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Sir Frederic William Eggleston (1875–1954)

by Warren Osmond

This article was published:

Frederic William Eggleston (1875-1954), by Aileen Dent, c1947

Frederic William Eggleston (1875-1954), by Aileen Dent, c1947

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an11693948

Sir Frederic William Eggleston (1875-1954), lawyer, politician, diplomat, writer and controversialist, was born on 17 October 1875 at Brunswick, Melbourne, eldest son of John Waterhouse Eggleston, lawyer, and his wife Emily, née Overend. His grandfather was Rev. John Eggleston. His maternal grandparents were also Methodists. His mother died in 1884 and in 1887 his father married Ada Crouch. Frederic attended state schools at Brunswick and St Kilda, then Queen's College, St Kilda, and Wesley College, which his paternal grandfather helped to found. During a family tour of Britain and Europe in 1891, Eggleston spent two terms at the Leys School, Cambridge.

His hopes of entering a university, either at Cambridge or Melbourne, were disappointed. The family income suddenly declined in the early 1890s, caused by the financial crash in Victoria. On returning from England, Eggleston became a clerk in his father's legal firm, Eggleston & (T. P.) Derham, and studied for the articled clerk's certificate. In 1897 he jointly won the Supreme Court prize for the best results in the final examinations, and was admitted to the Victorian Bar.

In 1895 Eggleston won the University of Melbourne's Bowen prize for an essay on 'History as treated by Shakespeare, Carlyle and Scott'. In 1898 his first published writing appeared in the Summons: a two-part essay on 'British Legal Development as a Representative Institution'. This essay revealed the influence of the legal historian Sir Henry Maine, whose ideas were taught by Professor (Sir) W. Harrison Moore. Eggleston expressed deep respect for the British legal tradition, but argued that future legal development would emerge from legislation rather than purely legal and judicial precedent; in the future the patriotic lawyer would play a wider role through parliament and politics. A further anticipation of his later career was a sociological approach to jurisprudence, which rejected John Austin's utilitarian conception of 'sovereignty'.

In his twenties Eggleston suffered from nervous depressions and breakdowns which were the product of a dutiful disposition, overwork, emotional incompatibility with his father and stepmother, and religious doubt. After his admission to the Bar, his problems began to diminish as he made friendships outside his family Methodist circle. Tendencies toward nervousness, personal shyness, and self-pity remained enduring features of his adult personality. By the time he was 25 he had rejected Methodism and denominational Christianity, but Christian social philosophy, expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, later reappeared as a central theme in his thought. In the 1890s and early 1900s he fashioned his own personal philosophical system, an eclectic mixture of personal (not absolute or Hegelian) idealism and social evolutionism. Although sympathetic towards the late Victorian decadent movement, locally represented by the musician, Professor George Marshall-Hall, Eggleston's strong literary and artistic interests remained fixed in a mould of Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and George Meredith. His early aesthetic interests were gradually projected upon the ideals of public life, statecraft as an art and a science, and upon the concept of 'citizenship'.

In 1897 Eggleston met Louisa (known as Lulu) Augusta, daughter of F. A. Henriques, a Melbourne grain and corn broker whose family were Jamaican Jews of Marrano extraction. After a protracted friendship and correspondence, they were married in Perth on 10 May 1904. She introduced him to artistic and intellectual circles close to Alfred Deakin. Although, unlike his wife, Eggleston did not play an active role in the People's Liberal Party, he absorbed a similar political outlook during his early married life. These years corresponded with the political and personal demise of Deakin and Deakinism, and Eggleston's later career in Australian public life was marked by a sense of alienation from the Australian political party system.

At the beginning and end of his public career Eggleston supported the Labor governments of Fisher (1910-13, 1914-15) and Hughes (1915-16), and then of Curtin (1941-45) and Chifley (1945-49). His generally anti-Labor political position in the years after the conscription referenda (1916-17) during World War I was modified by a highly critical attitude towards the Nationalists, the United Australia Party, and the Liberal Party of (Sir) Robert Menzies. Eggleston's prolific political writing in the Australian and British press was marked by wide sympathies and uncompromising criticism of both major Australian parties. His strongest contempt was reserved for the Country Party. His closest personal friendships, such as those with (Sir) John Latham and Maurice Blackburn, transcended conventional political boundaries. Eggleston's adult career alternated between elective or appointed public office, and the solicitor's practice which he shared with his next brother, John Bakewell, from 1904 to 1932, and thereafter with his son, Egan Moulton, until 1941.

In 1911-20 Eggleston was a municipal councillor in Caulfield, including a year (1914-15) as mayor. He advocated progressive reforms, such as the systematic adoption of British town planning principles in municipal government, the abolition of plural voting, and the enfranchisement of non-ratepaying residents. In the years before the war he was also active in the establishment of voluntary civic groups such as the Workers' Educational Association, and the Melbourne and Australian groups of the Imperial Federationist quarterly, Round Table. He combined his legal practice with both public work and writing for the local and British press on Australian politics and Imperial problems.

In 1914-15 Eggleston gave several lectures which defended Australian social and political experiments, but argued that such experiments should be subjected to social-scientific study and rationalization. The major product of this sympathetic, but sceptical, critical interest in Australian statecraft and social ideals was State Socialism in Victoria (1932).

Eggleston enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in March 1916, an act of conscience which expressed his lifelong dual loyalty to Australia and to the Empire. He served in 1917-18 in an administrative capacity, in the court martial section of the A.I.F. units on Salisbury Plain. While in England he strengthened his ties with the Round Table group and arranged to become post-war Australian correspondent for the New Statesman (1919-21), but his experience of the manners and ethos of British life convinced him of his fundamental Australianness. When the war ended, he hoped to enter politics or obtain a 'big administrative job'. He was commissioned in August 1918, and after the Armistice was transferred to the staff of W. M. Hughes to work at the Peace Conference with his friends Latham and Sir Robert Garran. He was too Wilsonian in his views to enjoy working for Hughes, however, and left Paris before the conclusion of the peace treaty.

After a brief return to municipal politics, Eggleston won St Kilda in the Victorian election of 1920. Although he had stood as an Independent Nationalist and Independent Liberal, he at first supported the Nationalist government of (Sir) Harry Lawson. In 1922-23, however, he joined with a faction of metropolitan liberals to demand a reconstruction of the ministry which would lead to greater concentration upon unsolved urban problems, including electoral redistribution, and a coalition of Nationalists and Victorian Farmers' Union members which would prevent Labor taking office. These irreconcilable demands structured Eggleston's political fortunes in 1924-27, when he was minister of railways and a vice-president of the Board of Land and Works in the Peacock ministry; and attorney-general, solicitor general and minister of Railways in the Allan-Peacock ministry.

His ministerial career was complicated by narrow parliamentary majorities, and the need to rely upon a group of capricious Independents. The Railways portfolio was a source of constant trade union, budgetary and managerial problems, and Eggleston resigned it in August 1926, when his health broke down. The legislation which led to his defeat in the 1927 election was the Motor Omnibus Act, which regulated and rationalized the operations of small private bus companies. Eggleston was not personally responsible for it but he wholeheartedly supported it, believing that unregulated private competition would undermine the public investment in railways and tramways. He supported the drastic reduction of private bus routes which crossed his own electorate. Intense campaigns against him were mounted by local residents and representatives of the bus lobby. Burnett Gray, the Independent candidate, defeated him at every polling booth. He contemplated standing for the Federal seat of Balaclava, but did not do so.

Eggleston had been appointed to the Council of the University of Melbourne on 6 January 1921; he was replaced on 19 September 1927. In the aftermath of his parliamentary defeat, he returned to voluntary public work in the Round Table group, the Institute of Pacific Relations and the Victorian branches of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the League of Nations Union. He was the leading intellectual figure in the internationalist organizations which were linked, largely through the skills of Edward Dyason, in the Bureau of Social and International Affairs. Eggleston also resumed writing for British and Australian magazines and newspapers, on a scale far larger than his pre-war or early post-war work. He began research on Victorian and Australian public finance, and the political economy of statutory corporations. In addition to prolific newspaper articles and commentaries, he produced a major biographical work, George Swinburne, a Biography (1931), to which Edward Sugden contributed a short personal account, and State Socialism in Victoria.

In 1933 Eggleston was appointed first chairman of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, a position he held until 1941. Although the technical problems facing the distribution of Commonwealth grants to the 'claimant States' of Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania were largely solved by another commissioner, the economist Lyndhurst Falkiner Giblin, Eggleston was a powerful and sophisticated chairman, dedicated to the revision of the Federal system. His writings and research on Australian public finance during the Depression, and his more sociological writings (often unpublished) on the modern conflict between the need for large administrative units and the need for self-government, constituted important independent influences upon the now famous early reports of the commission. In 1939 Eggleston visited Papua and New Guinea as chairman of a committee inquiring into the possibility of amalgamating their administration, and on the outbreak of war he became a member of the Capital Issues Advisory Board. He had become a trusted servant of the Commonwealth. In the late 1930s he also produced his most cerebral and audacious book, Search for a Social Philosophy (1941), an attempt to provide a conceptual apparatus for the unification of the discrete social sciences, and a powerful argument against specialization in the social disciplines. Considerably in advance of both academic and administrative thought at the time, it was the least successful and accessible of his five books.

In 1941 Eggleston was knighted and appointed first Australian minister to China. In the Chinese wartime capital, Chungking, he proved himself a natural diplomat and an acute analyst of political intelligence at the highest levels. He wholeheartedly supported the foreign policy of Dr Bert Evatt. Although a relatively minor Australian diplomat by comparison with those in Canberra, Washington or London, Eggleston's enthusiasm for a 'Pacific first' allied strategy derived from his long-term intellectual work, begun before World War I, on Australia's specific regional and geographic strategic interests.

At the end of his diplomatic furlough in 1944, Eggleston was appointed to the temporary position of Australian minister to the United States of America, succeeding Sir Owen Dixon. He had expected to return to Chungking, where he had developed close ties with Chinese intellectuals, educationists and politicians, but agreed to go to Washington in order to participate in the peace conference. The hectic political atmosphere there at the end of the war, however, was not conducive to his natural style of quiet diplomacy, and at the San Francisco Conference in 1945, he collapsed and had to rest in hospital. His direct influence upon Australian diplomacy at San Francisco was negligible, although he enjoyed the contrasts and similarities with Versailles, and was one of a handful of individuals who had been present at both conferences. In 1946 he retired from active diplomacy and returned to Australia.

From 1946 to 1949 Eggleston was employed in a part-time capacity as an official adviser to the Department of External Affairs, and as lecturer to diplomatic cadets. Belatedly, his lecturing and advisory work constituted a satisfying opportunity to teach younger men, an ambition he had always cherished. He also served as a member of the Interim Council of the Australian National University and took a close interest in the planning, educational structure and personnel of the Research Schools of Social Sciences and Pacific Studies, for which his lifetime of private study and public work had prepared him. He saw the establishment of the A.N.U. as an attempt to develop more institutionalized centres for Australian creative social thought, yet his own intellectual life had been largely voluntary, detached from formal educational institutions. Although his views on the need for interdisciplinary studies based upon sociology, social philosophy and social psychology were in advance of contemporary opinion, the structure of the Research School of Social Sciences failed to reflect his priorities. The A.N.U. came too late in his life for Eggleston significantly to determine its ethos, and like his teaching of diplomatic cadets, was a measure of the ungainliness of his career as a whole.

Eggleston spent the last years of his life from 1949 to 1954, despite the onset of blindness, writing published and unpublished reminiscences and reflections upon his experience. At the end of 1952 his Reflections of an Australian Liberal was published. It became his only best-selling book, and was widely read and quoted. Shortly before his death he completed a manuscript posthumously published as Reflections on Australian Foreign Policy, in 1957. During the early 1950s he also wrote or dictated unpublished reminiscences of which the most important were 'Melbourne memoirs. A social and cultural history of Melbourne from the eighteen eighties to the present', and 'Confidential notes', a series of personal memoirs of historical figures he had known. The latter manuscript was deposited in the Australian National University Library, and the former in the Eggleston papers, National Library of Australia.

Despite the brief impact of Reflections of an Australian Liberal and frequent articles for the Melbourne press, Eggleston's last years were lonely and relatively obscure. He died in hospital at Camberwell, Melbourne, on 12 November 1954 and was cremated. Two sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Osmond, F. W. Eggleston (1875-1954): Portrait of an Australian Intellectual (Ph.D. thesis, University of Sydney, 1980), and for bibliography.

Citation details

Warren Osmond, 'Eggleston, Sir Frederic William (1875–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 May 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

Frederic William Eggleston (1875-1954), by Aileen Dent, c1947

Frederic William Eggleston (1875-1954), by Aileen Dent, c1947

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an11693948

Life Summary [details]


17 October, 1875
Brunswick, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


12 November, 1954 (aged 79)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.