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Sir William Henry Fancourt Mitchell (1811–1884)

We regret to have to announce the death of the Hon. Sir William Henry Fancourt Mitchell, the President of the Legislative Council, which occurred at his residence, Barfold, near Kyneton, about 5 o'clock yesterday afternoon. Our Kyneton correspondent telegraphs that Sir William arrived from Melbourne on Saturday, and was seized with an attack of illness on Sunday morning. Drs. Langford and Duncan, of Kyneton, were summoned, and when they left him at about a quarter to 4 yesterday afternoon, although they considered his condition to be dangerous, they had no anticipation that the end was so near. The immediate cause of death is ascribed by the medical men to failure of the heart's action supervening upon acute gastritis, caused by eating poisonous fish on the Saturday. The news of the event will take the public by surprise, and more especially the political world. Sir Wm. Mitchell has been infirm for some years past. In consequence of severe gout he was compelled to use crutches, and this circumstance, and his advanced age, for he was 73 years old, have naturally now and again caused his associates to realise that his further days were not likely to be much prolonged, but still there was nothing to induce any immediate alarm. The intellect remained wonderfully clear and unimpaired, and on Thursday last, in the Legislative Council, the President was cheerful and vigorous, equal, apparently, to any responsibility, and certainly no one then suspected for a moment that the termination of the long connexion between the Upper House and the hon. gentleman was nigh at hand.

Sir William Mitchell was one of our earliest colonists. He arrived in Victoria in 1840, coming, as most of our settlers did in those days, from Tasmania. He was born in England, his father being the Rev. George Barkley Mitchell, vicar of St. Mary's and All Saints', Leicester, but he left England at an early age, and spent his youth in Tasmania. He entered the Government service, and was at one time Acting Colonial Secretary in the island colony. On arriving in Victoria he devoted himself to pastoral pursuits in the Kyneton and Mount Macedon districts, and of late years he has held a large landed interest there. At the time of his death he was also chairman of the important firm of R. Goldsbrough and Co. Limited. His first appearance in public life was in 1852, when he was appointed by Sir Charles Hotham to a seat in the old Legislative Council, but he soon undertook more active work. Consequent upon the discoveries of the gold-fields, the police force then in existence proved utterly inadequate for its work, and the task of reorganising it was entrusted to Mr. Mitchell. Here he made his mark. He introduced the cadet system, and by inducing a superior class of young men to join he was soon able to overtake the work, and to put down bushranging, and to provide for the safe escort of the gold from the diggings to Melbourne. Mr. Mitchell made the Victorian trooper very much what he is to-day, when he struck the attention of Mr. Howard Vincent as the model, in appearance and smartness, of what country policeman should be. He did not hold the office long, private affairs calling him to Europe, but the great value of the work which he performed has always been recognised. On the inauguration of the constitution in 1856, Mr. Mitchell sought for a seat in the Legislative Council and was elected for the North Western Province. For six months he represented (without office) the first Haines Ministry in the Upper House. On the formation of the second Haines Ministry, he received the appointment of Postmaster-General, and he was re-elected for the North Western Province, notwithstanding a stout opposition was offered to him by Mr. Hector Norman Simson. As Postmaster-General, Mr. Mitchell again showed much administrative ability, and is credited, not with a re-organisation, but with a creation, of the department. He was its first political head. In October, 1858, when the first biennial elections for the Council occurred, Mr. Mitchell was defeated by Dr. Wilkie, but he was only out of Parliament for a few months. A vacancy occurred in the representation of the province. Mr. Mitchell was returned unopposed, and he retained the seat ever afterwards. He took office in 1861 as Minister of Railways in the O'Shanassy-Haines Administration of the day. It may be said indeed that there was a Haines-Mitchell alliance, for whenever there was a Haines Government in existence Mr. Mitchell was its representative in the Council. He fully justified this selection, for it is admitted that the House was never better led than it was by the hon. gentleman when he was in his prime.

The hon. gentleman did not again hold Ministerial office, but he served the Legislative Council in other capacities. When Sir James Palmer, the first President of the Council, visited England in 1861, it was thought by many that Mr. Mitchell would have been his locum tenens. At all events, Mr. Mitchell ran Mr. Hervey very close in the election of Acting President. He was Chairman of Committees during the sessions of 1869 and 1870; and when (in May, 1870) Sir James Palmer was compelled by illness to discontinue his attendance in Parliament, Mr. Mitchell was called upon, from the position he held, to take the post of President without opposition. He held it until his death without his right being questioned. In 1875, in consideration of his high position and his long services to the state, he received the honour of knighthood.

In every way the hon. gentleman was thoroughly identified with the Chamber to which he belonged. When the privileges of the Council were in question, the House had no more zealous advocate. He resisted the action of the first McCulloch Government in connexion with the Appropriation-cum-Tariff Bill, and he was resolute again in reference to the Darling grant, though he showed himself anxious, by means of conference and in other ways, to remove the differences which existed for a lengthened period between the two Houses. He protested from time to time against the form of preamble adopted by the Legislative Assembly in the case of supply bills, and he consistently advocated, as a means of facilitating Parliamentary business, that some of the bills promoted by the Government of the day should be initiated in the Upper House.

The measure of legislation with which the name of the hon. gentleman will be chiefly identified is the act passed in the session of 1868 altering the constitution of the Legislative Council. The subject was considered by select committees, of which he was chairman, in the sessions of 1866, 1867, and 1868, and the principal recommendations of those committees—namely, the reduction by one-half of the qualification both of members and electors, and the requiring from every member each session of a declaration of his qualification—were embodied in the law of 1868. When the reform crisis of 1878-9 occurred, Sir Wm. Mitchell was an ardent advocate of the policy of working on the same lines. At this period, his zeal placed him in front of the battle. The quarrel between the two Houses on that occasion commenced with the laying aside of the Appropriation Bill containing the vote for payment of members. Sir George Bowen endeavoured to negotiate with and to influence the Council, and a correspondence between himself and the President was published of an unfriendly character. The episode was one of the events of the crisis. This quarrel was forced upon Sir William Mitchell. Otherwise, it must be said of him, that he sought and found "peace with honour."

As President of the Council, Sir Wm. Mitchell had the friendship and the respect of the members of successive houses. He was somewhat rigorous in rule, not allowing an approach to disorder, but he so governed that there is not an instance of his decisions being questioned or protested against. Considering the fierce and important struggles the Council passed through with success under his auspices, it would be vain to deny the President the possession of a clear insight and a conspicuous courage. His rectitude in the chair was unquestionable, no one ever suspecting him of leaning to friend or foe. Privately he was highly esteemed, and for those who delight in early colonial reminiscences it was a treat to hear him discourse of such incidents as the Nelson gold robbery, in the unravelling of which he played an active part, or of the difficulties of the General Post-office, or of the curious scenes of our early parliamentary history. As a Government officer, a Minister, and the official head of the Legislature, Sir William Mitchell was equally successful. He died at last with many friends, much of honour, and with "harness on his back."

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Citation details

'Mitchell, Sir William Henry Fancourt (1811–1884)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 16 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


Leicester, Leicestershire, England


24 February, 1884 (aged ~ 73)
Kyneton, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

food poisoning

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