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James Squire Farnell (1825–1888)

by V. W. E. Goodin

This article was published:

James Squire Farnell, n.d.

James Squire Farnell, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 186424

James Squire Farnell (1825-1888), politician, was born on 24 June 1825 at St Leonards, North Sydney, son of Thomas Charles Farnell, brewer, and his wife Mary Ann (1804-1850), daughter of James Squire. He was educated at Parramatta, became adept in bushcraft and as a drover acquired an unusually wide knowledge of the colony. He joined the Californian gold rush in 1848 and returned to live at Kissing Point, Sydney, where he inherited 400 acres (162 ha) from his mother. On 2 May 1860 he won a Legislative Assembly by-election for St Leonards, but as a conservative was defeated for Central Cumberland in December. In 1864-74 he represented Parramatta. An active legislator, he became well versed in parliamentary practices. He supported Sir Alfred Stephen's attempts to extend the grounds of divorce, especially for incurable insanity, and advocated the extension of roads, railways and bridges. In 1870 Farnell bitterly criticized Sir James Martin for 'betraying' his friends and joining (Sir) John Robertson.

In 1872-75 Farnell was secretary for lands in (Sir) Henry Parkes's first government. In 1872-73 he bore the brunt of the rush for mineral leases and dealt with applications for three-quarters of a million acres (303,518 ha). In 1874 he carried the Mining Act and from May to July was also secretary for mines without salary to start the new department. In 1874 he was defeated for Parramatta but won St Leonards which he represented until 1882. In 1876-77 he was an able chairman of committees. After the fall of Robertson's government in March 1877, Farnell led 'a third party' of about seven members and created a deadlock in the assembly that was aggravated by the necessity of land reform and by Governor Sir Hercules Robinson's reluctance to dissolve parliament without supply. When Parkes's ministry fell in August Farnell refused to serve under Robertson and then under (Sir) Alexander Stuart though he consented to join Stephen Brown who failed to form a ministry. After the general election Robertson was defeated in December. Farnell declined to join Parkes and on 18 December, as secretary for lands, became the first native-born prime minister of New South Wales. The governor found his ministers 'personally respectable' but observed that his government could exist only while the followers of Parkes and Robertson did not coalesce.

Accepting the governor's opinion that only a new Electoral Act could break the deadlock, Farnell unwisely introduced it before his promised land bill which made many concessions to selectors. On 6 December 1878 the ministry was defeated and resigned after the governor had refused their advice to dissolve. After Robertson failed to form a ministry Farnell agreed to withdraw his resignation in hope of gaining some of Robertson's supporters, but on 20 December the government fell.

In 1882-85 Farnell represented New England and in 1883-85 was secretary for lands in Stuart's ministry. Probably the greatest achievement of his career was the passage of the Crown Lands Act in 1884 after months of debate and obstruction. When (Sir) George Dibbs reconstructed the ministry after Stuart's resignation, Farnell was appointed to the Legislative Council as minister of justice on 7 October 1885. Two days later he resigned his portfolio because of disparaging remarks on himself and officers of the Lands Department. Thereafter he ceased to be active in politics; in February 1887 he resigned from the council and returned to the assembly for Redfern, still a convinced free trader.

In the 1860s Farnell was a director of the Parramatta River Steam Co. and in the 1870s of the Civil Service Banking and Commercial Provident Society, and a trustee and chairman of the Civil Service Building Society. He was also president of the Sydney Club and a member of the Linnean Society of New South Wales. In 1880 he was a New South Wales commissioner to the Melbourne International Exhibition. Proudly Australian he arranged grants for marking places of historical interest. A prominent Freemason in the Leinster Marine Lodge, Farnell was supposed by critics to draw many electoral votes from his fraternity. In March 1876 he was installed as provincial grand master of the Irish Constitution. He favoured the movement to unite the masonic constitutions in New South Wales and on 3 December 1877 was installed as the first grand master of the Grand Lodge of New South Wales. Though the British Grand Lodges opposed its independence Farnell worked patiently to end discord. Recognition came just before he died on 21 August 1888 at the Boulevard, Petersham. The first function of the United Grand Lodge was to hold a 'Lodge of Sorrow' in his honour. He was buried in the family vault in the churchyard of St Anne's Church of England, Ryde. He was survived by his wife Margaret, née O'Donnell, whom he had married in Sydney on 23 June 1853, and by five sons and six daughters to whom he left an estate of £55,810. His son Frank served in the Legislative Assembly in 1887-98 and 1901-03. A Herald editorial on his death claimed that Farnell 'was not a violent partisan, but he was a painstaking politician, who generally had a substantial reason to show for his action', and gave him credit for being 'neither a scandal-monger nor a grievance-monger'.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Henley, History of Lodge Australian Social Mother no.1, United Grand Lodge of New South Wales, 1820 to 1920 (Syd, 1920)
  • K. R. Cramp and G. Mackaness, A History of the United Grand Lodge of New South Wales (Syd, 1938)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1861-62, 2, 1347
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Dec 1870, 12, 28 Dec 1877, 5 Oct 1885, 22 Aug 1887
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 28 Mar 1874, 26 Jan 1878
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 22 July 1882
  • Town and Country Journal, 26 Feb 1887
  • Sydney Quarterly Magazine, 1887
  • G. C. Morey, The Parkes-Robertson Coalition Government, 1878-1883 (B.A. Hons thesis, Australian National University, 1968), Mahon papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript and printed catalogues under James Squire Farnell (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 201/583-603.

Additional Resources

  • funeral, Sydney Morning Herald, 24 August 1888, p 9

Citation details

V. W. E. Goodin, 'Farnell, James Squire (1825–1888)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

James Squire Farnell, n.d.

James Squire Farnell, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales, 186424

Life Summary [details]


24 June, 1825
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


21 August, 1888 (aged 63)
Petersham, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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