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Knox, William (1850–1913)

by Doreen Wheeler

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

William Knox (1850-1913), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

William Knox (1850-1913), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23385949

William Knox (1850-1913), businessman and politician, was born on 25 April 1850 in Melbourne, son of George Knox, schoolteacher, and his wife Mary, née Johnson, his parents having arrived two months earlier from Berwickshire, Scotland. The family moved to Horsham, then Ballarat. After schooling at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he excelled at athletics, Knox was employed by Robert Harper & Co. as an office boy, before joining the Bank of Victoria in 1866. He served at Beechworth, Kilmore, Daylesford and several other country centres before returning to the Melbourne office as confidential secretary to the general manager. In 1882 he resigned to set up a private accountancy practice.

On 27 June 1885 Knox accepted Harvey Patterson's offer of the secretaryship of the newly formed Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd, Patterson having noted Knox's work for the Pioneer Tin Mining Co., Tasmania. In 1888 his yearly salary of £75 was increased to £1500, conditional on his relinquishing work for companies other than B.H.P. and its offshoot the British Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd.

Generally regarded as the brains behind B.H.P., which quickly became Australia's wealthiest enterprise and the world's most successful silver-mine, Knox threw great energy and talent into resolving the company's increasing complexities. The mine and its technical staff were located at Broken Hill, New South Wales, the refinery and shipping outlet at Port Pirie, South Australia; the board of directors was part time and based in both Melbourne and Adelaide where there were large and vocal shareholder groups; while London agents communicated weekly the world metals prices and arranged sales of the company bullion. Knox was the co-ordinator, and also arranged liaison with the New South Wales and South Australian governments regarding railway, water, land and mineral leases. He organized branch offices in Adelaide, Sydney and London, floated Broken Hill Proprietary Block 14 Co. Ltd in 1887, Broken Hill Proprietary Block 10 Co. Ltd in 1888 and that year travelled to London to float British B.H.P. He revisited London in 1890 to open a register for British shareholders in the parent company, with a separate board of London directors. London negotiations in particular involved delicate handling of brokers, financiers and publicists, and intimate knowledge of English and colonial share markets.

During the 1892 strike at Broken Hill Knox represented the combined employers as honorary secretary of the Barrier Ranges Mining Companies Association. When he resigned as B.H.P. secretary on 17 March next year to become managing director of Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd he was immediately offered a seat on the B.H.P. board, which he held until 1910; in 1907-09 he was vice-chairman.

In June 1893 Knox visited London to interest English investors in Mount Lyell, but was thwarted by depression, coal strikes and a fall in metals prices. In 1899 as acting chairman of Mount Lyell he began negotiations with the North Mount Lyell Copper Co. and in 1903, after discussions with the North Lyell board in London, succeeded in arranging a merger described as 'the greatest in Australian mining history'.

Knox was also a shareholder in Mount Morgan (Queensland) and Kalgoorlie (Western Australia) gold-mines, and a director of the Tharsis Co. (Tasmania) and the Chillagoe Mining and Railway Co. (Queensland). In 1888 he helped form the Silverton Tramway Co. which became the second most profitable enterprise in New South Wales; and in 1894 he established, with H. H. Schlapp, the mine agent and machinery firm, Knox, Schlapp & Co.

From 1888 Knox was a member of the Melbourne Stock Exchange; in 1889 he was on the committee of the Victorian Association of Legal Managers and Secretaries of Mining Companies; and in 1896 he took a leading part in establishing the Chamber of Mines and was its first president. He was president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce in 1904-07, and of the Associated Chambers of Commerce for several years (including 1909 when he chaired the organizing committee for the Victorian meeting of the Imperial Congress of Chambers of Commerce). He was president of the Australasian Institute of Mining Engineers in 1900. In 1901 when Professor W. C. Kernot made a personal donation of £1000 to the University of Melbourne for a school of mining engineering, Knox attempted to raise £2000 from the State government and prominent mining men; but he failed to interest the government.

Knox was a Malvern Shire councillor in 1892-1910 and president in 1892-95. In 1898 he was elected to the Legislative Council for South-Eastern Province and in 1900-02 was a member of the royal commission on local government laws. A keen advocate of Federation, Knox became member for Kooyong in the 1901 House of Representatives where, although he moved from a free-trade to a protectionist position, he remained unwaveringly opposed to Labor. On his motion parliament decided to commence each day's sitting with prayers. He was an enthusiastic supporter of Deakin's Defence Act of 1903 and afterwards produced valuable work on State and Federal finances. In 1904-06 he served on the royal commission on navigation laws. Never an orator but notable for solid, painstaking work, Knox resigned his seat in 1910 after a stroke left him partially enfeebled.

Photographs show Knox as large and moustached, with curly hair middle-parted, alert eyes and pugnacious jaw. His manner was commanding, affable with friends and disdainful with enemies. An ardent supporter of the cadet and rifle movements, Knox was president of the Malvern Rifle Association. He was a founder of the Royal Melbourne Golf Club, a member of the Australian Natives' Association and the Old Scotch Collegians and in 1906 chairman of the Protestant Electors' Committee. He was an enthusiastic Freemason. His imposing estate, Ranfurlie, in East Malvern, was annually used by the Melbourne Hunt Club for its opening meet.

On 24 January 1884 at Carlton, Knox had married Catherine Mary McMurtrie; they had five sons and two daughters. In March 1913 with his wife and younger children he again visited England. He died on 25 August 1913 at Folkestone, Kent; his body was returned to Melbourne for burial in Boroondara cemetery after a Presbyterian service. He left an estate valued for probate in Victoria at £49,411. Knox had declined a knighthood, but two of his sons, George Hodges and Robert Wilson, were so honoured.

William Knox with Bowes Kelly, William Jamieson, Duncan McBryde and others was one of the 'mining magnates' of the period 1885 to 1914. All made fortunes, but the investment was honest and not based on market-rigging. Knox in particular backed his financial contribution with outstanding zeal and administrative ability and a broad grasp of public and financial affairs.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vols 1-3 (Melb, 1903-05)
  • R. Bridges, From Silver to Steel (Melb, 1920)
  • J. B. Cooper, A History of Malvern (Melb, 1935)
  • P. Mawson, A Vision of Steel (Melb, 1958)
  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1967), and The Rise of Broken Hill (Melb, 1968)
  • A. Trengove, "What's Good for Australia...!' : The Story of BHP (Syd, 1975)
  • Scientific Australian, 20 June 1901
  • Bulletin, 12 Nov 1892
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 Apr 1893
  • Punch (Melbourne), 11 Aug 1904, 16 Nov 1905
  • Age (Melbourne), , 27 Aug 1913
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1913
  • R. A. Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria)
  • W. C. Kernot papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • BHP, minutes of board meetings, 1885-1910, and half-yearly reports of general meetings, 1893, 1910, 1913, and correspondence, 1885-95 (BHP Billiton Archives, Melbourne)
  • Malvern Shire Council, minutes, 1892-1910 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Doreen Wheeler, 'Knox, William (1850–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knox-william-6994/text12157, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 September 2014.

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

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