Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir Patrick Alfred Jennings (1831–1897)

by A. E. Cahill

This article was published:

Patrick Alfred Jennings (1831-1897), by unknown photographer

Patrick Alfred Jennings (1831-1897), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24228786

Sir Patrick Alfred Jennings (1831-1897), pastoralist and politician, was born on 20 March 1831 in Newry, County Down, Ireland, son of Francis Jennings, linen merchant, and his wife Mary, née O'Neill. He was a direct descendant of John Jennings of Ballymurphy who in 1633 forfeited his Irish estates rather than change his Roman Catholic religion. Educated in Newry and in Exeter, England, he lacked the money to study for the Bar and trained for a business career with a firm in Exeter. In 1852 he went to Victoria. He joined the 1855 rush to New Bendigo (St Arnaud), but his keen commercial sense led him into store-keeping. When his ventures extended into quartz-crushing and grazing land, the prosperous store was run by members of his family who had migrated with his mother in 1857, the year he became a magistrate.

In 1858 Jennings declined to run for the Wimmera seat in the Legislative Assembly and in 1859 failed to win Crowlands, but he polled well in St Arnaud where he concentrated on organizing a town community with roads, drainage, water and a court. An original member, he was chairman of the local council. In 1862 with Martin Shanahan, a fellow Irish Catholic, he acquired Warbreccan station near Deniliquin in New South Wales. In 1863 he moved to the station after marrying Shanahan's eldest daughter Mary Anne, whose sister married a brother of Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan and brother, John, married a daughter of John O'Shanassy. When Shanahan died in 1882 his son carried on the partnership with Jennings. By then they also held Garawilla near Gunnedah and Denobillie and Ulimambri near Coonabarabran. In 1874 they acquired Westbrook, 80,000 acres (32,375 ha) on the Darling Downs, Jennings's final home after Warbreccan was sold in 1885.

In defending his pastoral leases under the 1861 Robertson Land Acts, Jennings had no scruples in using his own dummies against speculating selectors but was consistent in his support for closer settlement. He joined the Riverine Association founded in 1863 but did not support separation, although he would have benefited from close Victorian markets. In 1865 he refused to take the district's grievances to the imperial government in London as he believed they should be settled locally. When James Martin visited the Riverina in 1867 and offered Legislative Council nominations to increase the Riverina's meagre representation, Jennings was the only member of the association to accept; in 1867-70 he served in the council and in 1870-72 represented the Murray in the Legislative Assembly. Defeated at Mudgee in 1874, he represented the Bogan in 1880-87.

In January 1883 Jennings was vice-president of the Executive Council in Alexander Stuart's ministry but in July resigned, explaining that 'his own people' were discontented with his position in cabinet. In 1885 he was briefly colonial secretary in George Dibbs's government and then led the Opposition. When Robertson fell, Jennings failed to coalesce with him and reluctantly formed his own ministry in 1886. He was the first practising Catholic premier of New South Wales and the only non-Labor one. His comment that he was not 'a prominent politician' undervalued his importance as he had been offered ministerial office early in 1870 and twice later.

As premier and colonial treasurer Jennings was unfortunate in inheriting a serious financial crisis that helped to precipitate a major political dislocation. Always a free trader, he had promised his Bogan constituents that 'We will be no party to sneaking in protection'. However, his policy to meet the crisis included not only retrenchment, increased stamp duties, and land and income taxes but also a proposal to impose a 5 per cent ad valorem tariff and new specific duties. He rightly regarded this as a trivial breach of free-trade principles, and the best available fiscal compromise. His customs bill provoked intense debate in the colony. Its passage through the assembly was finally secured by parliamentary tactics which made its opponents label the government 'a brutal ministry'. But the rest of Jennings's programme was blocked and the deficit rose to about £2,000,000. Within the harassed ministry, relations between Jennings and Dibbs deteriorated; prorogation in October gave temporary respite from external but not internal tensions, and in January 1887 Jennings resigned his uncongenial task.

According to a friend, Jennings's political career had been 'an accidental diversion' from more rewarding pursuits. By the 1880s he had already shown his capacity as an organizer, administrator and benefactor in less controversial fields. In 1875 he was a New South Wales commissioner for the colonial exhibition in Melbourne, and next year representative commissioner for New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania at the Philadelphia Exhibition. He was the executive commissioner for the 1879 Sydney International Exhibition and its success owed much to his administrative capacity, his equable temperament and his range of informed interest in agricultural and commercial matters. A vice-president of the Agricultural Society of New South Wales in 1876-87, he helped to procure it a permanent site in Moore Park. He was a fellow of the University of Sydney Senate in 1883-91 and a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1885-97. His lifelong interest in music was combined with his interest in higher education when he gave £1000 towards an organ for the University of Sydney in 1879. Music was his major cultural interest. In St Arnaud he had led local amateur concerts and sometimes joined visiting professional singers in public performances of Rossini and Verdi. His enthusiasm for Wagner was one of the few radical traits in a consistently conservative character. He was president of the Sydney Liedertafel, and his patronage rescued it from an embarrassing situation in 1882. He was a member of the Union Club and in the 1880s was a local director of the London Chartered Bank of Australia, the Intercolonial Life Assurance Annuity and General Association and the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society.

In 1878-97 Jennings made the largest individual contributions to Catholic building appeals, especially for St Mary's Cathedral to which he presented a window in memory of his wife who died on 1 March 1889. He was a fellow of St John's College within the University of Sydney in 1868-72 and 1874-91; his 'princely liberality' enabled his friend, Archbishop Vaughan, to open a library there and Jennings's generous gifts are commemorated by a stained-glass window with his family crest. At his unsuccessful Victorian election in 1859 he had opposed government aid to religion and favoured National education, but by 1879, though his daughter was at a non-Catholic school, he took a prominent part in meetings against Sir Henry Parkes's public instruction bill. Thereafter he supported the Catholic bishops' policy of organizing a separate education system.

Though Irish, Jennings was neither Parkes's 'damned Fenian' nor the 'proud and unflinching home ruler' of Catholic obituary tributes. His concept of Home Rule was conservative, and his support for John Redmond in a hostile Sydney in 1883 was more an indication of his generous nature than of his political beliefs. His emotional involvement in British policy led him to write a long letter to the Sydney Morning Herald praising Disraeli's handling of the 'Eastern Question', later published as The Berlin Congress from an Australian Standpoint (Sydney, 1878). One of the two New South Wales representatives at the 1887 Colonial Conference in London, he was hesitant about taking the initiative on behalf of New South Wales, though he did support the creation of an imperial fleet for Australian waters. He was a delegate to the 1891 National Australasian Convention in Sydney, but again had difficulty in working with Dibbs. In 1890-97 he was a nominee in the Legislative Council where his brief speeches were all on federation.

If Jennings's ideas of gentlemanly behaviour had been disturbed by his experience of parliamentary disorder in 1886 he retained an obvious enjoyment of public recognition. He was created C.M.G. in 1879 and K.C.M.G. in 1880 for his work for the International Exhibition. He was awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Dublin in 1887. He received several papal honours: in 1874 he was made a knight of St Gregory the Great, in 1876 a knight commander of the order of Pius IX, and in 1885 he received the Grand Cross of this order which conferred on him the title of marquis. He had no hesitation in seeking honours, and wrote to Cardinal Moran explaining his suitability. His fascination with titles was shown in an anonymous article he contributed to the Freeman's Journal, and later republished over his name as An Essay on Knighthood, Being an Historical Sketch of the Equestrian Orders (Sydney, 1878), in which he defended the institution against the criticisms of 'our most conscientious democrats'.

In the 1890s a combination of drought, financial crises and failing personal health greatly reduced his pastoral wealth and his capacity to respond to new circumstances. One by one he lost control of his New South Wales properties. By 1893 he held only Westbrook and succeeded in selling part of it for closer settlement. Survived by a daughter and two sons he died in Brisbane on 11 July 1897 and was buried in Sydney in the family vault in Waverley cemetery. His estate in New South Wales was sworn for probate at £4400.

Select Bibliography

  • Y. S. Palmer, Track of the Years (Melb, 1955)
  • R. B. Ronald, The Riverina (Melb, 1960)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • G. L. Buxton, The Riverina 1861-1891 (Melb, 1967)
  • D. B. Waterson, Squatter, Selector, and Storekeeper (Syd, 1968)
  • A. W. Martin, ‘Pastoralists in the Legislative Assembly of New South Wales, 1870-1890’, in A. Barnard (ed), The Simple Fleece: Studies in the Australian Wool Industry (Melb, 1962), pp 577-91
  • Town and Country Journal, 17 May 1890
  • P. N. Lamb, The Financing of Government Expenditure in New South Wales, 1856-1900 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1963)
  • Henry Parkes letters (State Library of New South Wales)
  • manuscript catalogue under P. A. Jennings (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Roman Catholic Archives (Sydney)
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • CO 201/598.

Citation details

A. E. Cahill, 'Jennings, Sir Patrick Alfred (1831–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 May 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

Patrick Alfred Jennings (1831-1897), by unknown photographer

Patrick Alfred Jennings (1831-1897), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24228786

Life Summary [details]


20 March, 1831
Newry, Down, Ireland


11 July, 1897 (aged 66)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

Key Events
Key Organisations
Key Places
Stately Homes