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Miles, William (1817–1887)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

William Miles (1817-1887), squatter and politician, was born on 5 May 1817 at Kingsknowe, Edinburgh, son of William Miles, farmer, and his wife Alison, née Wilson. Educated at Colinton Parish School, he moved about 1831 to Glasgow and became an ironworker. At Colinton in 1838 he married Mary Taylor. They sailed in the Duncan as assisted migrants and arrived at Sydney on 30 June.

Miles found work with W. H. Chapman as a 'general useful' on his Macleay River station. He was soon an overseer and in 1844 became manager for Captain Charles Steele at Towal Creek. Later Miles supervised several of John Maclean's New England properties. With David Bell he overlanded stock from New England to the Dawson River, Queensland, in 1852 and later rented Kinoul station. In 1857 Miles acquired Dulacca on the Western Downs and in the Queensland pastoral expansion of the 1860s took up more runs in the Leichhardt, Warrego, Maranoa and Gregory North Districts. His final acquisition was Park Head, a freehold estate on the Condamine River near Dalby, where he lived until retiring in the 1870s to his home, Raceview, in Toowoomba.

Miles was shrewd and cautious as a pastoralist. He was one of the few Queensland pioneers to profit from this hazardous activity and his investments later proved to be more soundly based than those of most contemporaries. His practical knowledge of sheep-farming was invaluable and he prospered largely by continuous speculation, moving west when closer settlement threatened and perspicaciously selling out before drought or depression struck. His profits were invested, particularly in the Royal Bank of Queensland which he founded in 1885 and of which he was chairman of directors, and the Metropolitan Building Society. He also held politically-useful shares in several Queensland newspapers.

In 1864 Miles entered the Queensland Legislative Assembly for Maranoa. Defeated by McIlwraith in 1873, he held Carnarvon in 1874-75, Northern Downs in 1876-78 and Darling Downs in 1878-87. After visiting the Philadelphia Exhibition in 1876 he joined John Douglas's ministry as colonial secretary on 15 March 1877 and held the post until appointed secretary for public works in November. He resigned in November 1878 before the Douglas group began to disintegrate. On the victory of the Griffith Liberals in 1883 Miles returned to the public works portfolio, coupling it with that of mines, and holding both until 1887 despite increasing deafness.

As a colourful politician with blunt vigour, definite commitments and strong personal hates and allegiances, Miles was no orator but he tried to dominate his audience by a combination of conviction, common sense, lung-power and steam-roller debating tactics and mannerisms. Unswervingly loyal at a time when devotion to principles or leaders was not characteristic of colonial politicians, he quarrelled with his friend McIlwraith in 1871 and later conducted a bitter legal and political battle with his countryman, whose flamboyant financial and public schemes he suspected and distrusted. Although a thoroughgoing squatter until 1874, he became known for his advocacy of liberal principles. This conversion coincided with the transfer of his investments from pastoral paddocks to urban streets. Like most of his group, property was his God and self-improvement the way to salvation, but unlike many of his pastoral fellows he believed that opportunities to acquire riches should be enlarged and that the government should underwrite developmental schemes and foster agricultural settlement.

Miles favoured heavy borrowing and was responsible for great, if not always wise or lucrative, expenditure between 1884 and 1887. Successful in the Works Department he was not happy as secretary of mines since he lacked the special knowledge, vision and patience necessary for success. The very qualities which served him well in one office handicapped him in the other, and he was never in the first rank as a politician. He was tenacious, outspoken, unusually honest and hard-working, and his rough manners and picturesque profanities made him a valuable workhorse of the Griffith ministry but his faults and virtues counterbalanced in smaller measure the cool caution of his leader. A Presbyterian, Miles died at Toowoomba on 22 August 1887 and was buried in Toowong cemetery, survived by his wife and two daughters. His probate was sworn at an unexpectedly low £60,708. A town in Queensland is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 25 Aug 1887
  • Queenslander, 27 Aug 1887.

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Miles, William (1817–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miles-william-4199/text6757, published in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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