until 1925, Melbourne South Province until 1937, and Monash until his death. In 1915 he attended the Panama-Pacific International Exposition at San Francisco as honorary commissioner for Victoria. In 1917 he was appointed leader in the Legislative Council, minister for lands, minister for water-supply and minister for public works. In successive ministries and under changing nomenclatures he refined the lands portfolio until 1919, that of water-supply until 1921, and that of public works until 1923, when he was elected president of the Legislative Council—a position he held for twenty years.

The most controversial event of his political career occurred in October 1947 when, as a private member, he successfully led a move in the Legislative Council to deny supply to the Cain Labor government. The plan was to force an expression of public feeling on the Federal issue of bank nationalization by bringing about a State election. The Legislative Assembly was dissolved on 8 October 1947 and an election took place on 8 November, Labor fighting on the alleged abuse of power by the Legislative Council and the Liberals on the banking issue. The Cain government was swept from office, and though the Chifley government forced its bill through a second reading on 12 November, Victoria's revolt signalled the ebbing of the tide of nationalization in Australia. Though earlier Clarke had been regarded as a cool and non-partisan president, the events of 1947 earned him the enmity of the Communist Party and the left wing of the Australian Labor Party.

On 24 July 1901 he had married Nina Ellis Cotton, a cousin on his mother's side. They had three sons, of whom the eldest did not survive to manhood, and three daughters. Frank Clarke suffered from a congenitally dislocated hip, which caused his rejection for service in the South African War and precluded strong physical activity. He was devoted to his family, his books and his garden. He was a president of the Royal Horticultural Society of Victoria and designed a notable garden at Mount Macedon. His charming book In the Botanic Gardens (Melbourne, 1924) shows keen observation, humour and broad learning. The same cannot be said of his ephemeral World air control board: a plan (Melbourne, 1944). His privately printed The Clarke Clan in Australia (Melbourne, 1946) provides delightful sketches of Victoria in a more leisurely age, but unfortunately repeats the erroneous statement that Sir William Clarke was Australia's first baronet—Sir Charles Nicholson and Sir Daniel Cooper preceded him. Frank Clarke was president of the Melbourne Club in 1925 and was appointed K.B.E. in 1926. He was also chairman of the Felton Bequest Committee. He died in Melbourne on 13 February 1955 and was cremated.

His brother Ernest Edward Dowling (1869-1941), lieutenant-commander, R.N., was a successful racehorse breeder; he imported the celebrated sire The Welkin and bred and owned Trivalve, which in 1927 won the Australian Jockey Club Derby, the Victoria Racing Club Derby and the Melbourne Cup.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vols 1, 3 (Melb, 1903, 1905)
  • H. H. Peck, Memoirs of a Stockman (Melb, 1942)
  • L. G. Houston, Ministers of Water Supply in Victoria (Melb, 1965)
  • R. Gibson, My Years in the Communist Party (Melb, 1966)
  • P. M. Power, From These Descended (Kilmore, Vic, 1977)
  • Tocsin, 28 Jan 1904
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 21 Aug 1909
  • Punch (Melbourne), 16 Apr 1914
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1955
  • W. Howat, annals of the Clarke family (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

R. J. Southey, 'Clarke, Sir Francis Grenville (Frank) (1879–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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