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Corfield, William Henry (1843–1927)

by R. B. Joyce

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Corfield, c.1901

William Corfield, c.1901

State Library of Queensland, 115732

William Henry Corfield (1843-1927), carrier, politician and storeman, was born in Somerset, England, son of James Corfield, hardware merchant, and his wife Ann, née Pitfield. In 1862 he was visited by his uncle, H. C. Corfield, who had emigrated and taken up a holding at Stanton Harcourt, fifty-five miles (88 km) north-west of Maryborough, Queensland. His uncle's enthusiasm, he claimed, inspired him to 'seek his fortune' in Australia; he sailed from England in the City of Brisbane in February 1862. This claim and the often colourful story of his colonial career are derived from his Reminiscences of Queensland 1862-1899 (Brisbane, 1921), dedicated, with some thought of himself, 'to the Men and Women of the North and West. To Those who Blazed the Trail, and to those who Followed'.

For six years Corfield was employed by his uncle, working with cattle on Stanton Harcourt, overlanding sheep, or managing Clifton station. Like most contemporary Queenslanders he admired Aboriginal stockmen while damning 'wild' Aboriginals, and recalled such other pioneering difficulties as the unfamiliar diseases 'Belyando Spew' or 'Burketown fever'. In 1868 he left his uncle, who had refused to increase his pay from £200 to £300, and planned to return to England. The discovery of gold on the Cape River kept him in Queensland, but after his mining efforts brought 'no payable results', he turned to carrying goods by bullock team from these diggings to Townsville. His interests expanded to other goldfields and involved partners. By 1878 he had three bullock teams, but increasing competition persuaded him to settle at Pelican Waterholes (Winton).

With R. Fitzmaurice as his partner Corfield opened a store which proved profitable despite the risks of accepting cheques and of transporting takings 250 miles (402 km) to the nearest bank at Aramac. In 1879 the partners opened a hotel, the North Gregory, and in 1880 both bought town lands. W. M. Campbell replaced Fitzmaurice as his partner in 1881. In 1885 Corfield, established and prosperous, visited England and returned to Winton by way of the United States and New Zealand. Later he travelled in Queensland, one journey taking him to Thursday Island, through Hughenden, Cloncurry and Normanton. On this journey he met (Sir) Robert Philp who suggested that he stand for the Gregory electorate in support of Sir Thomas McIlwraith. Corfield accepted nomination in 1888 and was returned unopposed to the Legislative Assembly. Despite growing Labor opposition he held his seat at each election until 1896. Popular locally for his efforts to benefit the district, he advocated an artesian bore for Winton, a rail link with Townsville and a transcontinental railway to pass through the electorate. Party loyalty counted less than support of local issues and consistency with his electoral promises, and sometimes he voted against his leader.

Generally Conservative, Corfield strongly opposed the strikes of 1891 as a 'revolution against the State'. He praised the government for sending troops and supported non-unionists who were 'willing to accept the work offered to them'. He claimed that the peace preservation bill was necessary for 'a comparatively few malcontents, who are under the impression that because the social system … is not suddenly altered to meet their demands, they can by fire and force compel what they want'. Although he wanted to retain plural voting for property owners, he supported the agricultural lands purchase bill hoping that it would give to the 'dangerous surplus population' land as a 'stake in the country', inducing them to 'protect its interests against all enemies whether within or without'. On some issues his views were less rigid. In 1889 he opposed northern separation, but wanted more representation for the area and the capital moved from Brisbane. In 1890 he was converted to separation of both northern and central Queensland and in 1892 mildly supported the proposal for three provinces, warning that if it failed he would 'resume agitation for total separation'. By 1897, however, he had become convinced that 'separation is not desired by the great majority' and 'is not desirable in the interests of Queensland'. In 1889 on the question of Kanaka labour Corfield had some sympathy for the sugar growers but agreed with 'the people, the real rulers of the country, [who] say that coloured labour must go, even though the whole sugar industry go with it'. In 1892, however, he maintained that Kanakas were essential for the sugar industry and were required by both the large planter and the small farmer.

A consistent advocate of Federation as Australia's 'natural destiny' he was prepared in 1890 to sacrifice local rights and to ignore public apathy. By 1896 although still in general support of Federation he opposed Queensland joining any scheme whereby its interests were 'more affected than those of the other colonies'. After the 1898 referendum, however, he wished that Queensland had voted rather than face being 'forced into federation'. He became increasingly cynical about local politics where 'sincerity was to a great extent at a discount', and welcomed the excuse of his partner's illness for resigning in 1898. Soon afterwards Campbell died, and Corfield took a new partner, T. J. O'Rourke, for his western business.

A major preoccupation of Corfield's later life was water-divining. In 1906 he discovered he had the 'gift'; some early successes convinced others and he was often consulted. In his reminiscences Corfield does not mention either his wife Ellen, née Wood, whom he had married in an Anglican church at Rockhampton in 1879, or their only daughter Marion (b.1880). He died on 1 September 1927 in Brisbane, aged 84.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1888-98
  • LSD records, 1880 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

R. B. Joyce, 'Corfield, William Henry (1843–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/corfield-william-henry-3262/text4939, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

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