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Coghlan, Sir Timothy Augustine (1855–1926)

by Neville Hicks

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Timothy Augustine Coghlan (1855-1926), by unknown photographer, 1900s

Timothy Augustine Coghlan (1855-1926), by unknown photographer, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24079663

Sir Timothy Augustine Coghlan (1855-1926), statistician and public servant, was born on 9 June 1855 in Sydney, second son of Irish parents Thomas Coghlan, plasterer, and his wife Dorcas, née Jordan. He was educated at the Cleveland Street Public School, and in 1867-69 at Sydney Grammar School on a scholarship. For six months in 1870 he worked in the wool-broking office of Edward Flood. In October he became a pupil-teacher at Fort Street Public School, but resigned in December 1872; in April next year he joined the harbours and rivers navigation branch of the Department of Public Works as a cadet. Favoured by his supervisors, he advanced rapidly, becoming an assistant engineer on 1 January 1884 at £400 a year. The statistical and mathematical aspects of the work attracted him most. He became an associate member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, in 1882, but he did not regard engineering as suitable to his talents and ambition.

In 1886 Coghlan sought the patronage of (Sir) George Dibbs to obtain the new position of government statistician. His appointment in July prompted some hostile comment, and the employment of a staff of twelve created dissension and caused Dibbs's temporary resignation from the Jennings ministry. The controversy hampered Coghlan's work during the first six months. Nevertheless, that year he produced both the New South Wales Statistical Register for 1885 and a new companion Handbook to the Statistical Register. The former differed little from earlier issues, but the Handbook foreshadowed his initiatives in the elaboration and explanation of traditional statistics. The extent of these changes became clear with the issue of the first year-book, the Wealth and Progress of New South Wales, in December 1887, which revealed his ability to aggrandize New South Wales through statistics, especially in comparison with Victoria. The publications also disclosed his theories about population growth as the reflection of prosperity and the influence of economic factors upon populations—both remained consistent elements in his statistical, social and historical commentaries.

From 1888 Coghlan diversified and expanded the work of his office and his own role. His personal ambition and emphasis on the progress of New South Wales as based on free trade, generated some criticism of his work, especially from protectionists. Nevertheless, he earned an enviable Australian and international reputation, indicated by the reception of the census of 1891, in which the new classification of occupations devised by Coghlan and the Tasmanian statistician, R. M. Johnston, was adopted against the opposition of H. H. Hayter. His work attracted the attention of Mulhall in Ireland, and Giffen in England, and he became a fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, London, in 1893.

In 1887 and 1890 Coghlan was consulted about direct taxation proposals and bills relating to banking and finance companies. Later in the 1890s successive governments sought his aid in electoral reform and in local government schemes. He co-operated often beyond the provision of statistics; he was involved in Dibbs's legislation to meet the 1893 banking crisis, and in (Sir) George Reid's 1894-95 land and income tax proposals. He claimed to be the principal architect of the important Public Service Act of 1895, and in January 1896 he became one of the first members of the Public Service Board, securing a reputation for fairness and efficiency, despite criticism of retrenchments. He was also adviser on the administration of the land tax and shared in its general unpopularity. In 1892-1905 he was registrar of Friendly Societies, and in 1900-05 chairman of the Central Board for Old-Age Pensions; he was involved in several inquiries, including royal commissions into the management of the Metropolitan Water Supply and Sewerage Board (1897), on the decline of the birth rate and on the mortality of infants (1903) and on electoral districts (1904).

Coghlan contributed substantially to the public debate on the financial aspects of Federation. His insistence on safeguards for New South Wales influenced Reid and (Sir) William McMillan, and other members of the National Australasian Convention; but it alienated some 'ultra' Federationists—such as B. R. Wise—who favoured free trade, but were willing to 'sink the fiscal issue' if that would achieve Federation. Coghlan declined further public debate after Reid's declaration for Federation in March 1898; but the 'ultras' believed that his influence had helped in the defeat of the first Constitution referendum in New South Wales in 1898, and that Reid's reliance upon his advice at the premiers' meeting in January 1899 forced further concessions to New South Wales.

When Wise became attorney-general in 1899 he asked Coghlan to relinquish one of his two main offices. He responded rashly, offering his complete resignation and then refusing to indicate which position he would quit. As a result he did not resume duty as statistician until 8 January 1900. Despite the bitter controversies, new editions of his Wealth and Progress and his Statistical Account of the Seven Colonies of Australia were warmly received in London and Australia; he dominated the Conference of Statisticians held in Hobart in June 1902; and his efforts to co-ordinate the methods of compilation in all States were at least partially successful. In 1903 Sir Edmund Barton invited his comments on the proposed Federal bureau of statistics, and from October 1904 he was importuned to become Federal statistician; he finally refused in February 1906. His reasons for the rejection are still obscure, but he implied later that the State government had threatened to withdraw his pension rights if he transferred to the Commonwealth, and that he sorely regretted the loss of the Federal position.

In October 1904 (Sir) Joseph Carruthers' Liberal government took office and invited Coghlan in vain to become comptroller of finance. In December the premier commissioned him to reorganize the New South Wales agent-general's office in London. Coghlan's decision to accept an acting appointment as agent-general in 1905 (confirmed next year) may have been influenced by his personal ambitions in another direction. He had been in London in 1897 as a delegate to the Diamond Jubilee, and had been received into London society. There is some suggestion that his wife Helena (Lena) Mary, née Donnelly, whom he had married at St Patrick's Church, Sydney, on 27 April that year, found the social life congenial. During the 1897 visit Coghlan had investigated the agent-general's office on behalf of the Public Service Board and recommended changes. He had developed an interest and expertise in finance and was attracted to London as the great money market. He envisaged some responsible position in London for himself and was tempted to covet the post of high commissioner for Australia. As he had predicted in 1905, however, that position became political and he was never to achieve it or any other Federal office he sought later.

Unlike his work as government statistician, Coghlan's service as agent-general secured him little lasting fame. The position allowed him much latitude; he soon secured the co-operation of the States' agents-general, became their unofficial spokesman and played aggressively the role of general Australian representative. His ambition was encouraged, intentionally or otherwise, by Alfred Deakin who asked his advice on several problems including migration, advertising Australia and the role of the high commissioner. He was not a success in diplomacy, partly because of his own inexperience and partly because of weaknesses in the New South Wales government, compounded by friction between it and the Federal authorities. Coghlan vigorously promoted emigration and, while his methods were not universally approved, his efforts did coincide with a marked increase in migration from Great Britain to New South Wales between 1905 and 1911. He was embittered in 1912 when control of the immigration branch was put in other hands without acknowledgment of his efforts.

Coghlan's principal achievements were in finance. In 1897 he had advocated inscription of the State's stock at the agent-general's office, rather than by the Bank of England, and he continued to press for it. He tried to reduce the various loan charges imposed on New South Wales by the banks and to increase the interest given upon short-term deposits. In 1906 he at last persuaded the treasurer to issue new stock through the London County and Westminster Bank, which offered better terms than the Bank of England. In 1908 on his own authority he used the Deutsche Bank, which offered higher interest than the London County and Westminster. Many of his initiatives were nullified, either by the New South Wales government or by vested interests in London. Practically, his policies were sound, but his single-minded pursuit of the best deal alienated some London financiers, and his individualism upset his own government.

Coghlan attracted suspicion that he might be benefiting personally, at least indirectly, from some of his dealings. Friendship with various brokers influenced his advocacy of particular banks; his relations with Krupps and expectation of a directorship on the board of Siemens Bros & Co. Ltd were not unrelated to his recommendations of steel purchases from Germany. Coghlan and Raphael Bauer, broker for the London City and Midland Bank, probably profited from the 1916 contract between the New South Wales government and Norton Griffiths & Co. which Coghlan had urged from 1912. Such associations were at least ethically dubious.

Coghlan's pursuit of his own interests, especially from 1910, is understandable. His tenure was renewed for a succession of short periods with little regard for his dignity or long service—succeeded by B. R. Wise in 1915, he was acting agent-general again in 1916-17 and from 1920 (except for six months in 1925). He showed little enthusiasm for his official duties and sought directorships or other positions. His ambition, zeal for secret negotiations and self-esteem were not dead and he intervened in the constitutional struggle between the New South Wales premier J. T. Lang and governor Sir Dudley de Chair in 1926, even daring to believe that Lang would appoint him in de Chair's place.

The lasting achievement of Coghlan's years in London was a project begun while government statistician—the monumental Labour and Industry in Australia, published in 1918. This work was the culmination of his long interest in literature, socio-political issues, statistics and finance, reflected from 1874 in his contributions to the Redfern Literary Society manuscript magazine 'Phoenix', and pursued in articles written for the Suburban Times, the Bulletin, the Sydney Daily Telegraph, his numerous official publications and various monographs and addresses to learned societies. His social commentary was enriched and influenced by his observations as government statistician and his experience as a public official. His personal attitudes and the political climate were demonstrated in the area of demography—where he had publicized and provoked public discussion about an apparent dramatic decline in the New South Wales birth-rate—and in his views on fiscal and financial policies. Labour and Industry in Australia reflects the themes developed by him in the New South Wales year-books and other publications from 1887; yet he also presents a balanced view of both the specific events and general developments in which he was intimately involved. Coghlan's was a complex character, sometimes defensive, often aggressive, but in the end—like his book—authoritative.

Coghlan was awarded the Imperial Service Order in 1903, knighted in 1914 and raised to K.C.M.G. in 1918. Survived by his wife, a son and a daughter, he died in London on 30 April 1926: a funeral service was held at St Mary's, Cadogan Street, and his remains are in a mausoleum at the Catholic cemetery, Kensal Green.

Select Bibliography

  • N. Hicks, ‘This Sin and Scandal’ (Canb, 1978)
  • J. M. Cordell, T. A. Coghlan, Government Statist of New South Wales 1886-1905 (1969, privately held)
  • Coghlan papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Neville Hicks, 'Coghlan, Sir Timothy Augustine (1855–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/coghlan-sir-timothy-augustine-5708/text9651, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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