History of West Australia/Frederick Henry Piesse

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Frederick Henry Piesse2.jpg
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A DISTINCTIVE feature of colonial economic affairs is the State-owned railway. Going beyond the conditions in old countries, the Governments of the various Australian Colonies have inaugurated this principle, and adhere to it with determination. Railways have come to be recognised as invaluable in giving an impulse to production and development, and an impetus to trade ad commerce. In Australia the pioneers found an immense and fertile territory, the early utilisation of which would bring them and their colony wealth. Private enterprise was not always forthcoming in the matter of connecting rich inland areas with the seaboard, and hence, in order to rapidly facilitate the opening up of these localities and make it possible for white men to bring all their ingenuity and modern contrivances to bear on fruitful production, the Australian Governments themselves undertook to lay the railways and run them at their own risk. And what was possibly at first a necessity, began to be recognised as the established principle of our Governments. At present, in each Australian colony we see railways running in every direction, draining the promising lands, reducing the cost of production, making the colonial estates more and more valuable—and all State owned.

That there are objectionable features to be found in the system admits of no doubt, and it has ever been a problem difficult to solve how to separate railway management from political influence, and to run railways on purely commercial lines. The member of Parliament for a country district desires a railway in his constituency. By obtaining it he will gain the applause and support of his electors. He brings influence to bear on the Government. The railway is built, in some colonies without justification. To make such railways pay is next to impossible until an increase in Australian population comes. Also, it is often repeated that a private individual or company can build a railway infinitely cheaper than a Government, and is therefore less liable to suffer financial loss.

In Western Australia there are State-owned railways, and privately-owned railways. This immense colony is, comparatively speaking, unsettled; taken as a whole only a few hundreds of acres are being utilised. Land awaits the plough and the grain or the fruit plant which should yield forth rich harvests. To encourage settlement on that land, and enable producers to get their products to market, a railway is required. It must be built cheaply and run on commercial lines; otherwise, with the present sparse population, it cannot pay. There is the necessity. There is a growing objection to private lines, and an increased number of advocates for the Government principle. Under responsible government railways have been pushed into much valuable country, and are likely to have an immense influence in the future. The policy of the Government tends still further in this direction, and areas not now favoured with railway facilities must soon secure them.

Meanwhile the enormous increase in population in Western Australia, begot principally by the fortunate gold discoveries, has occasioned blocks in the railway traffic. To cope with the influx of people and the increase of the goods traffic the railways are tried to their utmost. A broad and comprehensive commercial policy is needed, which shall enable existing lines to stand every strain and lay down others that are justified. These are problems of great importance.

The present controller, or Ministerial head, of the Western Australian Railways is essentially a commercial man. After a prosperous experience in commercial affairs on a large scale, the Minister of Railways, the Hon. F. H. Piesse, entered Parliament, and it is fortunate that the Government were able to obtain his assistance to control so valuable a department of local resource.

Mr. Piesse began his duties determined to run the railways as much on commercial lines as those State-owned will allow, and notwithstanding the phenomenal time with the enormous traffic he has faced, he is apparently succeeding.

Frederick Henry Piesse was born at Northam, Western Australia, on 6th December, 1853. His father, Mr. W. R. Piesse, arrived in the colony from London in 1842, and was therefore a pioneer of long standing. Soon after his landing the latter gentleman engaged in pastoral pursuits, but in 1850 he entered the Government Service, and retired in July, 1893. This worthy pioneer died on the 23rd August, 1894.

Frederick H. Piesse received his education in the State schools at Northam and Guildford. After leaving school he entered mercantile pursuits for a time. In 1872 he relinquished them, and with the late Mr. Ernest Von Bibra opened up the pearl fishery industry in Shark's Bay. He had some varied experiences at this period of his career, and not a few of lively interest. Thus three years passed, and in 1875 he returned to Perth and entered the Government Service in the electrical branch of the Postal and Telegraphs Department. He was an adept operator, but his incipient enterprise could not long be restrained in such a position.

Perhaps when social science becomes more firmly established we shall learn that the predilections of one in Mr. Piesse's position compel him to endeavour to rise in the world whether in the pursuit of business or any thing else. It is of interest to know in this regard that Mr. Piesse is related to the large London house of Piesse and Lubin. In 1880, he resigned his appointment in the service, and he and his brother, Mr. C. A. Piesse, M.L.C., founded a business house as general merchants and importers in the Williams district. They traded under the name of F. and C. Piesse, and by careful attention to their business, by harnessing enterprise to caution, they slowly but very surely became prosperous. When their concern was firmly established the brothers made their headquarters at Katanning, with branch businesses at Arthur River, Wagin Lake, and Narrogin. As year passed over year they grew stronger, and their merchandise circulated over a large area. Nor did their enterprise remain concentrated on the usual general merchant's business. They pushed feeders out in other lines of commerce. By securing land at Katanning and proving its capabilities they supplied an example which has been largely followed, and materially through their influence the population of Williams district alone has increased from 700, when they went there, to over 2,500 now. They eventually erected in the town a flour-mill and granaries, at a cost of £8,000, and by this means encouraged cereal production in the district. They opened an aerated water factory, and, besides, devoted particular attention to the cultivation of their land. The results of their efforts were many. They cultivated about 1,300 acres of land, and proved its suitability for cereal crops, so that settlers gathered round then. Not content with that, the firm enterprisingly planted a large vineyard and an orchard. The soil and climate were found to be specially favourable to vine and fruit culture, and at present Messrs. F. and C. Piesse have 60 acres devoted to an orchard and 75 to a vineyard. The fruits are delicious in taste and large in size, while the soils are suitable, according to positions, for grapes either for wine manufacture or for the table. Altogether the firm expended some £40,000 in development work in the district. But, happily, it was not misspent; the Katanning Agricultural area is now one of the richest in the colony, and is decked with lucrative farms, orchards, and vineyards. In order the better to encourage vine culture it is the intention of the firm to influence the Government of Western Australia to afford by way of bonus assistance in establishing a winery in the district on the lines of some in the eastern colonies. It will be seen that the business of Messrs. F. and C. Piesse expanded to enormous dimensions, and its tentacles seized every branch of country enterprise. They are now among the chief business men of the colony, and were the first to introduce the electric light into Western Australia for general use. Their stores, mills, factories, &c, are all served with electricity.

It is quite natural to suppose that a man helping in the founding of such a diversified business house as this would be eminently well adapted to infuse commercial spirit into any colonial Government department. The Hon. F.H. Piesse has long been interested in public matters, in one way or other. In 1880 he became a member of the Williams Roads Board, and was chosen chairman. The residents in the district and those served by this board have been evidently well satisfied with his services, for he continued to occupy the position of chairman on that board until 1889. After that he accepted and still occupies a similar position on the Katanning Roads Board. At the time that he took up his residence in the Williams district there were no local public schools, but chiefly through his advocacy there are now no fewer than fourteen, with seven distinct school boards and seven roads boards. He gave every assistance to agricultural matters in the district, and to assist in the dissemination of useful information among producers he became an active member and president of the Katanning Farmers' Association. He occupies a similar position on nearly all the racing and other clubs throughout the district. In 1889 he was gazetted a Justice of the Peace.

The following year saw the inauguration of responsible government, and as the Williams was created one constituency, Mr. Piesse, who had been so useful to the district, was asked to stand for the Assembly. Although he had several times been requested to enter the Legislative Council under the Crown Colony regime he refused, preferring to bide the time when he could be of more use under a new constitution. He was elected unopposed to the Williams constituency, and has represented the district in the House of Assembly ever since. At the general elections of 1894 his seat was contested, but he defeated his opponent by five to one. His Parliamentary career has been marked by quiet but useful work. By means of the interest which he has always taken in public matters, he is able to hold his own in any debate, and his advice on commercial matters commands respect. He was recognised as a thoroughly reliable member, and one who would prove of use to the colony. Early in 1896, when the Hon. Mr. Venn retired from the offices of Commissioner of Railways and Director of Public Works, the Premier, Sir John Forrest, sought to obtain a man of activity and commercial ability to fill the post. The career of Mr. Piesse had been distinguished by both these qualities, and considering his general qualifications for so important and difficult an office, Sir John requested Mr. Piesse to take the vacant portfolio. On the 1st April, Mr. Piesse took up his duties with the firm determination of introducing reforms in the Railways. He had always believed that Government railways should be run on purely commercial principles, just the same as a private business, and therefore he set about grasping all the details and ramifications of the department, and almost immediately initiated reforms. Since then he has worked day and night to place them on a firm foundation to facilitate production and commerce, and he has succeeded beyond expectation. The policy of the Government is a progressive one, and it is intended to lay railways over the goldfields and to the chief agricultural centres not yet served.

The Hon. Mr. Piesse married in 1878 Mary J., daughter of Mr. Thomas Chipper, of Kojonup. Mr. Piesse's duties are no sinecure, for every year sees some additions to the Western Australian Railways, and the interests of the Department are becoming gigantic. To cope with all this requires a big capacity for laborious work and much careful study. Mr. Piesse, however, is a man of energy and determination, and he has been a successful administrator. Whether in the Legislative hails or out of them he enjoys great popularity and respect.

[This sketch was written in 1896, since which Mr. Piesse has organised great improvements in his departments.—Ed.]