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Sir John Russell French (1847–1921)

John French, n.d.

John French, n.d.

from Pastoral Review, 16 July 1921

Through the death on the 30th ult. of Sir John Russell French, general manager of the Bank of New South Wales, Australia has lost a great citizen, who for the last quarter of a century has rightly been regarded as its foremost banker. Though indisposed during the previous weekend Sir John, with typical devotion to his work, insisted on attending the meeting of his board of directors held on the Tuesday prior to his end; so practically died at his post. This we believe is just as he himself would have chosen.

The son of a major in the Indian Army young French came to Australia with his parents at the age of 11. Joining the service of the Bank of New South Wales in 1863 at the early age of 15, he quickly displayed unusual ability in the discharge of his duties, and won rapid promotion. In 1867 he was appointed accountant Wagga Wagga, and it was here that he first came into direct official touch with country interests, and became familiar with the large cattle bills current in those days. After a time as accountant at Goulburn and acting manager at Crookwell, he was selected in 1872 to take up a position on the inspecting staff in New Zealand. During an extensive New Zealand experience, which involved much rough travelling under rigorous conditions, Mr. French came into direct contact with a great deal of pioneer work, and saw many stages in the development of that great country. He saw, too, the effect of the heavy borrowing policy adopted in New Zealand in the '70s, and in the attendant period of inflation and deflation had much important work to carry out on behalf of his bank. Blessed with remarkable powers of observation and retention, Mr. French reaped the full benefit of the lessons to be learnt therefrom, and when he was summoned back to Australia as an inspector in 1887 he returned as a proved man. His appointment as chief inspector followed in 1891, and it was in that position that he rendered signal assistance to the directors and general manager (Mr. George Miller) in the crisis of 1893. On the 1st July, 1894, he succeeded to the position of general manager, which high office he held for exactly 27 years. During this period of control the aggregate figures of the balance-sheet of the Bank of New South Wales increased from 23 millions to 73 millions. Sir John was the last man to claim for himself full credit for this remarkable expansion, but the movement is of great interest if only as an indicator of the increased responsibility which he carried with such success.

Despite the heavy cares attached to his official post Sir John Russell French took a very active part in all public movements, and particularly those of a patriotic and philanthropic nature. Among many high positions which he had held were president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce, director of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and president of the Institute of Bankers of New South Wales, while he was hon. treasurer and financial adviser to innumerable movements. He was a member of the Walter and Eliza Hall Trust from its inception, and took particular interest in its operations. As a prominent churchman and as a lay canon of St. Andrew's Cathedral, he did much service, and was long recognised as the financial counsellor to the Sydney diocese.

In October 1918 he was created a Knight of the British Empire in well-merited recognition of his eminent services to the Commonwealth.

In his relationship with those engaged in the pastoral industries, Sir John displayed a keen and intelligent interest, backed by a full measure of practical sympathy. While sedulously resisting claims for the use of the bank's funds for speculative purposes, he had great faith in the recuperative powers of the land, and where possible was always ready to assist country clients in times of drought or other stress. In such cases he attached great importance to the character and capacity of the client concerned. In his quick grasp of the salient points of any country proposition, ranging from the large cattle runs of the north to 'the small areas of closer settlement, he exhibited remarkable all-round knowledge of the problems and vicissitudes faced by the man on the land. In this, as in all other directions, Sir John, by keen intercourse with his fellow men, and extensive reading, kept himself well posted in the latest conditions and methods. Though of late years he seldom moved far from his headquarters, he preserved a real affection for outdoor Australia, and had an intimate knowledge of our native flora.

Needless to say, Sir John's advice upon financial affairs was constantly sought by the Governments of the day, both Federal and State, and it is significant that he was held in equal respect by men of widely divergent political thought.

At the funeral service, which took place at St. Andrew's Cathedral on Saturday, 2nd instant, there was a large and most representative congregation, including leaders in every walk of our national life, and from far and wide messages have been received paying high tribute to the memory of this great man.

The late Sir John Russell French is survived by Lady French, two sons and one daughter. The eldest son is W. R. French, manager of the Castlereagh-street branch of the Bank of New South Wales, and the second son is Major Bernard French, D.S.O., of the Munster Fusiliers. The only daughter —Mrs. Finlayson, wife of Commander Finlayson, R.N, is at present in Sydney with her three children.

Original publication

Citation details

'French, Sir John Russell (1847–1921)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

John French, n.d.

John French, n.d.

from Pastoral Review, 16 July 1921

Life Summary [details]


5 March, 1847
Mirzapore, Bengal, Bangladesh


30 June, 1921 (aged 74)
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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