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Frank Farnell (1861–1929)

by J. A. Ryan

This article was published:

Frank Farnell (1861-1928), politician and public administrator, was born on 10 September 1861 at Ryde, New South Wales, second son of James Squire Farnell and his wife Margaret, née O'Donnell, both native-born. Educated at Newington College, Farnell worked as clerk for William Wolfen & Co., commission merchants, and in 1880 with the Railway Department where he advanced to pay clerk in 1883-85. Business ventures with the tea, wine and spirits firm, Allen, Bowden & Farnell, resulted in bankruptcy, first in 1889 (discharged 1891) and again in 1899 (discharged 1899).

Unsuccessful in the election of 1885, Farnell was returned to the Legislative Assembly for Central Cumberland in 1887 as a supporter of (Sir) Henry Parkes. He represented this electorate until 1894 and Ryde in 1894-98 and 1901-03. Party whip in the ministries of Parkes (1890) and (Sir) George Reid (1894), he was deputy chairman of committees in 1894-96, and a member of the Public Works Committee in 1896-98. He was on thirty-two committees of inquiry in 1887-97, and his public appointments included those of justice of the peace, commissioner to the International exhibitions at Melbourne (1888) and Chicago (1891), and honorary visiting magistrate to Lord Howe Island (1900-13).

As a political figure he was a solid, pragmatic local man, successfully avoiding the clashing loyalties of rival faction politics. One could view him as an archetypal fence-sitter, as when he kept silent during the divisive censure motion in 1894 by Parkes on his party leader Reid; whilst supporting Reid he privately assured Parkes of his wish for him 'to continue nobly to discharge those duties which have made you prominent … throughout Australia'. Though he professed a liberal disposition, his conservative instincts appeared on issues involving social change; he counselled caution in the women's suffrage debate of 1894 and warned of women 'losing the arts of washing and dressing a baby'. However, as a practical-minded man preferring to avoid party conflict in favour of compromise, he may well have represented the solidifying component in colonial politics during a period of impermanent and futile fiscal alignments.

From this perspective Farnell had a special commitment to two practical areas of politics—the reform and administration of the Fisheries Act (1881) and the development of the (Royal) National Park. Chairman of a select committee (1889) and a royal commission on fisheries (1894-95), he was also chairman of the Fisheries Board (1903-10), resigning from parliament in December 1903 in order to carry out his duties. His support of fishermen in netting, trawling and oyster farming in coastal estuary and river catchment areas would now be unpopular with conservationists, but at the time did advance the interests of coastal fisheries.

A member of the Intelligence and Tourist Bureau in 1904-10 he was a trustee of the National Park from 1888 and chairman in 1907-29. To Farnell the park was a reserve for the recreation and enjoyment of a growing city population, a policy promoted by the State's tourist publicity in agreements with private interests, and helped by the extension of the railway to the park. Though Farnell's dedication to the park and its welfare is undoubted, recent evaluation by historians presents him as 'a man with few ideas and an easy mark for those who wished to put sections of the park to their own personal or financial use'.

Captain of St George's Rifles in 1896, Farnell was president of the Sailors and Soldiers' Fathers' Association, a member of the Proportional Representation Society and of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales. He unsuccessfully contested the elections of 1913 (Bondi) and 1916 (Drummoyne) as an Independent Liberal, and 1920 (North Shore) as a Progressive. He died of cerebro-vascular disease on 16 July 1929 at North Sydney, survived by his wife Amy Briscoe, née Cox, whom he had married on 12 August 1889 at St Andrew's Cathedral, and by two sons. He was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Goldstein (ed), 100 Years of National Parks (Syd, 1979)
  • Royal Commission … Lord Howe Island, Report, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1911, 2, p 945
  • Annual Report, 1903-10, Board of Fisheries (New South Wales), and 1903-25, National Park Trust (New South Wales)
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 5 July 1894, 6 July 1901, 16 May 1917, 3 Mar 1920
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 July 1929
  • Worker (Sydney), 24 July 1929
  • bankruptcy file, 1598/1, 1636/1, 13 397/8 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

J. A. Ryan, 'Farnell, Frank (1861–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frank Farnell, 1908

Frank Farnell, 1908

State Library of New South Wales, 177393

Life Summary [details]


10 September, 1861
Ryde, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


16 July, 1929 (aged 67)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.