Alfred Felton: a man who believed in spending his wealth on charitable causes

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Alfred Felton: a man who believed in spending his wealth on charitable causes

June 19, 2019

Alfred Felton was a highly successful old colonist during the 1880s, and an extraordinary philanthropist who gave to hundreds of causes during his lifetime.

Among the charities was the Old Colonists Association of Victoria in 1891, when Felton gave money to build four cottages (design drawings pictured) in Rushall Park. Designed by architect Joseph Crook, the cottages were built on the curve of Coppin Avenue, a deliberate attempt to break the rigid layout of the village.

Early ‘inmates’ as the residents were then called included Sarah Caldow, Mr and Mrs Alfred Clarke (Mrs Clarke was allowed to remain after his death), and Samuel Deakin.

Felton was born on 8 November 1831 in Maldon, Essex, England, and the fifth of ten children of William Felton, currier, and his wife Hannah. He migrated to Melbourne in 1853, the start of Australia’s gold rush. It is said that in his years in Australia, he made his money carting supplies to diggers in the goldfields before establishing himself as a ‘Dealer in General Merchandise’ at 5 Collins St in 1856.

Felton was not a shirker. In five years, he listed himself as a ‘Wholesale Druggist’ at 41 Swanston St, and a druggist is what he would remain, with the addition of bottle maker and landholder, for the rest of his life.

Felton was a bachelor and lived in boarding houses, like other bachelors of the day. Then Melbourne was dirty, dusty and full of open sewers. St Kilda, on the other hand, was a place of beautiful streets, mansions, affluent neighbours, bay views and sea breeze. It was not surprising that he was drawn to the area, and in 1863 he moved to Mrs O’Reilly’s boarding house.

There he met fellow Englishman Fredrick Sheppard Grimwade, and formed a lifelong business partnership called Felton Grimwade and Co. For the next 40 years they dabbled in everything from drugs and chemical works, to bottle making to leach aquariums, they even dipped their toes in the making of acids and salts.

With money to spend, Felton pursued his interest in art, paintings and sculptures, along with literature, books and magazines. He moved into Hotel Esplanade, nowadays better known as the Espy, where he lived until his death in 1904.

Throughout his life, he donated to hundreds of causes and often a condition of him donating was that it not be announced. His lawyer was the only person who knew the legacy Felton would leave behind, although he gave small hints in the margins of his ledgers.

“He that will not permit his wealth to do any good for others while he is alive, prevents it from doing any good to himself when he is dead.”

Half of his bequest was left to women and children’s charities, and the remainder went to the National Gallery of Victoria. Small amounts were distributed at half yearly intervals to favourite institutes, including the Old Colonists where residents benefited, according to Argus, to 35 pounds worth of Christmas Cheer in December 1920, and 50 pounds in 1928.

Pete Zawacki drove to Leith Park twice a week to visit his mother, Helen, until her death a year ago. After she died he wanted to honour her memory and ‘repay’ the kindness staff showed her by volunteering.

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