The printed to private order envelope of Victoria with the printed purple head of QV stamp ‘TWO PENCE STAMP DUTY’ is cancelled by an unframed EUROA/ JE 7/ 00/ VICTORIA postmark. It was addressed to The Hon. Sir J.P. ABBOTT, K.C.M.G., Australian Mutual Provident Society, 87 PITT STREET. SYDNEY. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).
Joseph Palmer Abbott was born on 29 September 1842 at Muswellbrook, New South Wales, son of John Kingsmill Abbott, squatter, and his wife Frances Amanda. He went to the Church of England school at Muswellbrook, at 9 to John Armstrong’s school at Redfern, then to J. R. Huston’s Surry Hills Academy and to The King’s School, Parramatta. In 1857 he returned to the family station Glengarry, near Wingen on the Upper Hunter, where his mother had gone from Muswellbrook in 1847 on the death of his father.
In 1865 he was admitted a solicitor and set up practice with G. Pilcher in West Maitland but soon returned to Murrurundi where for fifteen years he specialized in the land cases that resulted from John Robertson’s 1861 Land Acts. In 1872 he was appointed commissioner of the Supreme Court of New South Wales for the circuit district of Maitland. He soon won renown as an expert in land law and for his interest in the intricate nexus between land and politics as the squatter-selector conflict became more complicated after the formation of free selectors’ associations.
In 1880 he moved to Sydney and founded the firm of Abbott & Allan. He also decisively renewed his interest in politics by winning the new seat of Gunnedah in the Legislative Assembly. In the next tumultuous decade Abbott played a leading role in major changes in land and fiscal legislation, parliamentary procedure, and the structure of politics. In the 1870s he had started a warm personal correspondence with Parkes and on his election was regarded as a supporter of the Parkes-Robertson coalition, but he was strongly opposed to Robertson’s outmoded land views, which Parkes passively accepted as government policy, and gradually separated politically from Parkes. This partly accounted for his later change from free trade to protection. In December 1881 he declined Parkes’s offer of a stipendiary magistracy for the City of Sydney: In the 1880s he was one of the leading private members responsible for filling the gap made by the shortcomings of several cabinets in initiating and carrying legislation through both Houses; he introduced fifty-two bills, including nineteen as a minister. He was concerned with reform in medical administration; his valuable 1881 Hospital Acts Amendment Act led to his appointment as an honorary life governor of several hospitals.
Abbott had a lawyer’s objective view of the land problem: he favoured remission of interest on conditional purchases. Abbott had a lawyer’s objective view of the land problem: he favoured remission of interest on conditional purchases and sought reform in the auctioning of crown lands by means of refined amendments, the establishment of local boards and a land court.
Abbott had carefully watched the trend to new fiscal policies in 1885-86. He realized that new sources of income were necessary and gradually came to consider that customs duties were the best. When the Protection Union, formed on 10 November 1886, persuaded him to preside at a great demonstration in the Sydney Domain on 13 November he had not renounced his free trade views. In January 1887 he became depressed by the constant political crises and decided to retire from politics.
In the general election he did not contest Gunnedah but was returned without his consent to Wentworth, a large pastoral and mining electorate in the far south-west of New South Wales. Abbott was elected leader of the Opposition on 9 March; he resigned on 19 May because he supported, against his followers, Parkes’s plan to reduce obstruction by reforming the standing orders. Abbott then became the virtual leader of a third group, nicknamed ‘the law and order party’. Increasingly he deprecated partisan politics and sought to restore his relations with Parkes. In the 1889 elections he failed to win East Sydney, but earlier had been elected unopposed at Wentworth. He was now recognized as a senior statesman with national objectives. As representative of an electorate where the futility of intercolonial border duties was obvious, he became more certain that customs policy was irrelevant to colonial politics. He became an influential federationist as his fiscal views were modified.
Abbott was now able to exert pressure for Federation and parliamentary reform. His great influence, exerted indirectly for the most part, stemmed from his personal prestige and outstanding record of disinterested achievement. In parliament he consolidated the forces of reform. By 1893 he had intercolonial repute as an authority on parliamentary procedure. In 1900 he resigned as Speaker and retired from parliament in 1901. He had been appointed K.B. in 1892 and K.C.M.G. in 1895.
In 1891 Abbott was a New South Wales delegate at the National Australasian [Federation] Convention where he was an efficient chairman of committees. In 1892-96 he continued his quiet but effective work for Federation and was elected a delegate to the 1897-98 Federal Convention. Although unable to play a leading role because of a heart condition, he contributed a reasoned analysis in favour of the Privy Council as the ultimate Court of Appeal. A picture of J.P. Abbott is seen in Figure 2.
A tall and commanding figure, he was generous and tolerant with a lively sense of fun behind a dignified and sometimes frosty exterior. Like most conservative politicians Abbott was a member of the Union Club where political matters were often discussed. In 1886 Abbott had become a director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and as chairman of the board in 1891-1900, travelled extensively on society business. In 1873 at West Maitland Abbott married Matilda Elizabeth, daughter of Dr Michael Macartney and Matilda Laird. She died in 1880, leaving two sons and a daughter. In 1883 at East Maitland he married Edith, daughter of James Solomon, merchant, and Emma, née Singleton; they had one son and three daughters. Abbott died on 15 September 1901, and was buried in the Church of England section of the Waverley cemetery.
This paper was taken from a much longer biography in The Australian Dictionary of Biography.