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Abbott, William Edward (Wingen) (1844–1924)

by Stuart Piggin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Edward (Wingen) Abbott (1844-1924), pastoralist and politician, was born on 1 April 1844 at Muswellbrook, New South Wales, second son of John Kingsmill Abbott (d.1847), squatter, and his wife Frances Amanda, née Brady. He was educated at The King's School, Parramatta, and briefly at Sydney Grammar School, more because of his mother's belief in the importance of education than her capacity to afford it.

At 16 Abbott took over the family property at Wingen and, by gradually converting leasehold land to freehold, acquired one of the most valuable sheep runs on the upper Hunter. By 1890 he was running almost 21,000 sheep and 100 head of Devon cattle on the 30,000 acres (12,140 ha) of his Abbotsford estate which incorporated Glengarry and Murrulla stations. In the 1890s he turned from Nicholas Bayly's Havilah merino blood to crossbreds, experimenting first with Lincolns and Romney Marshes from New Zealand, and then Shropshires. Hard working, Abbott was always impatient of any insinuation that the returns enjoyed by pastoralists were excessive.

He experimented with deforestation and rabbit control at Abbotsford and reported his findings to the Royal Society of New South Wales, of which he was a member in 1877-1924. In 1884 he was awarded the society's bronze medal for his paper on 'Water supply in the interior of New South Wales'. In 1890 he included four of his five papers read to the society in Essays Political & Scientific.

Like his brother, Sir Joseph Palmer Abbott, he was an expert on land law and possibly originated the idea of the conditional leasing system in (Sir) Alexander Stuart's Crown Lands Act of 1884. In 1889 he was elected as a protectionist to the Legislative Assembly for the Upper Hunter and was prominent in carrying the Crown Rents Act of 1890 through the House. However, Abbott was too staunchly individualistic to conform to the policy of Sir George Dibbs; and after members of his own party accused him of being a 'liar' and a 'cocktail' he spoke rarely in debates. Defeated in the 1891 election, he never again stood for the assembly and was rejected for the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention.

A member of the Pastoralists' Union of New South Wales from its foundation in 1890, Abbott led resistance to the demands of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia (later the Australian Workers' Union). Previously sympathetic to the plight of working men, he was willing to accept the union shearers' agreement for 1891, if allowed to keep existing contracts to shear with non-unionists in 1890. He found William Guthrie Spence's refusal to concede this so unreasonable that he resolved to oppose the union with 'every means' in his power; most pastoralists came to the same decision when the A.S.U. called its men out in September. In 1890 Abbott was appointed to the council of the Pastoralists' Union and in 1891, when the A.S.U. decided not to shear at all, he was elected president of the Pastoralists' Federal Council of Australia. His many letters to the press, dwelling on the tyranny and self-interest of union leaders and insisting on 'freedom of contract', were described by labour men as 'vindictive' and 'disgusting'. But he was a fair negotiator: as chairman of the conference with the A.S.U. in August 1891 he refused to 'humiliate the men' by forcing them to accept the pastoralists' definition of freedom of contract, a concession which made a settlement possible.

As president of the Pastoralists' Union in 1894-97 and 1900-10, Abbott was guided by the principles of 'fair dealing and freedom of contract'. From 1902 he was only too pleased to negotiate with the rival Machine Shearers' and Shed Employees' Union, aborting all conferences with the A.W.U. In 1907 he presided over preparation of the pastoralists' case when the A.W.U. took its demands to the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. The Federal pastoral award allowed some of the union's demands but the president Richard O'Connor refrained from granting preference to unionists.

Abbott's presidential addresses became increasingly political: by now a convinced free trader, he maintained that meddling legislation by incompetent governments was undermining the pastoral and mining industries on which the growth of the Commonwealth depended. There would be no stock losses even in times of drought, he averred, if sheep could only feed on Hansard. He resigned from the council in 1917 and sold Glengarry about the same time.

In his twenties Abbott was disappointed in love and he never married. Companionable, he was a favourite raconteur and 'beautiful billiards player' in the Australian and Warrigal clubs in Sydney. Abstemious and cultivated, he would drink tea and lace his conversation with quotations from the Bible and Shakespeare. In 1892 he published his Poems. Standing 6 ft 5 ins (196 cm) tall, dressed in coarse tweeds and smoking a capacious pipe, he spoke with slow, deliberate speech and would always end on an upward inflexion of his voice. Abbott died from 'poisoning by arsenic self administered while suffering from acute mental depression following illness' at Murrulla, Wingen, on 14 November 1924 and was buried with Anglican rites beside his mother on a hill overlooking his property. He left most of his state, valued for probate at almost £81,000, to two Abbott nephews and the income from £2000 to John Henry Abbott, another nephew.

Select Bibliography

  • F. S. Piggin, ‘The Graziers' Association: how it began’, Muster, 7 July 1965, and ‘New South Wales pastoralists and the strikes of 1890 and 1891’, Historical Studies, no 56, Apr 1971
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 18 Nov 1924
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Dec 1924.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Stuart Piggin, 'Abbott, William Edward (Wingen) (1844–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/abbott-william-edward-wingen-6/text8233, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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