Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mason, Francis Conway (1843–1915)

by Barry Collett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Francis Conway Mason (1843-1915), politician, was born on 21 February 1843 in County Fermanagh, Ireland, fourth son of John Mason, farmer, and his wife Ann, née Conway. Educated in Ireland and at St John's Wood, London, he was employed at the East India docks before he migrated to Melbourne about 1863. He was a schoolmaster, probably in a naval training ship, and living at Lygon Street when at the Church of St Francis on 30 July 1868 he married Henrietta Emily (1847-1936), daughter of William Dove; she was born in Hobart Town.

For some time Mason was an official visitor of metropolitan lunatic asylums and then turned to politics. He unsuccessfully contested the Avoca by-election in July 1870, and next February opposed the attorney-general, Archibald Michie, for the seat of South Gippsland. The young newcomer spent six weeks in 'prosecuting his canvass energetically'; handsome and charming, he carefully made personal contact with many voters. He stressed that, unlike Michie, he would be able to devote 'the whole of his time' to representing South Gippslanders and knew the needs of the electorate for which he advocated specific and detailed proposals. He defeated the attorney-general by 180 votes to 150. He was defeated in 1877 but returned next year. Defeated again in 1886 he was re-elected in 1889. He supported Sir Graham Berry's policies on protection and the Constitution, voting with him in the crisis of 1878, and the attack on the constitutional reforms of the Service government. Mason also advocated legislative and financial assistance for selectors in difficult country, for whose problems he had much understanding. He kept in close touch with his constituents and often performed small errands for them in the metropolis.

Venal in a genial way, Mason was subject to rumours about his private life and criticism for failure to pay gambling debts. For the sake of both the electorate and himself he traded votes for public works with Thomas Bent; on 17 September 1894 the deal was exposed by the Age to defeat Bent. Mason did everything in his power to have the railway in South Gippsland extended and managed to have it routed beside his property. As a vice-president of the 1889-91 royal commission on coal, he spent excessive time on the possibilities of the meagre Foster coal deposits. He supported the Gillies government's railway bill of 1890, but when it was laid aside he crossed the floor to support Munro and Shiels. When Shiels formed a government in April 1892 Mason became chairman of committees by 'judicious canvassing'. He excelled in his new post. His capacity for exact analysis, concise expression, knowledge of parliamentary procedures and great tact enabled him to expedite the business of the bitterly contested tariff reform bill with a skill that earned admiration even from his opponents. Meanwhile he made it his business to 'feel his way among the members', and gained sufficient support to win election as Speaker after Berry lost his seat in October 1897.

Mason enjoyed immensely the eminence and the execution of his office. The House was in a period of decorum and he could look forward to the customary knighthood. Beatrice Webb described him as a 'worthy but vulgar individual' who had 'tried on three different occasions to entice Sidney to have a drink'. As Speaker he read the prorogation of 10 September 1902 after the unexpected defeat of the Irvine government. This formality was his 'political death warrant' as it was for many country members. While Speaker he had neglected his electorate and was defeated in the ensuing election. Although an active Catholic he was only slightly affected by his religion in parliament. He retired from politics and engaged in minor public works. He was not knighted, the first Speaker not to be so honoured, but was given a State funeral after he died at his home in South Yarra on 19 June 1915. He was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery with Roman Catholic rites. His wife, two sons and two married daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Webb, The Webbs' Australian Diary, 1898, A. G. Austin ed (Melb, 1965)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1869, 2 (D8-10), 1890, 4 (168, 213), 1892-93, 1 (D2, D5)
  • Avoca Mail, 23, 30 July 1870
  • Gippsland Times, 10 Jan 1871
  • Federal Australian, 10 May 1883, supplement
  • Table Talk, 7 Oct 1892
  • Herald (Melbourne), 19 June 1915
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 June 1915
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 June 1915.

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