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Frederick Henry Piesse (1853–1912)

by Merle Bignell

This article was published:

Frederick Henry Piesse (1853-1912), merchant, agriculturist and politician, was born on 6 December 1853 at Northam, Western Australia, eldest of twelve children of William Roper Piesse, who had migrated in 1842 from London, and his colonial-born wife Elizabeth Ellen, née Oxley. William's police work embraced the agricultural districts of Toodyay, York, Northam and Guildford, his final term as sub-inspector being at Northam (1865-78). Social acceptance was based on clean, moral living; some education; family ties and connexions; and Anglican worship. The Piesse children carried these tenets into adulthood.

Educated at Guildford and Northam State schools, Frederick worked in the Northam general store of George Throssell, a self-made man establishing an awesome financial empire. Frederick Piesse copied his employer's methods and community involvement. His younger brother Charles Austin (1855-1914) also worked for Throssell.

In 1872, with Ernest von Bibra, Frederick followed the pearl-fishing industry in Shark's Bay. For five years from 1875 he worked in government service as a postmaster and telegraphist at Williams, a village south of Perth on the Albany road. On 18 October 1877 at Kojonup, he married Mary Jane Elizabeth Chipper, telegraphist and sister of mail-coach drivers; they had four sons and a daughter. Williams lacked a general store and trading post for kangaroo skins and sandalwood. In 1880 Frederick resigned (his successor being his brother Augustus William) and, with his brother Charles, launched at Williams the firm F. & C. Piesse. Next year a branch was opened at Arthur River, which Charles managed after he married Minnie Chipper, Frederick's sister-in-law. As their commercial enterprises prospered, the Piesses interested themselves in community affairs.

In 1886 the government concluded a land-grant railway agreement with an English syndicate, the Western Australian Land Co., which agreed to construct, equip and run a railway between Beverley and Albany in return for extensive land-grants. The line was surveyed twenty-five miles (40 km) east of Williams and signified a decline in traffic along the Albany Road. The brothers set up a portable store to follow the railway's construction and to trade with gangers and nearby settlers. They bought hundreds of tonnes of sandalwood, already cut and heaped in the bush, and had it carted to the new railway-sidings. The final resting place for their portable store was at the midway halt or central station. The Great Southern Line opened in 1889 and the town of Katanning mushroomed round the central station's shunting yards and goods shed. It consisted at first mainly of F. & C. Piesse's buildings: a large weatherboard store with warehouse, machinery yard, and aerated water factory; their Katanning Hotel; a smithy run by another brother, Frank; and Frederick's commodious timber bungalow. Charles opened a branch store at the railway town of Wagin, to the north.

They bought vast stretches of agricultural country near their respective towns from the land company. Their confidence and enthusiasm for the Great Southern was boundless; they promoted anything which would contribute to its progress and they were revered by the local citizens. In 1891 the firm built in the centre of Katanning a three-storey, electrically powered flour-mill. When the town achieved roads board status in 1892, Frederick became chairman.

In 1890-1904 Frederick Piesse was member of the Legislative Assembly for Williams. A journalist described him as 'a patient plodder with good horse sense to carry him through'. From April 1896 he was commissioner of railways and director of public works. His brother Arnold Edmund took over management of the Katanning store and Augustus became postmaster.

Settlers became increasingly dissatisfied with the land company because of its reluctance to release prime agricultural land at reasonable price and terms. Moreover, the company's tenants were not eligible for the benefits of the Homesteads Act of 1893. This entitled settlers elsewhere to a free block on condition that it was lived on and improved over seven years. The Piesses persuaded the government (enriched with goldfields revenue) to buy the Great Southern railway and release its land for selection. Henceforward settlement advanced apace.

In 1897 Frederick Piesse was a member of the Australasian Federal Convention in Adelaide. In February 1899 he became, briefly, deputy premier, during Sir John Forrest's absence. It was a period of immense expansion, with demands for railways to the goldfields and newly opened agricultural areas and an unprecedentedly heavy government works programme including Fremantle harbour and the Kalgoorlie water-supply scheme. Piesse delegated too much to his public servants, with doubtful results. This, and his liberality, aroused criticism in parliament and among workers that he was a spendthrift and squandered public money. Also he failed to correctly appraise the growing railway union movement. Piesse asserted that he knew what was best for the workers and they should trust him. Amid mounting criticism—the Sunday Times lampooned him as 'the Piesse that passeth all understanding'—in August 1900 Premier Forrest demanded his resignation as commissioner because Piesse disagreed with Forrest's arbitration legislation. Next year, after Forrest's departure, he succeeded Throssell as leader of the Forrest group and in November carried a motion of no confidence in Premier George Leake, but was unable to form a ministry; the premiership passed briefly to A. E. Morgans, then Leake regained control. In 1904, with the formation of the Katanning constituency, Piesse was returned to the assembly as its first representative. He went back to live in Katanning.

Frederick built for his family a mansion, Kobeelya, overlooking the town, and consciously assumed a 'big brother' role in local affairs, especially encouraging and assisting newcomers. The family lived and entertained lavishly to their ultimate detriment; their name became almost synonymous with Katanning.

After 1902 the firm's wine industry improved outstandingly under the management of a German-born wine-maker, Carl Bungert. A battlemented brick distillery, built in Piesse's vineyard on the town's outskirts, eventually became a historic landmark. The firm's wines won prizes at the Perth Agricultural Show, and received gold medals in London and Paris.

In 1908 Piesse was appointed C.M.G. and won his last and most demanding election, but failing health forced him to resign in 1909. His brother Arnold Edmund was elected unopposed in his place; Charles and another brother, Alfred Napoleon, also sat in the Western Australian parliament. One of Frederick's sons, H. V. Piesse, was a legislative councillor in 1932-44 and a nephew, E. S. R. Piesse, was a Commonwealth senator in 1950-52.

Survived by his wife and children, Frederick died from cerebral haemorrhage on 29 June 1912 and was buried in the Anglican cemetery at Katanning. In 1922 Kobeelya was sold and became a private school for girls. After Frederick's death, residents commissioned sculptor P. G. Porcelli to design a larger-than-life bronze statue of him; this stands in the centre of Katanning. Piesse's estate was sworn for probate at £41,782.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • M. Bignell, A Place to Meet (Perth, 1981)
  • Critic (Adelaide), 23 Nov 1901
  • Western Argus, 21 Jan 1902.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Merle Bignell, 'Piesse, Frederick Henry (1853–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 December, 1853
Northam, Western Australia, Australia


29 June, 1912 (aged 58)

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