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Frank Wilson (1859–1918)

by David Black

This article was published:

Frank Wilson (1859-1918), by unknown photographer, 1910

Frank Wilson (1859-1918), by unknown photographer, 1910

State Library of Western Australia, 008881D

Frank Wilson (1859-1918), businessman and premier, was born on 12 May 1859 at Monkwearmouth, Durham, England, son of John Wilson, timber merchant, and his wife Sarah Martha, née Walker, who died soon after Frank's birth. Educated at Sunderland, at a Moravian college in Germany and at Wesley College, Sheffield, he was apprenticed to a Sunderland timber merchant and shipbroker. At 19, Frank joined his elder brother in establishing an engineering works at Sunderland. On 25 May 1880, at the local Whitburn Street Chapel, Wilson married Annie Phillips with Wesleyan Methodist forms. Following a strike by engineers, in 1886 he migrated to Queensland where he operated his own business before being appointed manager of A. Overend & Co. Ltd, railway contractors, flour-millers and machinery merchants in Brisbane.

Moving to Western Australia as managing director (1891-99) of the Canning Jarrah Timber Co., Wilson also became a mining agent and a director of Fremantle Gas & Coke Co. Ltd, Eureka Milling Co. and the Perth Brick Co. After a spell with the Jarrah Wood & Sawmills Co., he turned his interest to coal-mining and was to remain associated with Collie Coalfields Pty Co. Ltd as a substantial shareholder and, by the time of his death, managing director. President (1899-1902) of the Perth Chamber of Commerce, he was sometime president of the Timber Merchants' and Sawmillers' Association, as well as of the Coalowners' Association of Western Australia which he established.

A Perth City councillor (1896-99), Wilson was elected to the Legislative Assembly for the seat of Canning in 1897; he had campaigned against Sir John Forrest's government on such issues as the proposed Coolgardie water scheme, Federation and high customs duties on food. After an electoral redistribution, Wilson was returned for Perth in 1901. Having voted consistently with George Leake's administration, he accepted appointment as minister for mines and commissioner of railways under A. E. Morgans who supplanted Leake on 21 November: this about-face contributed to Wilson's defeat with two other ministers in the ensuing ministerial by-elections. He unsuccessfully contested Claremont in a 1902 by-election, but in June 1904, while serving as employers' representative in the Arbitration Court, won Sussex as an Independent. In August 1905 he became minister for works in (Sir) Cornthwaite Rason's newly formed Liberal government. Before stepping down in May 1906, Rason had recommended Wilson as his successor, but the latter could not obtain sufficient support and became deputy premier, holding the treasury, education and agriculture portfolios under (Sir) Newton Moore. Wilson was responsible for legislation introducing income and land taxation, and for the establishment of Perth Modern School (on the initiative of Cecil Andrews); he temporarily lost favour during a financial recession and was demoted to the works portfolio in June 1909. When Moore resigned for health reasons in September 1910, Wilson became premier and colonial treasurer.

Wilson's first term as premier produced legislation to establish the University of Western Australia and preferential voting, but a controversial electoral redistribution failed to prevent a landslide loss in October 1911 to the Labor Party led by John Scaddan. While visiting England to attend the coronation of King George V, Wilson had been granted the freedom of the city of Sunderland. Appointed C.M.G. in 1911, he was a member (1911-16) of the senate of the University of Western Australia, and vice-president and president of the Liberal League in 1912-14. The formation of the Country Party in 1914 hampered his efforts to defeat Scaddan and, although the government lost its majority in late 1915, it was not until July 1916 that Wilson formed his second ministry. Still plagued by the Country Party, at one stage he offered his resignation. In June 1917 he and his close colleague (Sir) James Mitchell were ousted from office as a result of manoeuvres associated with the formation of the wartime National coalition ministry. Wilson, who had strongly backed the war effort as president of the National Referendum Council, was by then gravely ill. He lost his seat by four votes to a Country Party candidate in October 1917. Survived by his wife, three sons and six daughters, he died of cancer on 7 December 1918 at his Claremont home and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £16,523.

Strong and stubborn, Wilson had a quick mind and did not suffer fools gladly; he attracted opposition from Labor and some in his own party for his conservatism and for the potential conflict of interest between his political and business dealings. A measure of opportunism and lack of political acumen hindered his parliamentary career, but he was a very successful businessman and a prominent figure in the community. Notable for his publicly avowed moral values, he was a loyal friend and a much-loved father.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Kimberly (ed), History of West Australia (Melb, 1897)
  • C. P. Bryan, Frank Wilson esq (Perth, 1912)
  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vols 1-2 (Adel, 1912, 1913)
  • A. R. Grant, Memories of Parliament (Perth, 1937)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • Royal Commission on the Collie Coalfields, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Western Australia), 1905, 2 (9), p 271
  • West Australian, 19 Nov 1895, 2, 19 Apr 1897, 9, 10 Dec 1918
  • L. B. McIntyre, The Development of Trade Unionism in Western Australia and the Operation of Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration, 1900-1914 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1972)
  • F. D. Adams, A Biography of Sir Newton James Moore with Special Reference to his Role in Western Australian Politics (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1973)
  • D. W. Black, The National Party in Western Australia, 1917-1930: Its Origins and Development with an Introductory Survey of ‘Liberal’ Party Organisation, 1901-1916 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1974)
  • scrapbook of newsclippings relating to F. Wilson's time in office, 1911 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

David Black, 'Wilson, Frank (1859–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Frank Wilson (1859-1918), by unknown photographer, 1910

Frank Wilson (1859-1918), by unknown photographer, 1910

State Library of Western Australia, 008881D

Life Summary [details]


12 May, 1859
Monkwearmouth, Durham, England


7 December, 1918 (aged 59)
Claremont, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

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