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James Goodall Francis (1819–1884)

by Geoffrey Bartlett

This article was published:

James Goodall Francis (1819-1884), by Thomas Foster Chuck

James Goodall Francis (1819-1884), by Thomas Foster Chuck

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29525

James Goodall Francis (1819-1884), politician, was born on 9 January 1819 in London, son of Charles Francis and his wife Anne, née Smith. On 14 February 1835 he arrived at Hobart Town as a steerage passenger in the Sarah. He became partner in a Campbell Town store in 1840 and later head clerk in the Hobart firm of Boyes & Poynter. About 1850 Duncan McPherson bought the firm and took Francis into partnership; McPherson was consul for the United States and McPherson, Francis & Co. did much business with whaling ships in port. In 1853 Francis moved to Melbourne to open a branch of the firm while McPherson remained in Hobart. The partnership was dissolved in 1860 and next year Francis admitted John McPherson as partner to form Francis & McPherson. Francis was a local director of the Bank of New South Wales until his death; in April 1857 he was elected vice-president and in May president of the Chamber of Commerce. His other interests were legion. He was a director of the Victoria Sugar Co. established in 1857; he had a large part in establishing 'the Australian and Tasmanian Insurance Companies' and in 1857 was a director of the Melbourne Underwriters' Association, known as the Melbourne Marine Insurance Association after 1858. He was interested in gold-mining especially in the late 1850s and in Riverina and Victorian squatting from the late 1870s; in 1884 he held a half-interest in Runnymede, near Casterton, and was buying Monomeith near Cranbourne with P. and J. Bruce. He also invested in coal and Western Australian timber but his favourite hobby was probably the large vineyard he established at Sunbury in 1863.

In 1859-74 Francis represented Richmond in the Victorian Legislative Assembly. On 25 November 1859 he succeeded John King as vice-president of the lands and works board and commissioner of public works in the ministry of William Nicholson. When the cabinet refused to back James Service who threatened to invoke an 1850 Order in Council to make the Legislative Council accept his land bill, Francis resigned with Service on 3 September 1860. This action put him towards the left; so did his mild protectionism. Like other reformist merchants, however, he was separated from radicals by his dislike of agitation and contempt for their administrative capacities. He therefore opposed the part-radical ministry of Richard Heales as incompetent; when it turned wholly radical at the elections of 1861, proposing tariff reform and more administrative action to solve the land question, he despised it the more for its sudden conversion. Like other moneyed reformers he helped to defeat Heales and supported John O'Shanassy's ministry of 1861-63, although except for (Sir) Charles Gavan Duffy it was thoroughly conservative. Francis then became restless when Duffy's Land Act proved a fiasco and helped to defeat the ministry when Duffy proposed to increase pastoral rents fixed by arbitration under his own Act.

Co-operation in 1862 with James McCulloch earned Francis the commissionership of trade and customs in June 1863 in McCulloch's first administration. It was dominated by men of standing but the presence of Heales and three supporters made it easier for Francis to introduce his 1865 tariff. This first move in Victoria towards protection also began a political crisis. The government's victory at the 1864 elections had forced the Legislative Council to accept a liberal land bill, but it determined to counter-attack on the tariff. The government therefore 'tacked' this to the budget, but the council rejected the combined bill in July. Victoria was in uproar. Francis, while far from joining the radical agitators, supported his tariff against his class and saw it pass in March 1866.

The crisis revived in July 1867. A grant to Lady Darling, whose husband Sir Charles had been recalled for alleged partisanship in supporting the ministry in the earlier crisis, was also tacked with a similar result. Francis disliked the unnecessary disruption but extremism prevailed. He supported his colleagues, especially after Colonial Office intervention had forced their resignation in May 1868, but was soon critical of his party's intransigence. This attitude and his business affairs kept him out of the more radical restoration of the ministry after the crisis but he rejoined McCulloch in April 1870 as treasurer in his more conservative third administration. Faced with falling revenue after the 1871 elections Francis proposed even higher duties but, believing 12½ per cent the limit, suggested Victoria's first property tax for the rest. This proposal brought down the government in July and wrecked its party. Duffy's radical ministry successfully increased duties to 20 per cent but fears of another constitutional crisis united members of all persuasions. McCulloch resigned in the Christmas recess and Francis became leader and in June 1872 chief secretary. His pragmatism and moderation symbolized coalition and 'practical legislation'. His democratic style held together a cabinet of able, self-assertive men, some recently bitter opponents, and his majority soon became overwhelming.

Francis did not shun conflict. The 1872 Education Act, which first provided effectively for free, secular and compulsory primary education, belied claims that as an Anglican he had raised the question merely to undermine his Catholic predecessor. The ancient questions of mining on private property, fencing, impounding and land law liberalization were tackled. Acts were passed to reduce mining accidents and implement a long-delayed railway building programme. Constitutional reform was Francis's personal responsibility. In 1873 his proposals, more radical than politic, would have gone far towards one man one vote and one vote one value, liberalize the council and institute double dissolutions in future constitutional crises. These measures were frustrated by the council but Francis acted with determined moderation. Having given the council several opportunities he fought the 1874 elections on his 'Norwegian scheme' to settle disputes between the Houses by joint sittings. His personal majority was undiminished but reservations on the reform bill made its third reading majority fatally narrow. Simultaneously Francis almost died from pleurisy. A large majority urged him to retain office but he refused; the ministry was reconstructed in July under George Kerferd. The chief secretaryship was kept vacant but Francis left parliament in November and went to Britain.

When he returned in 1876 the assembly was polarized between McCulloch's ruling right and the left under Graham Berry. Disgusted, like many liberals, with Berry's violent agitations and McCulloch's intrigues, Francis refused to stand at the 1877 elections which swept Berry into power. The constitutional crisis of 1877-78 changed his mind. Still favouring constitutional reform he feared radical violence and sided with his class and the constitutionalist party. A vacancy was created in West Melbourne but at the poll in February 1878, and again in the ministerial by-election of April, Francis was defeated by political excitement, Catholic opposition and electoral sharp practice. Not until May was he elected for Warrnambool, his seat thenceforth. The crisis was over but in a close-fought campaign on the nature of council reform his experience greatly helped his party. He was minister without portfolio in Service's constitutionalist cabinet from March to August 1880 but health limited his activities; when Service left for England in March 1881 Francis would not seek the leadership and instead was the recognized adviser of the new leader, Robert Murray-Smith. He took over as leader in April 1882 after Smith became agent-general.

Meanwhile Berry had passed a reform Act but his government had promptly fallen and a scratch ministry was assembled by Sir Bryan O'Loghlen in July 1881. Francis's party, unable to rule alone, gave O'Loghlen a majority but with increasing reluctance, for Francis still mistrusted Berry. Worsening health reduced his influence and he began to doubt the ministry's financial competence; when the disappointing results of a major loan took O'Loghlen to the hustings in February 1883 Francis abandoned him. He stood down in favour of Service but when neither party won a majority accepted a coalition with Berry. His health collapsed and he died on 25 January 1884 at Queenscliff. He was survived by his wife Mary Grant, née Ogilvie, whom he had married at Hobart; they had eight sons and seven daughters. His estate was valued at more then £178,000.

Francis was no political giant. An effective administrator, he lacked the necessary touch of political ferocity and skill in manoeuvre; he also admitted that he was a wretched speaker. With the giants briefly removed in 1872-74, his straightforward, level-headed independence and modesty were what the times required. If he could not inspire awe, fear or passion, he had a rare capacity for winning confidence and affection. He never sought the trappings of power and three times refused a knighthood as inappropriate to colonial society. Had his health allowed, his qualities might have brought him an enviable and continuing political success.

Select Bibliography

  • A. S. Kenyon, ‘The James Hamilton letters’, Victorian Historical Magazine, 15 (1933-35)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 Aug 1859, 1 Aug 1861, 26 Jan 1884
  • Leader (Melbourne), 25 July 1863
  • Illustrated Australian News, 20 Feb 1884
  • F. K. Crowley, Aspects of the Constitutional Conflicts … Victorian Legislature, 1864-1868 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1947)
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • G. R. Bartlett, Political Organization and Society in Victoria 1864-1883 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964).

Citation details

Geoffrey Bartlett, 'Francis, James Goodall (1819–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 June 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 Goodall Francis (1819-1884), by Thomas Foster Chuck

James Goodall Francis (1819-1884), by Thomas Foster Chuck

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H29525

Life Summary [details]


9 January, 1819
London, Middlesex, England


25 January, 1884 (aged 65)
Queenscliff, Victoria, Australia

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