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Gaunt, William Henry (1830–1905)

by Austin Dowling

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

William Henry Gaunt (1830-1905), by unknown photographer

William Henry Gaunt (1830-1905), by unknown photographer

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H97.174

William Henry Gaunt (1830-1905), judge, was born on 27 July 1830 at Leek, Staffordshire, England, son of John Gaunt, banker, and his wife Mary, née Bakewell. Educated at Leek Grammar School and Whitchurch, Salop, he migrated to Melbourne, and entered the Victorian public service and was rapidly promoted. By March 1854 he was chief clerk at Beechworth, the administrative centre of the Ovens goldfield. In July 1855 the resident warden commended Gaunt as 'a highly valuable public servant' with an intimate knowledge of the district and the 'temper and disposition of the miners'. Appointed sub-warden in the Beechworth district in January 1856 and a Chinese protector in August, he was given control of the extensive Woolshed district. When European miners attacked a party of Chinese at the Buckland River diggings in May 1857 Gaunt was sent to restore order. One of his proclamations, issued in Chinese characters, concluded 'W. H. Gaunt, your protector—tremble and obey!' In June he was appointed a police magistrate and next month was sent to take charge at the Buckland where the Chinese had been expelled from the diggings; the police force assisting him was led by Robert O'Hara Burke. In January 1858 Gaunt was appointed a warden, in November was transferred to Chiltern, north of Beechworth, and in August 1859 was made a commissioner of crown lands.

In February 1860 Gaunt was appointed a coroner of Victoria, acting at Indigo, near Chiltern. In April 1865 he was transferred to Beechworth, became visiting justice of the gaol and later moved to Sandhurst. In January 1869 he was appointed returning officer for the mining district of Ballarat and visiting justice of the gaol. He was associated with this area for the rest of his life and won high repute for his integrity. In 1874 he chaired the inaugural meeting of the first Australian competitive swimming club. For years he studied law and was called to the Bar in December 1873. He was one of the many public servants dismissed by Graham Berry on 9 January 1878 (Black Wednesday). After petitioning the Queen in vain over his dismissal he began practice in Ballarat as a barrister. He soon became a leading authority on mining laws; one of the cases in which he was involved was the lengthy inquest on the bodies of the twenty-two miners drowned in the New Australasian mine disaster at Creswick in 1882. He was appointed a temporary judge of the Insolvency Court in 1889 and a County Court judge in 1891. In 1900 he was chairman of the royal commission which considered Metropolitan Board of Works matters, and in 1902 was president of the inquiry into the unification of municipalities in Victoria.

In 1860 Gaunt married Elizabeth Mary, the youngest daughter of Frederick Palmer; they had nine children. Of the surviving five sons and two daughters, Ernest Frederick Augustus and Guy Reginald Archer both became admirals and were knighted; Cecil Robert became a lieutenant-colonel, Clive Herbert a government advocate in Rangoon and Mary (Mrs H. L. Miller) one of the first women students to enrol at the University of Melbourne (1881), although she did not complete her degree; she became a successful novelist.

Gaunt died on 5 October 1905. An anonymous colleague said: 'I don't think he was ever excelled as a police magistrate, and during the many years he was on the County Court bench he earned the highest regard. His capacities were as unquestioned as his integrity, and more could not be said of any judge'.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1878, 3, (58)
  • Government Gazette (Victoria), 22 Feb, 15 Aug 1856, 30 June 1857, 5 Jan 1858, 16 Aug 1859, 3 Feb 1860, 7 Mar, 11 Oct 1862, 28 Mar, 4 Apr 1865, 17 May 1867, 9 June 1868, 22, 29 Jan 1869
  • Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 21 May 1857, 11 Mar 1865
  • Colonial Secretary's in-letters, goldfields, 25 Mar 1854, 21 July, 18 Nov 1855, 22 Aug 1857 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • scrapbook and newsclippings (privately held).

Citation details

Austin Dowling, 'Gaunt, William Henry (1830–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gaunt-william-henry-3600/text5585, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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