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Glass, Hugh (1817–1871)

by J. E. Senyard

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

Hugh Glass (1817-1871), speculator, squatter and merchant, was born at Portaferry, County Down, Ireland, son of Thomas Glass, merchant, and his wife Rachael, née Pollock. In 1840 he migrated to Victoria and began farming on the Merri Creek; by 1845 he had established himself as a station agent and merchant. In 1853 he married Lucinda (Lucy), youngest daughter of Captain Nash, Victorian squatter and sometime of the 21st Royal Scots Fusiliers. Within two years Glass had doubled his station holding and begun stock dealing. At this time he built Flemington House, valued in the 1850s at £60,000; with its artificial lake and white swans, its Corinthian colonnaded portico supporting a long balcony, its huge ballroom and its landscaped garden sloping down to the Moonee Ponds Creek, it became the showplace of Melbourne.

As an agent and dealer, Glass speculated in buying and selling stations throughout eastern Australia. He also owned a core of runs from which he sent stock to Newmarket sales, the most notable being the Wimmera and Westernport stations of Moyreisk, Nettyallock, Avoca Forest, Bullock Creek, Weddikar and Glengower. Although Glass invested in mining and suburban real estate, his absorbing interest was the stock and station market and he considered himself primarily a squatter. By the early 1860s he was at his peak; in 1862 he was reputed the richest man in Victoria, worth some £800,000. As a businessman, he was a brilliant organizer with a detailed knowledge of the law which he used to his advantage. He was also alert to the possibilities of manipulating the men who made the law. For instance, in the 1860s he formed and directed an association aimed at influencing parliamentarians to pass land bills sympathetic to the pastoral interest. Although the extent of this control of members is uncertain, James McKean claimed in 1869 that one of Glass's associations had spent £80,000 in influencing members. Without doubt Glass had made himself a force to be feared and reckoned with in Victorian politics. He created around himself an aura of absolute power and self-assurance. At Flemington House he entertained lavishly, while his office was a centre of financial and political influence and Collins Street his court. By his style of life he buoyed up his contemporaries' trust in him, his methods and his empire.

With all his ability Glass was unable to maintain his position. Under selection Glass, unlike other big squatters such as Richard Goldsbrough, bought large areas of freehold, mostly by acquiring certificates under the 1865 Land Act and by employing dummies. This latter method of Glass's became notorious and a poem entitled 'The Charge of the Dirty Three Hundred', reputedly written by a clerk in the lands department, was widely circulated:

'Pay them all' said H - - - G - - - -
'Let them all go to hell
All that are left of them
All the three hundred'.

The cost of supporting dummies and buying certificates meant that Glass paid dearly for his land and had to borrow heavily. Thus his pastoral empire became based on heavily mortgaged assets which after 1865 were shown to be vulnerable.

By the mid-1860s Glass owned 35,000 acres (14,164 ha) scattered over twenty runs, none of which was particularly productive. In his intrigues to acquire land he often lost sight of its economic potential and bought unwisely. In the late 1850s he had also extended his leasehold interests into parts of Victoria and New South Wales with unreliable water supplies, and droughts in 1865-66 and 1868-69 exposed the weakness of his leases and freehold in these areas. The droughts decimated his assets and reduced the resale value of the remaining stock and of the stations themselves. Glass attempted to extricate himself by selling some of his stations, but did so at a loss. Worse still, three of his purchasers failed in 1869, owing him over £100,000. In that year Glass's business empire collapsed: he assigned his estate to trustees, with debts reckoned at more than £500,000. All that remained was his suburban land which later helped to clear the estate.

Glass's political influence in Melbourne came under attack at the same time. A select committee found him guilty of taking part in corrupt practices and parliament committed him to gaol. The Supreme Court, headed by Sir William Stawell, a former partner, promptly reversed parliament's decision, arguing that the legislature had encroached upon the powers of the judiciary. The decision to release Glass was popular and he was widely congratulated. However, the popularity of his release derived as much from the feeling that parliament was corrupt, overbearing and ripe for censure as from any sympathy with Glass himself. None the less his political power had been effectively broken by the scandal.

Glass's personal life was also placed under stress. Lucy, the baby, had died in 1866 and another daughter, Evangelina, died in June 1869 aged eleven months. In addition Glass's own health was deteriorating from cancer of the liver. Survived by his wife and eight children, he died on 15 May 1871 aged 55. The inquest jury found that the immediate cause of death was an overdose of chloral, administered at his own request by his son, with the object of causing sleep to relieve pain. However, the evidence at the inquest by two doctors who attended Glass on his death indicated that the dose was fatal only because of his already diseased condition 'from which he might have died in a few months'.

Glass had enjoyed a career without parallel amongst nineteenth-century Australian financiers and pastoralists. Within ten years he fell from financial heights to bankruptcy and from success as a political manipulator to rebuke by parliament. His strength lay in his vitality and opportunism but he lacked foresight. His political dealings left him open to public criticism while his rash purchases of land strained his financial resources, leaving his pastoral interests exposed to the dangers of drought. In the event his network of power and wealth collapsed.

Select Bibliography

  • H. H. Peck, Memoirs of a Stockman (Melb, 1942)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • C. E. Sayers, David Syme: A Life (Melb, 1965)
  • Leader (Melbourne), 13 Sept 1862
  • Argus (Melbourne), Apr-May 1869, 16 May 1871
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 May 1871
  • Armytage papers (State Library of Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. E. Senyard, 'Glass, Hugh (1817–1871)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/glass-hugh-3620/text5625, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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

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

View the front pages for Volume 4

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