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Billson, Alfred Arthur (1858–1930)

by Carole Woods

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

This is a shared entry with George Billson

Alfred Arthur Billson (1858-1930), brewer and politician, was born on 11 January 1858 at Wooragee, Victoria, eighth child of George Billson (1817-1886), brewer and politician, and his wife Isabella, formerly Bainbridge, nee Blades. George was born in Lincolnshire, England, son of Joseph Billson and his wife Elizabeth, née Antill. He grew up in Leicester and as a young man travelled widely. In May 1842 he reached New Zealand; a year later he sailed to South America, then returned to England for three years. Early in 1848 he arrived in Adelaide, and next year joined the Californian gold rushes. Attracted back in 1852 by the Victorian gold rushes, Billson ran a store at Sandhurst (Bendigo) for two years; then in 1856, after another two years in England, he settled north of Beechworth at Wooragee, where he purchased 140 acres (57 ha) and built a two-storey hotel. He married Isabella on 26 March 1864 at St Paul's Church, Melbourne. In 1864-67 he was a publican in the Wood's Point district before finally settling in Beechworth, where he purchased the Ovens Brewery. He erected a larger brewery and aerated waters and cordial manufactory in 1872 and, with his eldest son George Henry, made it a flourishing concern.

Billson was elected to the Beechworth Borough Council in 1868 and was mayor in 1869-71. In May 1877 he won Ovens in the Legislative Assembly; professedly an independent, he supported the Liberal government of (Sir) Graham Berry during the 1878 budget crisis and attempted Legislative Council reform. Billson was defeated in July 1880 but regained his seat for the coalition years of 1883-86. He was a sensible, practical politician who supported manufacturing development and assiduously protected his district's interests. Aged 69, he died of heart failure on 9 February 1886 at Beechworth, survived by three sons and two daughters.

Alfred Arthur was educated at the Beechworth Grammar School and Scotch College, Melbourne. On 28 June 1881 at St Paul's Church, Melbourne, he married Laura Annie Fielder. He took over his father's brewery in 1882, steadily improved it under the name of A. A. Billson & Co., and also traded as a wine and spirits merchant. The brewery's specialty, Anglo-Australian Ale, sold well both in Victoria and New South Wales. The soft-drinks and cordial factory also prospered, and a branch was opened at Tallangatta. Billson adapted to the growing temperance movement by launching teetotaller drinks such as Social Ginger Cup. The brewery traded as the Anglo-Australian Brewing Co. Pty Ltd in about 1904-12, then, after amalgamation with an Albury firm, as Border United Co-operative Breweries Ltd; in 1914 it was sold to Murray Breweries Pty Ltd.

Billson took an indefatigable interest in town affairs and foresaw tourism as a means of stemming Beechworth's decline. At various times he was president of the local progress association, hospital board, Liedertafel, choral society, and sporting clubs. An ardent patriot and Federalist, he chaired the Beechworth branch of the Australian Natives' Association in 1898-1900. He was a Beechworth United Shire councillor for twenty-four years and served four terms as president.

After several attempts to enter the Legislative Assembly, Billson won Bogong at a by-election in June 1901. A sturdy, jovial figure with handlebar moustache, he proudly occupied the seat formerly held by (Sir) Isaac Isaacs. To his dismay, he lost Bogong in 1902 but gained the new seat of Ovens two years later and held it for twenty-three years. He was a conscientious back-bencher, with special interests in mining, municipal and liquor-trade legislation. In the Liberal governments of J. Murray and W. A. Watt he was minister of railways in 1909-12 and in February-December 1913, when he also held mines and forests, and was minister of public instruction and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works from 1909 to February 1913.

As minister Billson supported the enlightened policies of the director of education, Frank Tate. He introduced bills to improve the salaries and promotional opportunities of teachers and steered through the important Education Law Further Amendment Act of 1910 which provided the basis for state high school development and the expansion of technical education. He became increasingly concerned about the population drift from country to city and in 1916-18 was a member of a select committee on the subject. He was an unflagging advocate of tourist development and supported the construction of the Mount Buffalo road and the formation of a tourists' resorts committee in 1922.

In articles published in 1918 and 1919 Melbourne Punch accused Billson of belonging to a country faction corner group which embarrassed the government by 'political submarining'; he angrily denied the charge of disloyalty to the National Party government. He was chairman of committees in 1921-26 before retiring from parliament in 1927 because of ill health.

Billson lived in Melbourne from 1916, making his home at Wooragee, Toorak. He died there of coronary vascular disease on 31 October 1930, survived by his wife, three sons and two daughters, and leaving an estate valued for probate at £6047.

Select Bibliography

  • L. J. Blake (ed), Vision and Realization (Melb, 1973)
  • Australian Brewers' Journal, 21 May 1900
  • Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 10 Feb 1877, 5 Mar 1878, 17 Feb 1883, 13 Feb 1886, 16 June 1900, 24, 31 Jan 1903
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 11 July 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 10 Aug 1911, 1 Aug 1918, 14 Aug 1919
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1930
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Nov 1930
  • Bulletin, 5 Nov 1930.

Citation details

Carole Woods, 'Billson, Alfred Arthur (1858–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/billson-alfred-arthur-5235/text8813, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 December 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

View the front pages for Volume 7

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