FORSTER, William (1818-1882)


FORSTER, William (1818-1882)
premier of New South Wales, and poet
son of Dr T. Forster (Aust. Ency.), was born at Madras, India, in 1818. He was brought to Australia when 11 years old and educated at W. T. Cape's (q.v.) school. He became a squatter, but from 1844 onwards contributed largely to the Atlas, the Empire, and other papers. His clever squib in verse, "The Devil and the Governor", became well-known. When responsible government was granted Forster was elected to the first parliament as member for Murray and, though conservative in tendencies, he opposed the nominee upper house and advocated railway construction on a large scale. He did not believe in party government and endeavoured to maintain an independent position but, when the Charles Cowper (q.v.) government was defeated in 1859, he became leader of a ministry which lasted for only a little more than four months. Forster was elected for East Sydney in 1861 and in October 1863 was again asked to form a ministry. He was unable to do so but became colonial secretary in (Sir) James Martin's (q.v.) ministry until February 1865. Though he had been a bitter opponent of (Sir) John Robertson (q.v.) he was given a seat in Robertson's first cabinet as secretary for lands in October 1868 but retained his portfolio for only three months after Charles Cowper became premier in January 1870. In February 1875 he was colonial treasurer in Robertson's third ministry and a year later was appointed agent-general for New South Wales in London. After the third Parkes (q.v.) ministry was formed in December 1878 Forster was recalled on account of a disagreement as to the nature of his duties. He returned to New South Wales, was elected for Gundagai, and was offered and declined the position of leader of the opposition. He died on 30 October 1882.
Forster in his younger days was a clever journalist but he did not publish anything in book form until towards the end of his life. His one work in prose, Political Presentments, which appeared in London in 1878, includes able discourses on the working of parliament, the development of democracy in Europe, and the political situation of the time. His volumes in verse were The Weirwolf: a Tragedy (1876), The Brothers: a Drama (1877), Midas (1884), works of a vigorous and poetic mind, which in spite of their length can still be read with interest.
Forster was described in his youth as a "sallow, thin, saturnine young gentleman". He was not a great orator but was a debater of ability, though his habit of indulging in bitter personalities detracted from the effectiveness of his speeches. He was once described as "disagreeable in opposition, insufferable as a supporter, and fatal as a colleague" but, however true that may have been, it was only one side of his character. A cultured and honest man, thoroughly aware and disdainful of the tricks and shifts of party government, he tried to hold an independent course and do what was best for his country. This was appreciated by the constituencies that elected him to all but one of the parliaments of his lifetime.
Sydney Morning Herald, 31 October 1882; C. E. Lyne, Life of Sir Henry Parkes; P. Serle, Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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