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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kethel, Alexander (1832–1916)

by Mark Lyons

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Alexander Kethel (1832-1916), by unknown photographer

Alexander Kethel (1832-1916), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 08237

Alexander Kethel (1832-1916), seaman, timber merchant and politician, was born on 2 November 1832 at Perth, Scotland, son of William Kethel, carpenter, and his wife Mary, née Watson. Briefly attending village schools, at 10 he became an errand boy for his grandfather and in 1845 was apprenticed to the master of a schooner engaged in the Baltic trade. After many adventures at sea, he jumped ship in Sydney in March 1853, worked on coastal vessels under an assumed name and visited the Victorian goldfields. Back in Sydney he obtained his master's certificate but a third shipwreck led him to abandon the sea in 1857.

Employed by John Booth at his sawmill at Balmain, Kethel soon became foreman of the timber-yard and in 1870, when Booth retired, leased the business with two partners. The mill was destroyed by fire in 1874 and Kethel went into business as a wholesale timber merchant, wharfinger and commission agent, and in 1877 leased the Market Wharf. He prospered, leased other wharves and acquired several ships, including steamers, engaged in the coastal trade. Late in life he was briefly engaged in the coal trade. He retired from active business about 1900; before and after, he made several long visits to Britain.

Outgoing and optimistic, Kethel was a voracious reader; if undisciplined, his mind was sharp and logical. He had a fund of experience which he could draw upon to illustrate a point, and was an entertaining and forceful speaker. In middle age he had bushy white eyebrows and a neat curly beard. On 1 August 1861 in Sydney he had married Mary Anne Yeates (d.1913) from Dublin, with Presbyterian forms. For many years he was an elder of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church. A council-member of the Caledonian Society in the mid-1870s, he helped to found the Highland Society of New South Wales in 1877; he was a council-member and vice-president and contributed frequently to its publication, the Scottish Australasian. He became president of the Burns' Anniversary Club in 1892 and helped to arrange Sydney's Highland Games.

Kethel never forgot the poverty of his childhood and supported associations designed to advance the self-improvement of working men. In 1856 he had joined the Manchester Unity Independent Order of Odd Fellows (grandmaster, 1876) and was active in the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts. He became a vice-president of the technical college it established in 1878 and in 1881 with Norman Selfe and Edward Dowling recommended greater funding for technical education. He was a member of the Board of Technical Education in 1883-89, a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales in 1901-16 and a member of the executive of the National Shipwreck Relief Society of New South Wales and of the local League of Ancient Mariners.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1885 and 1887, Kethel was firmly committed to free trade and supported Sir Henry Parkes. He did not stand for re-election in 1889 but was nominated to the Legislative Council in 1895. He spoke in parliament on shipping, coastal ports, friendly societies, technical and agricultural education and forestry. In 1888 he carried resolutions proposing the establishment of an agricultural college and a system of experiment farms. He served on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works in 1888-89 and 1901-04 and on the royal commissions on the extension of the railway into the city (1890-91) and into the charges against E. M. G. Eddy (1892). In 1892-94 he was a member of the Council of Arbitration and later chairman of the Board for Exports.

Kethel devoted much of his energy to forest conservation. In 1889 he persuaded Parkes to bring the ineffective forestry branch under the premier's control and to appoint J. Ednie Brown to head it. He crusaded for permanent reserves, listing the variety of native timbers and evoking the spectre of their disappearance. He urged appointment of properly trained staff, establishment of a forestry school and placement of forestry management under an independent commission. In 1907 he chaired a royal commission which extensively investigated the State's forest resources and practices.

Predeceased by his wife and two sons, he died at Castle Hill on 23 June 1916 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. Two sons and three daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Scottish Australasian, Sept 1911, Aug-Dec 1913, Jan-Apr 1914, July 1916, Feb, Apr, June, July 1918, May 1924
  • Town and Country Journal, 29 Oct 1892, 14 Sept 1895, 6 Oct 1909
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 June 1916
  • newspaper cuttings, vol 145, p 102 (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mark Lyons, 'Kethel, Alexander (1832–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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