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Hill, William Caldwell (1866–1939)

by L. Lomas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

William Caldwell Hill (1866-1939), by unknown photographer, c1926

William Caldwell Hill (1866-1939), by unknown photographer, c1926

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24216652 [detail]

William Caldwell Hill (1866-1939), farmer and politician, was born on 14 April 1866 at Burnt Creek, near Dunolly, Victoria, son of English parents John Hill and his wife Sarah, née Baker. When the Dunolly flour-mill, established by John Hill and his elder brother Joseph, was burnt down the Hills moved to pioneer a forest selection at Stradbroke, Gippsland, where William attended part-time school. At 21 he joined the clerical division of the Victorian Railways. His mother, who could not read or write, had impressed the value of education upon her family and while serving as stationmaster at Elphinstone he walked four miles to Castlemaine three times a week to attend evening classes. On 23 March 1892 at a Wesleyan ceremony at Chewton he married Lucy Isabella, daughter of Edward Shields, a tannery-owner who had been mayor of Chewton Borough. On Shields's death Hill left his position as assistant stationmaster at Ascot Vale to manage the Chewton tannery. A keen Rechabite, he was also secretary of the Castlemaine Rifle Clubs' Union and was on the Chewton Borough Council in 1900-06.

In 1906 the Closer Settlement Board purchased David Mitchell's Colbinabbin estate for subdivision for wheat and sheep-farming. Hill and his wife selected blocks in 1908. A large, strong, rather stern and austere yet affectionate man who demanded high standards of himself and his family, William not only farmed successfully but worked to improve the lot of settlers; he was secretary of the Colbinabbin Progress Association and supported the Church of England on the settlement.

In 1915, suspecting that wheat-merchants were conniving with the government to decrease the price paid to farmers for wheat pooled to alleviate wartime shipping problems, angry settlers formed a Wheat Pool Vigilance Committee and elected Hill secretary. In 1916-19 Hill was founding president of the Victorian Farmers' Union, pledged to send farmers to Federal and State parliaments. He was also a delegate to the Australian Farmers' Federal Organization formed in 1916, a growers' representative on the Australian Wheat Board (1919), a member of the advisory council of the Victorian Wheat Commission and chairman of directors of the Farmers' Advocate Newspaper Co. During this period he led a movement to supply cheaper superphosphate to farmers: in 1919, as chairman of directors of the Phosphate Co-operative Co. of Australia Ltd, an office he held until his death, he defied proprietary companies and established a fertiliser works on the Geelong waterfront. An often-quoted example of farmer co-operation, the works producing Pivot fertilisers developed into reputedly the largest in the Southern hemisphere. Faith in voluntary farmer co-operation and an encyclopaedic yet practical knowledge of the wheat industry enabled Hill to launch the Victorian Wheat-Growers' Corporation Ltd in 1921; he was first chairman and a director until his death.

Hill entered Federal parliament in September 1919 after winning the Echuca by-election as a V.F.U. candidate. He was active in the founding of the Country Party in 1920. In parliament he took a typical middle-of-the-road Country Party stance: he refused to co-operate with the Hughes government, but accepted the portfolio of works and railways when Percy Stewart resigned as a protest against the electoral pact with the Bruce government in August 1924. Both his national vision and his impatience to get things done for country people are reflected in his four major ministerial achievements: the standardization of the railway gauges by construction of the line from Kyogle, New South Wales, to South Brisbane; the construction of the rail line from Oodnadatta, South Australia, to Alice Springs in pursuit of the dream of a north-south transcontinental line; the introduction of a Federal aid road scheme to subsidize States for highway construction; and the building of the Hume Weir, which he pursued as president of the River Murray Water Commission.

By 1928 signs of depression made development schemes unpopular; Hill was dropped from cabinet in favour of William Gibson. Next year he left work on the farm to his sons and moved to Ivanhoe, Melbourne. He retired from parliament in 1934, refusing to sign a pledge to vote according to the will of the Victorian Country Party, which he now considered unacceptably radical. (Sir) John McEwen, a future leader of the Federal Country Party, filled his place as member for Echuca.

Hill died at Nar Nar Goon on 15 November 1939 and was buried in Heidelberg cemetery. He was survived by his wife Bella—the cheerful, capable manager of family and farm over many long parliamentary sessions—and by six children, five of whom remained on the land. His estate was valued for probate at £21,646.

Select Bibliography

  • U. R. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1926, p 479, 1939, pp 1162, 1285
  • Farmers Advocate, 26 Nov 1919
  • L. G. Lomas, The Western District Farmer 1914-27 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1979)
  • private information.

Citation details

L. Lomas, 'Hill, William Caldwell (1866–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hill-william-caldwell-6673/text11505, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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