Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Frazer (1827–1884)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

John Frazer (1827-1884), merchant, company director and philanthropist, was born in Dromore, County Down, Ireland, son of John Frazer and his wife Sarah, née Waddell. As 'a carpenter and joiner' he arrived at Sydney as a bounty immigrant in the Margaret on 23 January 1842, with a brother and two sisters. He first went up country 'to learn something of squatting', on 'a very modest salary indeed', and then worked as a clerk in Sydney. In 1847 he opened his own wholesale grocery business and in 1853 he married Elizabeth, daughter of James Ewan. Her two sisters married William Manson and James Watson who with her brother James, became Frazer's closest friends and business partners. In 1858 he moved into larger premises in York Street and next year took Manson as a partner. By hard work, 'integrity, prudence and punctuality' Frazer made John Frazer & Co. into one of the most influential mercantile houses in Sydney. The York Street stores were burnt down in 1865 and rebuilt for £15,000 in massive stone and with modern fire-fighting equipment. From the mid-1860s Frazer speculated in land in Queensland and by 1871 had four runs of his own and eighteen in partnership. In Sydney he had built two large new stores, a bonded warehouse and the impressive Frazer House. He had also sold his home, Ranelagh at Darling Point, and about 1874 bought Quiraing at Edgecliff. His directorships included the Australian Joint Stock Bank, the Mutual Life Association of Australasia and the Sydney Exchange Co. in addition to three other insurance companies, a shipping line, an ironworks and several mining companies. Later he was also a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and the Australian Gaslight Co.

Frazer retired from his own business in 1869 and next year visited England. In 1872 he refused for health reasons to contest a seat in the Legislative Assembly but in April 1874, persuaded by Watson, he accepted nomination to the Legislative Council. Though never prominent in the House he contributed much-needed common sense. As a friend and creditor of (Sir) Henry Parkes he was involved with the governor, Sir Hercules Robinson, in an abortive attempt to exploit coal on land at Jervis Bay. Frazer was appointed a magistrate in 1875 but next year, admitting physical and mental weariness, a feeling of being 'used up' and unable to forget the loss of his three young children, he sailed for England with his family. Apart from a brief return in 1878 to retain his seat in the Legislative Council, he stayed in England until 1880, although homesick for Sydney. He was a representative commissioner at the Melbourne International Exhibition, as he had been at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1878. Frazer died aged 57 at Quiraing on 25 October 1884, survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters. He was buried in the sumptuous family vault at Rookwood cemetery and left a personal estate worth £405,000.

Frazer's business success was matched by his philanthropy. He had assisted the Sabbath school at the Scots Church for years, wrote 'a hymn to the Creator' and became an elder of the Presbyterian Church, supporting it liberally in his lifetime and in his will. Long active in the Lord's Day Observance Society he left £2000 for an annual prize essay in 'Defence of the Christian Faith'. He served on numerous charitable committees, all of them benefiting under his will. Other gifts included £2500 for drinking fountains, one near Hyde Park and another in the Domain. With an insatiable appetite for culture and mental improvement he denied himself sleep in his youth for literature, history and philosophy. He also collected water colours on his travels and in 1875 he became a member of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 1876 he joined the Council of St Andrew's College and became vice-president of the Young Men's Christian Association, giving it a library. In that year he also gave £2500 for two bursaries to enable 'poor lads from the bush' to go to the University of Sydney and, at a large farewell banquet in his honour, called for the foundation of a chair of history and conditionally gave £2000 for it. In 1890 his family donated this sum to the university where it was used to found the Frazer scholarship in history.

Select Bibliography

  • G. N. Griffiths, Some Houses and People of New South Wales (Syd, 1949)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1877-78
  • Empire (Sydney), 21 July 1865
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 28 Mar 1874
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Feb, 10 Mar 1876, 27 Oct 1884
  • Town and Country Journal, 26 Feb 1876, 1 Nov 1884
  • Bulletin, 5 Aug 1882
  • Sydney Mail, 1 Nov, 27 Dec 1884
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under John Frazer (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Frazer, John (1827–1884)', 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

Life Summary [details]


Dromore, Down, Ireland


25 October, 1884 (aged ~ 57)
Edgecliff, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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