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SIR PHILIP OAKLEY FYSH, POLITICIAN & MERCHANT, TASMANIA

The 1899 long cover from the UK had a blue 2½d stamp and was addressed to the Hon. Sir Philip Oaklt Fysh KCMG, Highbury, Hobart, Tasmania. There was a ‘tombstone’ boxed ‘T’, a ms. ‘1/3', an oval handstamp '1/3d/ MORE TO PAY' as well as a boxed ‘REFUSED’ handstamp. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).

Sir Philip Oakley Fysh, politician and merchant, was born on 1 March 1835 at Highbury, near London, son of John Fysh and his wife Charlotte. He was educated at the Denmark Hill School at Islington until 13, when he began work in a London stockbroker's office. After ten years service the firm of L. Stevenson & Sons, they offered him the charge of their Hobart agency. Fysh arrived in Melbourne on board the Bombay in August 1859, and settled in Tasmania at the end of that year. Accompanying him were his wife Esther, whom he had married on 14 October 1856 at Luton, and their new-born son. In 1862, amid widespread depression, Fysh purchased his employer's wholesale agency, and within a few years, trading as P. O. Fysh & Co., general merchants, became the leading wholesale businessman in Hobart. He retired from the management in 1894.

In June 1866 Fysh won election to the Legislative Council on a progressive policy of economic development. Fysh represented Hobart in the Council until 1869 and Buckingham in 1870-73. During this time he advocated railway development and taxation on incomes, and came to be regarded as one of the most promising politicians of the day. Fysh moved to the House of Assembly in August 1873, winning the seat of East Hobart. Fysh's main task was to secure the passage of an income tax bill through parliament, but, although a 'fluent and ornate speaker' and a clever tactician, he was defeated by the dominant landowning group.

In August 1877 Fysh formed his first government, and it was not especially noteworthy. In March next year ill health forced him to resign. He served in the W.R. Giblin ministry until November, and spent the next eighteen months holidaying in England with his family. He returned to Tasmania and after several years expanding his business, Fysh in 1884 re-entered the Legislative Council as member for Buckingham. He was constructive in identifying platforms which the liberals could adopt, and in stimulating public debate.

In March 1887 Fysh again became premier. His cabinet, with himself as chief secretary, included Andrew Clark and (Sir) Edward Braddon: in their efforts to reform the social and political structure of the colony they brought a new character to Tasmanian politics. Legislation was introduced to regulate health, employment and charitable institutions. In addition, trade unions were legalized, a technical education scheme established and provision made for the creation of a university. The government lacked the resolve to press parliament to pass manhood suffrage, and was unable to deal with the onset of economic depression. It fell in August 1892.

Despite the defeat of his government, Fysh continued in politics. When the liberal faction returned to power in April 1894 under Braddon's leadership Fysh, newly elected to the Legislative Assembly for North Hobart, served until December 1898 as treasurer and postmaster-general. During the 1890s, also, he was active in the Federal movement. In May 1892, while still premier, he visited mainland colonies to discuss intercolonial customs reciprocity. His commitment to Federation at this time and later was motivated by his belief that it offered the only solution to Tasmania's economic problems. He represented the colony at the Federal conventions of 1891 and 1897-98 and was a member of the Federal Council of Australasia in 1895 and 1897. Moreover, while in London as Tasmania's agent-general in 1899-1901, Fysh joined with Barton, Deakin and Kingston in securing final British approval for the Commonwealth Constitution Bill.

With the establishment of the Commonwealth, Fysh entered Federal politics as minister without portfolio in 1901-03, and postmaster-general in 1903-04. As member for Denison during the last years of his political career he was forced into the role of a conservative in response to the growing influence of the Labor Party, whose creed he abhorred. He retired from politics in 1910 and farmed in the Derwent Valley.

Tall and willowy, Fysh was an impressive figure with his flowing white beard. Always a private man, he left very little of a personal nature on record. His keen sense of public responsibility, however, is shown in his involvement with numerous community organizations. He held the rank of major in the Tasmanian Volunteer Rifle Regiment. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1896, an honour he had declined in 1891; he received an honorary Oxford D.C.L. in 1901. He died on 20 December 1919 at Lower Sandy Bay, survived by five sons and four daughters, his wife having predeceased him in 1912. Over many years he had few equals as a democrat and reformer in Tasmanian politics. A picture of Sir Philip Fysh is seen in Figure 2.

I acknowledge that this paper was abstracted from the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

 
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