PULSFORD, Edward (1844–1919)
Senator for New South Wales, 1901–10 (Free Trade)

Edward Pulsford does not leap out of Hansard as one of the most exciting of senators. At first sight, the only claim one can make to establish Pulsford’s notoriety is that throughout his political career he was a staunch advocate of free trade. But by any measure, Edward Pulsford’s contribution to Australian public life was noticeable. In many ways, he aspired to the model of the public intellectual in late nineteenth century Australia—as journalist, author and political activist.

Pulsford was born on 29 September 1844 at Burslem, Staffordshire, England, the son of a Baptist minister and businessman, James Eustace Pulsford, and Mary Ann, née Cutler.At the age of twenty-six, Pulsford was in business with his father. Together they ran a commission agency in Hull, Yorkshire. From the beginning, Edward Pulsford was inculcated in the virtues of free trade. By 1883, he was on his way to Australia to expand his business activities and begin a new life in New South Wales. He was to learn that political and economic principles, which flourished in Victorian England, did not necessarily transfer easily to colonial soil. Nonetheless, Pulsford was to campaign against protection throughout his life.[1]

His first contribution to New South Wales politics occurred in 1885, when, with B. R. Wise, he helped form the Free Trade and Liberal Association of New South Wales—the forerunner of the Free Trade Party machine which would take Pulsford to the Senate. Pulsford’s most obvious talents were displayed in his capacity as pamphleteer and propagandist for the free trade cause. At every opportunity in the 1880s and 1890s, Pulsford scribbled letters, opinion pieces, essays, pamphlets and books in an effort to convince his fellow citizens of the virtues of free trade. He was proprietor of the Armidale Chronicle, financial editor of the Daily Telegraph (1890–98) and a correspondent for the major papers of the day. He also spoke frequently at public meetings. He was secretary of the Geographical Society of Australasia and, until 1891, secretary of the Free Trade and Liberal Association. He also began compiling potted biographies of one thousand noteworthy Australians for the Australasian Supplement to Webster’s International Dictionary,published in 1900. Pulsford was a man keen to make his mark on his adopted land.[2]

In 1887, Pulsford wrote a prize winning essay, ‘The Beneficial Influence of a Free Trade Policy upon the Colony of New South Wales . . .’ for the Year-Book of Australia’s centennial edition. Pulsford’s argument was straightforward—‘whatever prosperity may be attained under Protection it must . . . be less than might have been attained under a policy of Free-trade’. To prove the point, he presented a baffling array of comparative tables, which examined everything from the increase in the number of sheep and the decline in the number of horned cattle to the total tonnage cleared from the ports of New South Wales and Victoria over a 25-year period. Such information was intended to prove that the free trade policies of New South Wales were leaving Victoria behind. For Pulsford, the way to assess the nature and merit of society was by examining industry, production and economic growth, particularly through statistics. Pulsford was awarded joint first prize (the other winning entry being one on Victorian protection). Again, in an article on Australia in the Daily Telegraph’s 1888 centennial supplement, Pulsford projected 1988 statistics on population growth, imports, exports and industrial production.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Pulsford was no captive of the White Australia policy, and thought seriously about issues of race and identity. In the Daily Telegraph article, he considered the future of Australia’s indigenous people:

The aboriginals of Australia will have been long extinct. We claim that Cook discovered Australia, but in fact he only ‘discovered’ that which another race had discovered centuries before. They kept no centennials, they wrote no history, they knew not how to make Nature their servant and therefore suffered in consequence . . . Poor fellows, it was not for their good that Cook ‘discovered’ Australia. We, the stronger race, have much to blush for.

Here Pulsford displayed ignorance and sensitivity. Perhaps he was unable to appreciate the extent to which Aboriginal people had moulded the environment and saw them as racially and culturally inferior. On the other hand, he could empathise with the plight of a displaced people and question the moral validity of colonisation.[3]

Pulsford intended to stand for the 1891 New South Wales election, but withdrew his candidacy,later denying that this decision had been other than of his own making. As a Member of the Legislative Council from 1895, he supported Free Trade and opposed White Australia, recording his opposition to the latter in the Protest Book of the Legislative Council in 1898. In 1899, he moved for the adjournment of the Council to call attention to the Immigration Restriction Act regulations. During debate on Federation in 1897 and 1898, he challenged the figures supplied by the government statistician in relation to the customs and excise duties paid by the colonies. (His papers on federal finance were tabled at the 1898 federal convention by Edmund Barton.)[4]

In 1900, he was president of the New South Wales branch of the Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association, and deputy president of its federal election campaign committee. Pulsford stood, successfully, as a candidate for New South Wales for the first Senate, and subsequently resigned from the Legislative Council.

Once in ‘the temple of federation’ (as he described the Federal Parliament), his contributions to debate were consistent with the attitudes and political beliefs he had held as a New South Wales politician in the 1890s. While he did not favour ‘the free admission of all races into Australia’, he remained one of the few to oppose White Australia, considering the education test ‘brutal’, and suggesting the setting up of a model farm to examine the outcome of sugar farming without coloured labour in Queensland.

His view of ‘globalisation’ was that the British Empire was a great Asiatic power, and therefore Australian interests were ‘enveloped’ with those of millions of Asians. He argued that Asians should be eligible for the old-age pension, and that Kanakas should not be treated as ‘cattle’. Following a tart interjection by Senator Gregor McGregor, Pulsford once responded: ‘I look upon the whole of the inhabitants of Asia as my friends’. In his book, The British Empire and the Relations of Asia and Australasia (1905), he referred to his 1904 notice of motionconcerning changes to the Immigration Restriction Act and the Postal Act in order to make certain clauses less offensive to Asians. The motion never went beyond the Senate Notice Paper. But on the issue of womanhood suffrage, his liberalism deserted him. The suffrage would double the cost of a general election, and put Australia ‘in advance of public opinion throughout the world’.

Not usually verbose in debate, on the Customs Tariff Bill of 1902 he spoke for over five hours (he would later support a time limit on speeches). In this speech, well laced with statistics, he referred to Sir Henry Parkes as ‘the man to whom Australia is indebted more than to any other for the establishment of federation’. In 1909, he bowed to the inevitable: ‘I have no faith in either the old Protection or the new Protection, but I am prepared to assist my honorable friends opposite to give effect to the latter policy, in order to show that all such legislation must be a failure’.

Pulsford exemplified moderation and common sense on a number of other issues. As debate intensified over the choice of a site for the federal capital, Pulsford suggested that a British committee ‘come out, and select one or two sites’ from which a choice could be made. He suggested an index to the Australian Constitution, and argued for flexibility in the interpretation of standing orders. A member of the select committee on the press cable service in 1909, Pulsford was defeated at the 1910 election.[5]

Pulsford died on 29 September 1919 (his seventy-fifth birthday) at his home in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood. He was buried at Gore Hill Cemetery, following a Church of England service.He had married twice: on 23 February 1870, Mary Charlotte Stainforth, at Hull, Yorkshire, and on 2 March 1919, BlancheElsbeth Browne at Neutral Bay, Sydney. Blanche and the three sons of his first marriage, John, Frank and Herbert, survived him. One tribute described Pulsford as ‘one of the best-informed and most widely-known advocates of freetrade in Australia’, and referred to his honorary membership of the Cobden Club.[6]

From a contemporary perspective, Pulsford might be seen as one of the founding fathers of tolerance and racial equality.


Mark McKenna


[1] W. G. McMinn, ‘Pulsford, Edward’, ADB, vol. 11; Australian Town and Country Journal (Sydney), 14 September 1895, pp. 21–22; Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 16 June 1894, p. 5.

[2] Constitution and Rules of the Free Trade & Liberal Association of New South Wales, Sydney, 1889; for later correspondence between Pulsford and Sir Josiah Symon on free trade see Symon Papers, MS 1736, NLA; Edward Pulsford (comp.), A Biographical Dictionary Containing Over One Thousand Names of Noteworthy Australasians, in the Australasian Supplement to Webster’s International Dictionary, G. & C. Merriam Company, Springfield, Mass., 1900, pp. 261-268.

[3] Edward Pulsford, ‘The Beneficial Influence of a Free Trade Policy upon the Colony of New South Wales, having special regard to her Industries’, in The Prize Essays on Free Trade & Protection, Office of Year-Book of Australia, Sydney, 1887, pp. 3–8; Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 January 1888, pp. 4-5.

[4] NSWPD, 22 June 1898, pp. 60-62, 5 November 1896, pp. 4764-4765, 2 December 1897, p. 5400, 26 July 1899, p. 217, 11 August 1897, pp. 2801–2808, 25 November 1897, pp. 5109–5111, 30 November 1898, pp. 2698-2702, 28 November 1900, pp. 5856–5857; NSWPP. Proceedings of the Australasian Federal Convention, Melbourne, 1898, pp. 235–239.

[5] Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 December 1900, p. 5; CPD, 13 November 1901, pp. 7151–7152, 7156, 7158, 5 December 1901, pp. 8302, 8282, 10 March 1904, p. 377, 6 August 1909, p. 2169, 11 October 1906, p. 6458; 13 November 1901, p. 7156; Senator Pulsford, The British Empire and the Relations of Asia and Australasia: Immigration Restrictions in Australasia, William Brooks & Company, Sydney, 1905, pp. 22-24; Senate Notice Paper, 28 July, 15 December 1904; CPD, 28 February 1902, p. 10494, 10 April 1902, pp. 11570, 11573, 2 May 1902, pp. 12245-12273, 22 July 1909, p. 1515, 12 August 1909, p. 2370, 7 October 1902, pp. 16497–16498, 25 September 1902, p. 16081, 30 November 1909, pp. 6496–6499, 24 November 1909, p. 6249.

[6] SMH,30 September 1919, p. 8; Australasian (Melbourne), 4 October 1919, p. 729; Australian Worker (Sydney), 16 October 1919, p. 10.


This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 1, 1901-1929, Melbourne University Press, Carlton South, Vic., 2000, pp. 31-34.

PULSFORD, Edward (1844-1919)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, NSW, 1901–10


New South Wales Parliament

Member of the Legislative Council, 1895–1901

Senate Committee Service

Printing Committee, 1901–10

Select Committee on the Press Cable Service, 1909