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Cornish, William Crocker (1815–1859)

by John Maxwell

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

William Crocker Cornish (1815-1859), building contractor, was born in Cornwall, England, son of William Crocker Cornish, carpenter, and his wife Mary, née Bennett. He migrated to Melbourne in the Kent and arrived in September 1852. In the building boom of the 1850s Cornish established a very successful contracting business. His first contract, for the Melbourne Post Office in 1853, was followed by many others for public and private buildings throughout the colony. In April 1855 he contracted for the Geelong Post Office and Customs House. Throughout 1856 he was building the Houses of Parliament, a contract worth well over £50,000, but by his insistence on a ten-hour day he clashed with the trade unions who demanded an eight-hour day. When the unions declared that the new system was to begin on 21 April, Cornish refused to recognize their claims even though all other contractors had done so. The government, anxious to have the new legislative chambers completed on time, negotiated a compromise. Cornish was given more than £1700 in compensation for the difference between wage costs of the ten-hour and eight-hour systems, despite strong evidence that his loss had been offset by a general reduction of 1s. a day in wages. In May he joined six other Melbourne businessmen, who jointly made a loan of £2400 to Ebenezer Syme enabling him to buy the Age. Cornish's action is mysterious in view of Syme's radicalism.

In 1857 Cornish built the Castlemaine and a large part of the Melbourne gaols, and in 1858 completed the Bank of New South Wales building in Melbourne at a cost of £38,000. In June he began the major work of his career. He had formed a partnership with John Bruce to tender for constructing the Melbourne to River Murray and the Geelong to Ballarat railways. The partners won the contract for the first thirteen sections of the Melbourne-Murray railway, to be built at a cost of some £3,357,000. Cornish & Bruce employed more than six thousand men, and from the beginning tried to make large profits by exploiting unemployment in the colony: their irregular payments, attempts to reduce wages, and methods of subcontracting caused much discontent. Before the work began Cornish & Bruce tried to arrange for the introduction under contract of thousands of non-union English workmen. When the railway was opened to Sunbury on 13 January 1859 Cornish & Bruce arranged elaborate festivities to mark the occasion. However, Cornish died, aged 44, on 31 March 1859 at his Brighton home, leaving his partner to complete the major part of the contract. He was survived by his wife Jane, née Rowell, and six of their seven children. His widow was a principal litigant in R. v. Cornish and Bruce which lasted over five years before the government recognized the additional financial claims of the contractors.

Select Bibliography

  • W. E. Murphy, History of the Eight Hours' Movement (Melb, 1896)
  • J. Harrigan, Victorian Railways to '62 (Melb, 1963)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • Board of Inquiry into Additional Cost of Building the Houses of Parliament, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1856-57, 4 (34)
  • Government Gazette (Victoria), 1855-58
  • Australian Builder and Railway Chronicle, 12 Nov 1858, 2 Apr 1859
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Apr 1859.

Citation details

John Maxwell, 'Cornish, William Crocker (1815–1859)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cornish-william-crocker-3263/text4941, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 November 2018.

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

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