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Elisha Clement (Elizee) De Garis (1851–1948)

by Janet McCalman

This article was published:

Elisha De Garis (ELIZEE) Clement (1851-1948), irrigationist, was born on 17 September 1851 at St Martin, Guernsey, Channel Islands, first child of Elisha (Elizée) De Garis, carpenter, and his wife Mary, née Roberts. The family came to Australia in 1854 and settled in Adelaide and later Naracoorte where Elisha senior flourished as a builder. Elisha junior was educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, then in 1872 went to Melbourne to study architecture with the firm of Crouch and Wilson. In 1876 he joined the Wesleyan Methodist Church as a home missionary and was ordained four years later. At the time of his marriage on 2 February 1881 to Elizabeth, daughter of John Buncle, he was serving at Charlton; in 1882 he was ordained as the minister at Durham Ox and Kerang.

The plight of the drought-stricken farmers in his circuit moved De Garis to advocate the irrigation schemes of Hugh McColl. With his architectural training, flair for journalism and implacable determination he emerged as a formidable yet disinterested leader of the irrigationists. As irrigation correspondent for the Melbourne Daily Telegraph he helped to persuade Alfred Deakin to see the Chaffey brothers in the United States of America. De Garis was founding chairman of the Tragowel Plains Irrigation and Water Supply Trust, the first set up under the 1886 Act. From 1883 he had been prominent in the Central Irrigation League, serving it as chairman for four years. He edited his own newspaper the Australian Irrigationist for two years before it merged with the Weekly Times. Fired with ideals of self-help he created the Associated Australian Yeomanry, a farmers' distribution co-operative.

A commissioner of the Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, by 1888 De Garis had emerged as a lobbyist and publicist of singular flair, his talents overflowing the constraints of the ministry. In 1886 the Wesleyan United Conference had voted him a probationer to free him from his pastoral duties, but by 1887 he could no longer resist the lure of the temporal world and renounced the cloth. He served as a lay preacher for the rest of his life and was a member of Methodist conferences until his ninety-fifth year.

De Garis joined George Chaffey in his market garden irrigation venture at Werribee for three years before moving at the end of 1891 to Mildura, where he built up varied businesses as an auctioneer and real estate agent, dried-fruits broker and financier. One of the foundation members of the Australian Dried Fruits Association, he threw himself into community life and politics serving on the infant Mildura Shire Council and as president in 1907-08. In 1908 he left his Mildura affairs in the hands of his precocious son, C. J. (Jack) De Garis and moved to Melbourne to establish a dried-fruit agency.

De Garis bought a mansion at Sandringham and entertained lavishly. He soon revealed his political ambitions and in 1909 was elected to the Moorabbin Shire Council as a representative of the Sandringham separatists. He failed to win the State seat of Brighton on the death of Sir Thomas Bent, then in 1910 suffered an ignominious defeat by Frank Tudor in the Federal seat of Yarra, where rough treatment by the Richmond Laborites doused his political hopes.

In 1916 De Garis returned for three years to Guernsey from where he supervised the London sales of dried fruits. With characteristic egotism he collected during the war a 'family' of 400 Australian servicemen with whom he corresponded by circular letters full of personal news and spiritual solace. In 1918 his first wife died; on 23 April 1919 at Auburn, Melbourne, he married Mary Evaleen (1858-1927), daughter of Rev. J. S. Waugh.

Still active in business and the church until his mid-nineties, De Garis became a daunting patriarch. He died at Geelong on 2 July 1948 and was buried in Brighton cemetery. He was survived by three of his eight children, of whom Mary Clementina (1881-1963), born on 16 December 1881, elder of twin girls, achieved distinction. Her father's Mildura business prospered just in time to pay for a final year's schooling for 'Clemmie' at the Methodist Ladies' College in Melbourne, where she was dux in 1898. She matriculated with exhibitions in English and history, then graduated with high honours in medicine from the University of Melbourne. In 1907 she became the second woman in Victoria to take out an M.D. On the death of her fiancé in World War I, she served for fifteen months as head of the Scottish Women's Hospitals for Foreign Service attached to the Serbian Army and was decorated by the Serbian government. After post-graduate study overseas, she practised with distinction as an obstetrician in Geelong and was a pioneer in the feeding of high protein diets to pregnant women. Her publications include Clinical Notes and Deductions of a Peripatetic (London, 1926). She died at Geelong on 18 November 1963.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 3 (Melb, 1905)
  • M. S. Sharland, These Verdant Plains (Melb, 1971)
  • Aqua, Sept 1956
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, 21 Feb 1964
  • E. C. de Garis papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Janet McCalman, 'De Garis, Elisha Clement (Elizee) (1851–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


17 September, 1851
St Martin, Guernsey, Channel Islands


2 July, 1948 (aged 96)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

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