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Hodgkinson, William Oswald (1835–1900)

by June Stoodley

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

William Oswald Hodgkinson (1835-1900), sailor, explorer, journalist, miner, goldfields warden and politician, was born on 31 March 1835 at Handsworth, Warwick, England, son of William Oswald Hodgkinson, civil engineer, and his wife Harriet, née Brown. Educated at Birmingham Grammar School he early began his varied and energetic career. In 1851 he first viewed Australia as a midshipman in the mercantile marine. By 1853 he was in government service on the Tarnagulla and Forest Creek goldfields in Victoria, and may have shared in the Eureka affair in 1854. He then returned to England and was a clerk in the War Office until 1859, when he sailed for Melbourne to join the literary staff of the Age. His reporting brought him into contact with Robert O'Hara Burke, whose expedition he joined in 1860. At one stage he rode to Melbourne and back, over 800 miles (1287 km) in twenty days. He fortunately missed the fatal later half of the expedition, became one of Alfred Howitt's search party and then, requested by the South Australian government, became second-in-command of the 1861 John McKinlay relief party. He claimed that George Goyder taught him surveying to enable him to qualify for the post. This expedition, after finding Gray's grave, discovered the Diamantina, crossed the McKinlay Range to the Leichhardt River, and went through the Burdekin country to Bowen.

Hodgkinson became editor of the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin, then founded a short-lived weekly and in 1866 gave Mackay its first newspaper, the Mercury. He soon sold out, returned to Rockhampton and in 1868 appeared with a crushing battery on the young Ravenswood goldfield. There and at the Cape field he became well known, floating several companies and joining other mining ventures. In 1870 he moved to the Etheridge goldfield for his first post as mining warden and police magistrate, his impact winning him election to the Legislative Assembly for the Burke district in 1874. Still restless, he resigned his seat in 1875 to lead a government expedition to examine the area between the Etheridge and Cloncurry fields and new country in the south-west and to report on it for mining, pastoral and agricultural purposes. This last officially-sponsored expedition in Queensland opened up the last major unexplored area, taking him to the Diamantina, Mulligan and Herbert Rivers, north to Normanton and up the Cloncurry and Flinders Rivers to Brisbane. In January 1876 his friend James Mulligan discovered the river and goldfield which he named after Hodgkinson.

In 1878-83 Hodgkinson was mining warden, on the Etheridge to 1881 and then on the Palmer where in 1884 he was temporarily suspended pending investigation of one of his reports. To the select committee of inquiry it more closely resembled a prospectus boosting a mine in which (Sir) Thomas McIlwraith, premier and minister for mines, was interested, and aimed at investment in the field while glossing over its languishing condition. However, the committee admitted that McIlwraith had asked for a report, and that Hodgkinson had strong faith that untapped reefs would revive this old alluvial field. But more than scandal was needed to halt Hodgkinson. By 1886 he was warden for Gympie, the premier goldfield, and chosen by the new premier, Sir Samuel Griffith, as special commissioner to examine sites for prospective government-subsidized central sugar-mills and alternative claims for continued coloured labour. On his recommendation two central mills were tried at Mackay but in vain.

Hodgkinson had supported McIlwraith, but in 1887 Griffith offered him the new portfolio of mines and works. Opposition papers in 1888 claimed that this was Griffith's best election card for the north where he was disliked but Hodgkinson was 'deservedly popular with most mining communities'. Requested to stand for six electorates he chose Burke and was successful, but the Griffith government was not. In 1890 he was given the curious portfolio of mines and public instruction under the Griffith-McIlwraith coalition. He initiated several important mining Acts before his defeat by John Hoolan in 1893 when Labor first began to sweep the mining electorates.

Like many other miners Hodgkinson went to Western Australia where he represented an English syndicate and won wide respect as an expert on mining. In 1896 he was in Sydney until appointed in 1899 first editor of the Queensland Government Mining Journal. He died of influenza on 23 July 1900, predeceased by his wife Kate, née Robertson, whom he had married in Rockhampton, and survived by three of their four children.

Hodgkinson had 'a ready pen and a ready tongue' but his literary style was described as 'chiefly distinguished by its great diffuseness', and to C. A. Bernays he was 'voluble' in parliament. Such a failing was perhaps a safety-valve for his explosive energy. In the politics of the pre-Labor era he called himself a working man's representative. Reputed an admirer of Peter Lalor he supported the miners' stand against Chinese encroachment on the goldfields and later against the employers' attempts to cut wages and employment. In 1890 he linked himself with Thomas Glassey as 'a new power in the House' which was alarming to the more conservative, though he was too far to the right to satisfy the demands of Labor in the 1890s. Exploration was probably his most notable achievement.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian Series (Melb, 1882)
  • R. L. Jack, Northmost Australia, vol 2 (Lond, 1921)
  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1874-75, 1888-92
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1883-84, 1607, 1884, 3, 241, 1885, 1, 1157, 1886, 2, 1
  • Goldfields reports, 1878-84, 1886
  • M. Walmsley, ‘William Oswald Hodgkinson, 1838 (sic)-1900’, Bulletin (Historical Society, Cairns), no 58, Dec 1963, pp 1-2 and no 59, Jan 1964, pp 1-2
  • Brisbane Courier, 24 July 1900.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

June Stoodley, 'Hodgkinson, William Oswald (1835–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hodgkinson-william-oswald-3775/text5961, published in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 3 October 2014.

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

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