Australian Dictionary of Biography

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James Peter Franki (1843–1924)

by J. M. Antill

This article was published:

James Peter Franki (1843-1924), engineer and shipbuilder, was born on 27 November 1843 at Coglio, Switzerland, son of Martin Franki, builder and farmer; he came to Sydney aboard the Ledunia in 1855, and was educated at St Philip's School, Church Hill. Apprenticed for five years in the engineering and shipbuilding firm of P. N. Russell & Co., Darling Harbour, he then worked with the Fitzroy Ironworks Co. at Mittagong and on railway construction projects with Mark Faviel. On 9 January 1867 he joined Macarthur & Co. which was then operating at Waterview Bay, Balmain; he started as chief engineering draughtsman, was promoted to manager on Thomas Macarthur's death in 1869, and appointed general manager when the dockyard became a public company in 1872 under the name Mort's Dock & Engineering Co. Ltd. He was naturalized in 1875.

The spectacular development of shipbuilding at Mort's Dock (the largest privately owned dry dock in the southern hemisphere) continued from 1878 under the able control of Franki. When he joined it, about 200 men were employed; by 1915 the company's three docks—Waterview dock, Woolwich dock and Jubilee dock—and its engineering establishment at Woolwich, had more than exceeded 1000, sometimes up to 1500. Franki was managing director from 1915 until his retirement in 1923 when he was made an honorary director.

Fiery, known for his 'keen brain and farseeing eye', he deplored the introduction of the arbitration system and stressed that friendliness and understanding were the essential ingredients for industrial peace. He was an early advocate, with Mort, of worker participation: in 1873 foremen at the dockyard became shareholders in the company, but the rank and file found it impossible to take up shares, and his experiment was a failure. He was also a constant advocate of the policy that Australia should build and man its own ships, both mercantile and naval.

Commissioner for New South Wales for the 1888 Melbourne Centennial International Exhibition, Franki was for over thirty years president of the New South Wales Iron Trades Employers' Association, and a member of the Employers' Federation, Chamber of Manufactures and Chamber of Commerce. A member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, London, he was a founding member of the Engineering Association of New South Wales (1870) and of the Institution of Engineers, Australia and a fellow of the Royal Colonial Institution. He was chairman of the Commonwealth Munitions Committee before 1917.

A resident of Balmain for over fifty years he was an alderman in 1883, a justice of the peace from 1886 and a generous benefactor of local sporting and community associations. A Mason, he belonged to the Millions Club of New South Wales and the National Club. He married first Priscilla Scoles on 23 December 1869 at St Philip's Church of England, Sydney, and after her death in 1881, Bessie Johnson, on 4 October 1882 at Christ Church, Castlemaine, Victoria. Franki died at Balmain on 24 January 1924 of arteriosclerosis, and was buried in the Anglican cemetery at South Head. He was survived by one son and six daughters of his first marriage and one son of his second. Three sons predeceased him including Stirling Napier who died at Pozières in 1916. His estate was valued for probate at £50,146. The J. P. Franki memorial gold medal was initiated at the Sydney Technical College in 1923.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W. (Syd, 1907)
  • J. A. Barnard, Visions and Profits (Melb, 1961)
  • JRAHS, 24 (1938)
  • Town and Country Journal, 3 Jan 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Jan 1917, 25 Jan 1924.

Citation details

J. M. Antill, 'Franki, James Peter (1843–1924)', 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]


27 November, 1843
Coglio, Switzerland


24 January, 1924 (aged 80)
Balmain, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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