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Foster, Arthur George (1861–1924)

by Anne-Maree Whitaker

Theodore Arthur George Foster, historian and photographer, was born in Werris Creek near Tamworth on 4 August 1861. He was the third son of London-born carpenter and builder John Henry Foster (1827-1900) and his wife Lucy Ann, nee Collett (1823-1902). Arthur, who dropped the name Theodore and was usually known as A. G. Foster, gained employment with the retail firm Anthony Hordern’s where he eventually rose to a management position.

On 4 March 1896 he married Josephine Ethel Roberts at her mother’s home in Petersham, Sydney. She had been born in Paddington on 19 January 1870, the daughter of Henry Clarence Roberts (1851-1891) and his wife Josephine, nee Baylis (1849-1914).[1]

The Fosters shared an interest in history, and were among the foundation members of the Australian Historical Society (later RAHS) in 1901. As Dr Houison noted in his address to the inaugural meeting, it was a time when old landmarks were being removed and the older generation who could remember early Sydney were becoming fewer. It was a time for those who cared, to take steps to capture the images and recollections of the past before it was too late.[2]

In 1900 plans were underway to move the graves in the Sandhills cemetery to make way for Sydney’s new Central Railway Station. Arthur and Ethel Foster devoted two years of their weekends to photographing and drawing the old monuments before their removal. They transcribed 617 inscriptions from the 1229 monuments in the Church of England portion, as well as around 100 from other portions of the cemetery. Their meticulous work is recorded in an Epitaph Book and five volumes of photographs in the Mitchell Library, and has been praised by later researchers of the cemetery.[3]

History was still a minority interest, however, and on one occasion in 1903 Arthur Foster was to be found on the footpath outside the School of Arts in Pitt Street trying to entice passers-by into a lecture by J. M. Forde, author of the ‘Old Sydney by Old Chum’ column in Truth.[4] He also recruited others to the RAHS, most notably the City of Sydney Librarian Charles Bertie who was to become a stalwart of the Society.[5]

One outcome of their fieldwork was Arthur Foster’s paper ‘The Sandhills: an historic cemetery’, which was read to the Society on 29 October 1918 and published in the Journal the following year.[6] Soon after he also published a small book entitled Early Sydney, which was praised by no less a figure than the Challis Professor of History Arnold Wood, and it was this study which led to his RAHS fellowship in 1921.[7]

The work of Arthur Foster has often been overshadowed by that of his wife, but it was Arthur who was centrally involved in a debate in 1920 over the correct location of Governor Phillip’s 1788 landing place in Sydney Cove. Foster took the view that the site was on the west side of Sydney Cove and was supported by Hugh Wright and Captain J. H. Watson. The opposing view that the flag-raising was at Macquarie Place, near the site of First Government House, was taken by Alfred Lee, Frank Walker and C. T. Burfitt, and a debate on the matter was held in the Assembly Room of the Education Department on 12 October 1920.[8]

Arthur Foster died at his home, ‘Banksia’, Warrington Avenue, Epping, on 26 October 1924. He was buried in South Head General Cemetery and a stained-glass window to his memory was erected in St Alban’s Anglican Church, Epping. In addition to his long service to history and decades of employment at Anthony Hordern’s, his death notice also recorded his membership of Masonic Lodge ‘Centennial’.[9] At his express wish, after his death his widow settled property worth £4000 on the RAHS, retaining a life interest. £1000 was to be invested to fund an annual prize or scholarship to encourage the study of Australian history. The balance went into the fund to build or purchase a headquarters for the society.[10]

Ethel Foster died at her Epping home on 20 October 1955 and was buried with her husband in South Head General Cemetery. They had no children. After her death the Foster Settlement was finalised, amounting to £4699, and the RAHS Library acquired her collection of over 250 books, 30 volumes of press clippings and 381 glass slides. As well as these holdings the Fosters were also commemorated by the annual Foster Prize to the top Australian history student in the NSW Higher School Certificate.

Original Publication

  • People Australia, 4 October 2017

Citation details

Anne-Maree Whitaker, 'Foster, Arthur George (1861–1924)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/foster-arthur-george-27600/text34993, accessed 23 October 2017.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012