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David Martin (1841–1927)

by R. Wright

This article was published:

David Martin (1841-1927), public servant, was born on 1 June 1841 at Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland, son of Robert Martin, railway surveyor, and his wife Eliza, née Paxton. Two years later the family moved to England where, at Preston and Southampton, Martin received his early education. In 1855 he accompanied his father to Victoria and promptly secured employment as assistant to a government survey party. However, with the arrival of his mother in 1857, he resumed his schooling.

On 1 January 1859 Martin joined the Department of Crown Lands and Survey as a clerk and over the next decade proved himself a careful, diligent worker. In 1874, as part of James Casey's reform of the chaotic Lands Department, he was appointed relieving officer and inspector of country offices, in which capacity he travelled the colony. It was an arduous assignment, so much so that early in 1877 his health broke; he took leave in Europe, studying agriculture, viticulture and forestry. He returned in January 1878 and on 1 July was made land officer at Horsham with responsibility for the important Wimmera survey district. His duties were further expanded when on 16 January 1880 he was commissioned a crown land bailiff.

In September 1881, at the insistence of the secretary for agriculture, Alexander Wallis, Martin was seconded to the Department of Agriculture as chief clerk but following Wallis's unexpected dismissal on 25 March 1882, found himself de facto secretary; he assumed control not only of Victorian agricultural development but also of such difficult problems as forestry management and the fight against Phylloxera vastatrix. In 1885 he was appointed treasurer and unofficial secretary of the Council of Agricultural Education, overseeing the establishment and subsequent operation of agricultural colleges at Dookie (1886) and Longerenong (1889), while in 1889 administration of a £233,000 rural industries bonus scheme was placed solely in his hands. With generous incentives Martin extended the network of local milk factories and significantly increased the volume of dairy-product exports.

Such responsibilities, however, only served to emphasize his anomalous position: unlike other departmental heads he was not a first-division officer of the public service and technically remained a member of the Lands Department. Persistent press and parliamentary complaints finally persuaded the government to resolve the matter; on 21 November 1890 Martin was promoted to the first division and gazetted secretary for agriculture, effective from 5 November. With characteristic efficiency he quietly used that enhanced status to broaden the scope of his department, most notably through the absorption of the Burnley School of Horticulture (1891), the foundation of a viticultural college at Rutherglen (1899) and the steady addition of scientific personnel.

On 17 May 1895 Martin's work-load grew considerably when, following a decision to amalgamate ministerial control of the departments of agriculture and public works, he was also named acting-secretary of the latter. In that role, routine administration was blended with direction of the flood-abatement measures carried out along the Yarra River, and the controversial land-reclamation and levee-construction works on the Murray and Goulburn rivers. When in 1901 the two departments were again separated, the now overburdened Martin chose to relinquish agriculture; consequently, on 1 November he was appointed secretary for public works. Although entitled to retire in 1906 the government prevailed upon him to remain until 1 August 1908.

Martin's commitment to sound administration was coupled with an equally thorough involvement in community affairs. At Horsham he sat on the boards of both the mechanics' institute and the district hospital, and later served as chairman of the Richmond Parks' Board and as a commissioner of the Supreme Court. Among many official duties, he was a member of the Board of Advice for Horticulture, the Metropolitan Parks and Gardens Board, and several royal commissions. In 1905 he was appointed I.S.O. And yet the very strength of Martin's administrative expertise—a precise, literal mind—was ultimately limiting for it sometimes led to narrow interpretations of legislative intent.

Of medium height, clear complexion, prematurely grey hair and with a trace of Irish accent, Martin enjoyed the reputation of a courteous, reserved man fond of the arts; when younger he was an active member of the Melbourne Garrick Club, and also sang in the choir of St John's Church, Toorak. He married twice; after the death of his first wife in 1876 he married on 30 June 1879 at Castlemaine, Julia Amherst Mary Stacey, who bore him eight children. He saw out his days as a government pensioner until on 27 February 1927 he died at his home in St Kilda, and was buried in the Anglican section of St Kilda cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Royal Commission on Technical Education, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1901, 3 (36)
  • Royal Commission on the Butter Industry, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1905, 2 (10)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 22 Nov 1895
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 4 Dec 1897
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 8 July 1905
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 July 1908, 28 Feb 1927
  • Age (Melbourne), 28 Feb 1927.

Citation details

R. Wright, 'Martin, David (1841–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


1 June, 1841
Clonmel, Tipperary, Ireland


27 February, 1927 (aged 85)
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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