The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Angas, George Fife

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Angas, George Fife, J.P., was the seventh son of Caleb Angas, of Newcastle-on-Tyne, a coachbuilder, merchant and shipowner in a largo way of business in that town, where he was born on May 1st, 1789. The family was of Scotch origin, and the first of its representatives to settle on Tyneside was one Alexander Angus, about the year 1584. This Alexander, from whom Caleb was fifth in lineal descent, ultimately located himself at Raw House, near Hexham, in Northumberland, where his descendants were farmers for several generations. It was John Angus, of Scotland, Hexham, the grandfather of the subject of this notice, who first changed the spelling of the family name from Angus to Angas. Caleb Angas wished his son on leaving school to embrace the legal profession; but he preferred entering his father's business, and was duly apprenticed to the coachbuilding, working his way through the various grades of the craft, and ultimately supplementing his local experience by serving as a journeyman in a London factory, which he left in 1809 to assume the oversight of his father's establishment Shortly after his return to Newcastle he was admitted a member of the Baptist Church, a religious body to whose tenets he ever afterwards remained attached. Mr. Angas married, on April 8th, 1812, Rosetta, daughter of Mr. French, of Hutton. His father's firm was largely interested in the trade of British Honduras, where they had an agency, and from whence they were large importers of mahogany and dyewoods. Mr. Angas, at an early period, took a deep interest in the welfare of the Indian aborigines, who, in defiance of the law, were held in slavery, and deprived of all means of improvement and civilisation. Mainly through his persevering efforts their freedom was assured, and means of instruction provided by the establishment of missions. Mr. Angas also took a deep interest in educational matters at home, and was one of the founders of the Newcastle Sunday School Union, a history of the successful operations of which body was many years later (1869) published at his expense. In 1823 Mr. Angas became greatly impressed with the importance to British interests of cutting a canal through the Isthmus of Darien, on the lines recently adopted by the Nicaragua Canal Company. In the result, however, the scheme dropped through, as far as any practical action on Mr. Angas's part was concerned. A project for the establishment of a society for promoting Christianity and civilisation through the medium of commercial, scientific and professional agency was also mooted in 1825 by Mr. Angas, who thought that trade and evangelisation should go hand in hand; but this scheme, too, had to be dropped from want of encouragement on the part of the mercantile community. About this time the foreign trade of the firm rendered it necessary to open an office in London, and Mr. Angas, who had been for some time in partnership with his father and brothers, removed to the south, in order to superintend the working of the new departure. His capacity and resources were strained to the uttermost by the commercial panic of 1826, and at the end of that year he retired from connection with the coachbuilding establishment at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and carried on a distinct mercantile and shipping business, under the style of "G. F. Angas & Co.," of London, and "Angas & Co.," of Newcastle-on-Tyne. He was strongly interested in the reform agitation, and when the passage of the bill of 1832 was assured he was pressed to stand for his native town, and subsequently for the borough of Sunderland. Both these invitations he, however, declined. In 1833 Mr. Angas took an active part in founding the National Provincial Bank of England, of which his cousin, Mr. Joplin, was the originator. Of this eminently successful concern Mr. Angas was for three years a director, resigning his seat on the board in 1836, when, having taken up his residence at Dawlish, in Devonshire, he desired to restrict his commercial responsibilities in London as far as possible to his own business. In the meantime Mr. Angas had prospered in his various concerns, and became a wealthy man. In the year 1829 Mr. Robert Gouger formed the idea of founding the colony of South Australia, on the principles of Edward Gibbon Wakefield, but the project did not get beyond the appointment of a provisional committee. Two years later Mr. Gouger recurred to his previous design, and formulated a scheme for starting a "South Australian Land Company." Of the provisional committee of this company, Mr. Angas, who had all along been an ardent advocate of emigration and colonisation, became a member, and subscribed for a sufficient number of shares to qualify himself as a director. His first steps were to enter a protest against paupers being sent out, to express the hope that the appointment of a governor would be left in the hands of the Company until the population reached 10,000, and secured a Legislative Assembly, and that "Bible truth should be given unfettered, and without State aid." In the event of his associates not approving of these views, he begged that his name might be struck out of the list of promoters. As the colonisation scheme shaped itself more clearly in his mind, the platform of Mr. Angas was enlarged, and he stood out for the following distinctive points: 1. The exclusion of convicts; 2. The concentration of the settlers; 3. The taking out of persons of capital and intelligence, and especially men of piety; 4. The emigration of young couples of good character; 5. Free trade, free government, and freedom in matters of religion. Though the prospects at first appeared favourable, the minister of the day, Lord Goderich, ultimately declined to adopt the draft charter submitted to him, or to suggest an alternative scheme; with the result that the second attempt to found the colony fell to the ground, and Mr. Angas made up his mind not to take part in any future attempts to settle South Australia. Events were, however, too strong for him, for in 1834, spurred on by the indefatigable Mr. Gouger, a number of influential public and commercial men formed themselves into "The South Australian Association," with Mr. W. W. Whitmore, M.P., as chairman, and Mr. George Grote, M.P., as treasurer. The new combination succeeded in securing the passing of an Act constituting the colony of South Australia, and conferring the power of disposing of the lands of the territory on a Board of Commissioners to be appointed under it Mr. Angas, at the request of Mr. Gouger, consented to join the Board if the Government approved; and in May 1835 the names of himself and his colleagues were gazetted, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Rowland Hill becoming secretary to the Commissioners. Amongst other things the Act stipulated that £35,000 worth of land must be disposed of, and a loan of £20,000 raised, with the view of guaranteeing the Home Government against possible outlay, before the colony could occupied, or the Commissioners exercise their powers. Mr. Angas insisted that the only way in which these conditions could be satisfied would be by forming a joint stock company, to buy the stipulated quantity of land and take over the whole of the pecuniary responsibility. To this the majority of the Commissioners could not at first be induced to assent; but, all other methods proving fruitless, they, after a prolonged period of indecision and delay, allowed Mr. Angas to have his way. He, with two others, agreed to find the necessary purchase-money, on condition that the price of the land was reduced to 12s. per acre from 20s., at which it had been fixed. This was agreed to, the Company was formed, and the £35,000 worth of land was then transferred to them at cost price, Mr. Angas being appointed chairman of the first Board of Directors. This was the origin of the South Australian Company, which started in Oct. 1835 with a capital of £200,000. Mr. Angas now found that the Government considered the duties of a commissioner and of a director of the Company incompatible. As, however, his colleagues on both boards were desirous of retaining his services, Lord Glenelg was interviewed upon the matter, but ultimately decided, with great reluctance, that if Mr. Angas remained a director of the Company he could not continue a member of the Board of Commissioners. He thought, however, that there could be no objection to Mr. Angas remaining on the Board of Commissioners till his successor was appointed, or for a limited period, say of three months. This decision Mr. Angas accepted, and then resigned in Dec. 1836. In the meantime the success of the Company's operations was almost wholly due to the individual energy of Mr. Angas, under whose auspices the first shiploads of emigrants were despatched in Feb. 1836, the colony being proclaimed by Captain Hindmarsh, the first Governor, in December following. At Mr. Angas's suggestion, and almost entirely on the lines he sketched out, a banking department was instituted, and proved of immense use in affording financial facilities to the early settlers. In 1841 the department (again at Mr. Angas's instigation) was formed into a separate concern, with the title of the "South Australian Banking Company," which latter was in 1867 again transmogrified into the "Bank of South Australia." In 1837 Mr. Angas became one of the founders of the Union Bank of Australia, and was the first chairman of the Board of Directors, all of whom were appointed on his personal selection. Amongst the stipulations in the deed of settlement of the Union Bank was one restricting them from opening a branch in South Australia without the assent of the South Australian Company. In the same and the next year Mr. Angas laid the foundation of German emigration to South Australia by advancing a large sum of money to enable several hundreds of Prussian Lutherans to seek refuge in the new colony from the persecution with which they were threatened, in consequence of their opposition to the Government scheme for uniting the Reformed and Lutheran Churches. In 1838 Mr. Angas cautioned the British Government against the danger of having New Zealand exposed to the risk of a French annexation; and, as the result of his expostulations, Captain Hobson, R.N., was sent out to treat with the natives for the acceptance of the Queen's sovereignty only just in time to avert the action on the part of the French Government which Mr. Angas had foreseen. For the next few years Mr. Angas was plunged in financial embarrassments, owing, in a large degree, to the unauthorised action of his confidential agent, Mr. Flaxman, who had gone out with the first batch of German emigrants, in buying considerable tracts of Land in South Australia, and then drawing on his employer for large sums to meet the purchase-money. Just at the pressing moment the German emigrants, to whom he looked for partial relief, failed to pay up the instalments of the money advanced them as stipulated, and thus added greatly to their benefactor's difficulties. Amidst his own distresses he was, however, able to lend a helping hand to South Australia when her affairs became involved, through the dishonour of Governor Gawler's drafts on the Home Government; it being greatly owing to his exposition of her resources and prospects before the select committee which was appointed, that the Imperial authorities were induced to come to the assistance of the nascent colony. Mr. Angas was, in the meantime, indefatigable in his efforts to popularise South Australia as an emigration field; delivering lectures on the subject in various parts of the country, and starting two weekly newspapers, The South Australian Colonist and The South Australian Weekly News, at a heavy financial loss, in order to disseminate reliable data. Mr. Angas's two eldest sons had already proceeded to South Australia, and as his prospects darkened in England they appeared to be brightening at the antipodes. Having resigned his seat on the Board of the South Australian Company in 1848, he determined to take up his residence on his Australian property, and, fortunately, was able to dispose of his English concerns on advantageous terms. He sailed for Adelaide by the ship Ascendant on Oct. 3rd, 1850, with his wife and youngest son, William Henry, who died in 1879. He was cordially welcomed on his arrival as the virtual father and founder of South Australia, and seemed never able to divest himself of the idea that the colony was still in as much need as in the days of its initiation of his paternal care and control. There was thus a dictatorial tone in his speeches and addresses, which prevented his becoming a popular, though he was always a respected, publicist. Even in this direction he had his consolations, for the new constitution rendering the Legislative Council partially representative having gone out in the same ship as that by which he travelled, he was at once returned to the new body for Barossa, and, in his parliamentary capacity, had the privilege of assisting in giving the final death-stroke to the system of State aid to religion, to which he had all along been so strenuously opposed. In connection with the New Constitution Act an amusing story is told. It had been an ambition of Mr. Angas's to be the personal bearer of the official copy of the Act to the colony; but it was found to be contrary to precedent, and red-tape triumphed, the important document being sent from the Colonial Office in charge of a clerk, who gave the package to a steward, who, being very busy, thrust it into the nearest place of safety. On arrival in Adelaide the proper authorities came on board to demand their Constitution, and receive it with due honour. The captain, however, protested that he had seen nothing of it, and there was a great hue and cry for the lost Constitution, until one day shortly after, in turning out the captain's soiled linen for the laundress, it was found, to the great amusement of every one, at the bottom of the bag, the place in which the steward had hurriedly placed it for security. In 1855, when he was again re-elected, Mr. Angas assisted in framing the present Constitution Act, and thus participated in crowning the edifice of public freedom in the colony, whose foundations he had laid in fear and trembling, and amidst much of doubt and difficulty. In his worldly affairs his prosperity was great and growing; the property purchased by Mr. Flaxman turning out to have been admirably selected, and rendering its proprietor wealthy beyond any dreams of avarice in which he might have indulged. Mr. Angas was a liberal contributor to charitable and religious objects of a Protestant character. The Roman Catholic Church was the object of the strongest abhorrence, and it was doubtless a severe blow to him to witness its growth and progress under a régime of religious equality, which he had fondly believed would secure the undisputed predominance of Protestant Nonconformity. Even in his eighty-first year he flooded the colony with an issue of anti-papal literature, which certainly did not lack controversial vigour and pugnacity. Whatever may have been his faults of egotism and intolerance, they were the outcome of one of those strong and sturdy individualities which have made England what it is; and South Australia certainly owes it to Mr. Angas that she took her place in the ranks of civilised communities many years earlier than would otherwise have been the case. During the discussions on the present Constitution Act Mr. Angas, whilst opposing manhood suffrage and vote by ballot, was a staunch supporter of an elective as against a nominee Upper House, and this was the principle ultimately adopted. In 1857 he was elected a member of the new Council, and was absent for two years in England (Dec. 1857 to Sept. 1859) without resigning his seat. In 1865 he was re-elected on his seat becoming vacant by effuxion of time, but he retired from parliament in the following year, and died on Jan. 15th, 1879. Mrs. Angas died on Jan. 14th, 1867.