The most famous Victorian you’ve never heard of.
Alfred Felton has long been recognised as the National Gallery of Victoria’s main benefactor. His bequest allowed the Gallery to gain access to funds which amounted to more than those of the National and Tate galleries in London combined and it is estimated that the bequest has purchased over 15,000 items for the NGV with an estimated value of approximately one and a half billion dollars.
Felton was a businessman and philanthropist, born on 8 November 1831 at Maldon, Essex, England, and the fifth of ten children of William Felton, currier, and his wife Hannah.
We don’t know much about his early life, so we’ll start his story in 1853, the beginning of Australia’s gold rush and the year Felton migrated to Melbourne. It is reported that upon arriving 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.
By 1861, he listed 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.
Like most bachelor businessmen during the late 1800s, Felton lived in boarding houses with other bachelors, and that is where the Hotel Esplanade comes into the story.
In a time that Melbourne was dirty, dusty and full of open sewers, St Kilda offered an oasis of beautiful streets, designer mansions, affluent neighbours, bay views and sea breeze. Naturally, a successful businessman such as Felton was drawn to the area and in 1963 he moved to Mrs O’Reilly’s boarding house.
Here he meets another Englishman, in-fact another Essex-man, and a Pharmacist too – Fredrick Sheppard Grimwade. Within a few years the two men form a partnership called Felton Grimwade and Co. and for the next forty 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.
Felton Grimwade and Co. were one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the country and its success is still seen today in some of Australia’s largest public companies.
With money to spend at his leisure, Felton develops an interest in art, paintings and sculptures, along with literature, books and magazines. This money also affords him the opportunity to take up residence in one of St Kilda’s most premier hotels.
Hotel Esplanade opened in 1878, after Smith & Johnson, the architects responsible for the GPO, Law courts and many other public and private works across Melbourne, were employed to build a row of terraces for parliamentarian James Orkney.
Somehow, Smith & Johnson managed to convince Orkney that what he really needed was a 60 room hotel in the Renaissance Revival Regency Resort style and from there The Espy was born.
In 1891: Alfred Felton checks in. And he doesn’t just check in. He moves in. He takes a series of rooms downstairs, at the front, and he starts renovating, he’s knocking walls down, he has painters in, wallpaperers, he’s adding new lights, new curtains.
Bookshelves all round, crammed in places with orderly series of volumes; crammed elsewhere with disorderly heaps of books, papers, and serials. Above, pictures, clocks, ornaments and rubbish; above that, on the walls, the earlier pictures, properly hung. In front, the later pictures, leaning against the books, or a pedestal carrying a marble statue. Perhaps an ormolu timepiece with its glass dome, and the auction room number still on it.” (Bach, 1996).
Here at the Hotel Esplanade, Felton remained for the rest of his days. Shrewd and upright in business, Felton was mildly eccentric in his private life and opinions. Always fish for breakfast, always chicken for dinner. He would only sleep with his bed arranged north-south.
It is reported that he would spend many an afternoon on the bench outside The Espy talking to friends and watching strangers at the beach.
During his life, he donated to hundreds of causes we know of, without knowing many of the others, such as The Alfred Hospital, The Royal Women’s Hospital, Austin Health, Victorian Deaf and Dumb Institution, along with children’s and benevolent societies. Often a condition of him donating was that it not be announced.
His lawyer was the only person privy to the legacy Felton would leave behind. Looking back, he gave small hints in his notebooks and 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.”
“Spend your money yourself for I have rarely seen an estate administered as its owner would have wished; the only money I seem to have is money I have given away.”
“Wealth – get it spent.”
On the 8th of January 1904, Felton (now in his early 50s), passed away in his bedroom, located on the first floor of Hotel Esplanade and it was after his death that his legacy became know.
Felton bequeathed half his estate to women’s and children’s charities (very progressive for the time) and half to the National Gallery of Victoria.
With access to Felton’s fortune, the NGV was now able to build their collection to be one of the biggest and best in the world. This collection soon attracted – arts administrators, art teachers, art benefactors, followed by musicians, dancers, photographers, filmmakers, writers, and architects. These professions then attracted restaurateurs, chefs, baristas and what do you get with all this creative energy in one place?
A very desirable place to live, and one of the world’s most livable cities.
Bach, Joanne, 1996. Espy Dreamings: Changing meanings of the Esplanade Hotel, St Kilda. Unpublished thesis, Department of History, Latrobe University, Melbourne