Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir John Russell French (1847–1921)

by R. F. Holder

This article was published:

Sir John Russell French (1847-1921), banker was born on 5 March 1847 at Mirzapore, Bengal, India, son of Major John French, 14th Bengal Native Light Infantry, and his wife Mary, née Forster. John French brought his family to New South Wales in 1858 and took up land at Kameruka in the Bega district. John was educated in England at Cheltenham College and in the colony under Rev. George Fairfowl Macarthur at St Mark's Collegiate School, Macquarie Fields. He joined the Bank of New South Wales in Sydney in 1863, and after experience locally and in New Zealand, he was recalled to Sydney in 1887 and appointed inspector. At Christchurch, New Zealand, he married Margaret Annie Hawkins on 3 October 1872. Promoted chief inspector early in 1891 he acted for the general manager George Miller for most of the year. Over the next few years of economic depression and financial crisis French took on much of the detailed burden of managing the bank and on 1 July 1894 succeeded Miller as general manager.

Under French the Bank of New South Wales expanded after a period of consolidation and strengthening of its reserves. Conservative in banking principles and regarded as autocratic towards his staff, he nevertheless built up an efficient administration and delegated a great deal of responsibility, particularly in later years. Under his guidance the bank extended its activities to Fiji and Papua, and opened branches to service the growing export-oriented wheat, dairy and sugar industries. He was also responsible for expanding the bank's trade finance and exchange business; and was an early and lonely advocate of quoting the exchange rate of the Australian pound as a distinct currency rather than as a premium or discount on sterling.

A well-respected leader among bankers, French encouraged the spread of banking education. Moreover, through his reluctance to meddle in political affairs he was trusted and consulted by leading politicians of divergent views. Considering the financial questions raised by Federation, he was surprisingly apolitical. He did not strongly oppose a Commonwealth note issue monopoly as long as the notes were adequately backed by gold, though he was apprehensive of the issue getting into irresponsible hands, and he took a softer line than his colleagues on losing the right of banks to issue their own notes. He considered the Commonwealth Bank legislation of 1911 unnecessary but, relieved by its moderation, was prepared to co-operate in setting it up. He was reassured by the appointment of (Sir) Denison Miller as governor of the new bank, and probably had a hand in the decision, for Miller was one of his own trusted officers. French took pains to maintain good relations with the Commonwealth Bank, no doubt in part to prevent its straying into radical directions, and to urge a similar attitude on his banking colleagues.

Appointed K.B.E. in October 1918, French preferred to assist government through friendships with ministers rather than through official committees. But he was no stranger to public responsibilities. A foundation member and sometime president of the Institute of Bankers of New South Wales, he shared in its activities 'with zeal and energy'. He was an active president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce (1900-01) and of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Australia. He was also a member of the council of The King's School, Parramatta, a trustee of Sydney Grammar School, a foundation member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust, and a director of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. A devout Anglican, he was elected a lay canon of the St Andrew's Cathedral Chapter.

French died at his Bellevue Hill home on 30 June 1921 and was buried in the Anglican section of South Head cemetery. He was survived of by his wife, two sons and a daughter. His estate was valued for probate at £52,993. A distinguished public committee organized an endowment fund for the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • R. F. Holder, Bank of New South Wales: A History (Syd, 1970)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, and Daily Telegraph (Sydney), and Sydney Morning Herald, 1 July 1921
  • Bank of New South Wales Archives (Sydney).

Citation details

R. F. Holder, 'French, Sir John Russell (1847–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 May 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]


5 March, 1847
Mirzapore, Bengal, Bangladesh


30 June, 1921 (aged 74)
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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