Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Francis Wilson Niven (1831–1905)

by Stephen Herrin

This article was published:

Francis Wilson Niven (1831-1905), lithographic printer and mariner, was born on 15 July 1831 in Dublin, son of Ninian Niven, a gardener of Scottish extraction, and his wife Agnes, née Craig. Francis was educated at respectable schools in Dublin. At the age of 13 he went to sea and was apprenticed to John Sargent, captain of the Stebonheath. Niven's mariner's register ticket, issued in Dublin on 11 November 1847, described him: hair light, eyes blue, complexion fair, height 'growing'. While at sea he illustrated sea stories and made model ships. Following voyages to Victoria in 1851 and 1853, having gained the rank of first mate (1852), he was discharged in London on 15 June 1854. He married Elizabeth Close at St Mary's Church, Edge Hill, West Derby, on 6 July that year and the couple migrated to Victoria shortly afterwards in search of gold. They were to have eight children.

After prospecting with limited success, Niven decided upon the occupation of printing, specifically lithography, because it suited the artistic disposition he had inherited from his father. He purchased presses for £40 from Alfred Ronalds, a nurseryman at Ballarat who had formerly been a lithographer at Geelong. Niven taught himself to use this equipment with the aid of Ure's Dictionary of Arts. His first known commercial work was assisting with illustrations on Ballarat Punch in 1857. In the 1860s he trained with the lithographic artist Hermann Deutsch in his Bridge Road office. They produced many prints of Ballarat scenes. Between 1863 and 1865 Deutsch sold him the business. Innovation in lithography was a significant part of the firm's success and in 1873 Niven imported one of the earliest known commercial steam lithographic presses in Australia. He took an interest in nature printing, which led to the development of the 'Crisp Photo' process, with Henry Crisp's assistance, for colour lithography.

F. W. Niven & Co. became a large provincial printing business at Ballarat, at its peak employing seventy hands and having some £7000 worth of machinery. The firm began a publishing campaign in the 1870s that brought it international recognition for elegantly produced books such as W. B. Withers's History of Ballarat (1887) and The Cyclopedia of Victoria (1903-05). Some of this success was attributed to H. W. H. Irvine, who was manager in the 1880s. Niven and his son Henry Ninian (1862-1925), who was later to become manager and partner, patented 'an improved gelatine printing plate' on 7 July 1891. About 1893 they relocated part of their operations to Melbourne, for which a new building was erected in Flinders Street. With this move came a shift in concentration from lithographic work to jobbing and publishing. The Ballarat plant in Lydiard Street became Ballarat Litho & Printing Co. Pty Ltd in 1905.

Remembered within the printing trade as a fair employer concerned for the welfare of the workers, Niven took an interest in public affairs: at Ballarat he was president of the Chamber of Commerce, a member of the art gallery committee, president of the Amateur Photographic Society and a supporter of charitable institutions. Photographs showed him clean-shaven with flourishing sideburns. He died on 3 December 1905 in East Melbourne, survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons. He was buried in the new cemetery, Ballarat; members of the printing trade from both Ballarat and Melbourne attended. Niven's estate was sworn for probate at £4137.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Kimberly (ed), Ballarat and Vicinity (Ballarat, Vic, 1894)
  • Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 3 (Melb, 1905)
  • S. J. Herrin, The Development of Printing in Nineteenth-Century Ballarat (Melb, 2000)
  • Cowans (Melbourne), Dec 1905, p 14
  • Australasian Typographical Journal, Jan 1906, p 13
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Dec 1905, p 5
  • Ballarat Star, 5 Dec 1905, p 2
  • Ballarat Courier, 7 Dec 1905, p 5
  • Leader (Melbourne), 9 Dec 1905, p 43
  • F. W. Niven papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • F. W. Niven & Co. records (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Stephen Herrin, 'Niven, Francis Wilson (1831–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 20 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 July, 1831
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


3 December, 1905 (aged 74)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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