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Mills, William George (1859–1933)

by Penelope Hetherington

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William George James Mills (1859-1933), stud sheep breeder, was born on 7 September 1859 at Native Valley near Adelaide, second son of Richard Mills, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Henry. He was a grandson of Kentish migrants Richard and Sarah Mills, who arrived in South Australia in 1840. William attended Nairne Public School and the Presbyterian Grammar School of Rev. A. Laws at Mount Barker. He lived on his father's property, Millbrae, where he was to achieve an Australia-wide reputation as a merino sheep breeder. In 1881 his father retired and sold all of Millbrae except 500 acres (202 ha) around the homestead, which was leased to the two eldest sons, Richard and William, with a gift of 400 sheep and some horses; Richard relinquished his share to William. Next year, on 19 July, William married Englishwoman Lizzie Martha Champion.

By 1900 the property had grown to 5000 acres (2024 ha) including neighbouring Bondleigh. In 1923 Mills left Millbrae to his eldest son Alec and moved to Sturtbrae, south of Adelaide, where he bred sheep until his death in 1933. His real success in sheep-breeding had come after 1900 as a result of buying three rams which brought to his stud the qualities of three of Australia's most famous flocks.

On 14 December 1915 Mills was among thirty-six South Australian farmers who met in Adelaide and established a Farmers and Settlers' Association. Mills, who was president from 1916 to 1921 except briefly in 1918, emphasized uniting the farming community. He knew that tensions existed in the organization because of disparate farming interests, wealth and family origin. Mills favoured operating as a pressure group without parliamentary representation, but others preferred to transform the association into a political party.

The decision to form the Country Party was taken by the association in September 1917; alterations to the constitution were agreed upon in December. The F.S.A. endorsed Mills and six other candidates for parliament at the 1918 State election; he won the Legislative Council seat for the Northern district. He was now president of the Country Party but there was some ambiguity, since the party's two members of parliament were variously identified as F.S.A. representatives, members of the Independent Country Party and members who 'sit in the House as independent farmers' representatives'. The Country Party name was formally adopted after the 1921 election.

Mills's farming experience had made him sympathetic to the radical wheatgrowers of the Mallee country who attacked the interests of city capital, represented by the Liberal Union. But he opposed any move suggestive of support for the Labor Party. Because of his pioneering background Mills celebrated personal initiative, thrift and hard work; but he also sympathized with unfortunate people who lacked his advantages. He was most at home as a respected, successful farmer in the rural areas where community spirit still existed; and he distrusted urban politicians whose class divisions defined their political behaviour. He tried to carry his allegiance into politics by representing himself as the spokesman for all rural people.

Although his parliamentary career began with the foundation of the Country Party, he had not founded it, as has been claimed. In 1921 he supported moves to create the Progressive Country Party, which he believed would widen the party's base of support. The rejection of these moves by the F.S.A. membership led to his resignation as president. He remained a committed spokesman for rural interests in the Legislative Council until his retirement in 1933. The formation of the Liberal and Country League in 1932, which he had refused to join, reflected the weakness of the Country Party as an independent force; its formation had highlighted deep divisions among farmers.

Survived by his wife, four daughters and three sons, Mills died on 20 September 1933 and was buried at Blakiston. His will provided for the building on his land near Blackwood of homes for aged or infirm farmers no longer able to earn a living.

Select Bibliography

  • Pastoral Review, Millbrae, Native Valley and Sturtbrae, Sturt, South Australia (Adel, nd)
  • Garden and Field Pty, Our Pastoral Industry (Adel, 1910)
  • U. R. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1927)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • M. Mills, Millbrae and its Founding Family (Adel, 1973)
  • P. Hetherington, The Making of a Labor Politician (Perth, 1982)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 21 Sept 1933
  • PRG 35 (State Records of South Australia).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Penelope Hetherington, 'Mills, William George (1859–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mills-william-george-7595/text13265, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 May 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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