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Robertson, Alexander William (1831–1896)

by Alan Barnard

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Alexander William Robertson (1831-1896), coachline proprietor and pastoralist, was born on 16 January 1831, possibly at sea between Scotland and Canada. He was the eldest son and fourth of ten children of Farquhar Robertson and his wife Catherine, née MacIver, from Glenelg, Inverness-shire, Scotland, who migrated to Hawkesbury, Ontario. Alexander arrived in Victoria in 1853, spent some time on the goldfields, and then started as a carrier. By 1859 Robertson, Simpson & Co. was operating a daily wagon service between Melbourne and Bendigo. In 1860 he formed the Ovens Stage Co., but its Melbourne to Beechworth passenger service competed in vain with existing lines and the same year he became manager of the Bendigo Stage Co.

The firm of Robertson and Wagner, for many years identified with the name of 'Cobb & Co.', was created in the summer of 1861-62. In 1861 Robertson and John F. Britton, a coach driver with the original Cobb & Co., won the 1862 Melbourne-Bendigo mail contract and bought the coach service run by the former contractors; within months John Wagner, also a Canadian and ex-carrier, took Britton's place; then a syndicate including Robertson, Wagner, James Rutherford and Walter Russell Hall bought the name and business. The new firm of Robertson and Wagner traded as Cobb & Co. Robertson ran Victorian operations from Castlemaine and developed a near-monopoly of coach services and mail contracts in the north-central and north-west districts. In 1871 the Victorian business, at its peak, became the property of Robertson and Wagner.

On 26 November 1861 Robertson married Emily, daughter of Western District pastoralist Samuel John Davidson; she died in 1866, leaving a daughter. On 1 October 1867 he married Hannah Elizabeth Goldsbrough, daughter of Hugh Parker, brother-in-law and partner of R. Goldsbrough; she died in 1881, leaving three sons and two daughters.

Coaching declined as the railway network spread. Robertson widened his profitable pastoral interests, held through various partnerships with Goldsbrough, Wagner and his brother John (d. 24 June 1899). In 1881 he became a director, in 1886-93 chairman, of R. Goldsbrough & Co. Ltd. In 1882-88 he was also a director of the Squatting Investment Co., an offshoot of the Goldsbrough firm. Robertson was competent but did not provide strong leadership in the difficult years that preceded the 1893 financial collapse; he preferred to enjoy his wealth. A committee-man of the Victoria Racing Club from 1867, he was a keen sportsman. With a son at Cambridge and daughters at a finishing school in Paris, in the later 1880s he travelled extensively to England, the Continent and Canada. He entertained lavishly, at Perricoota station near Moama, New South Wales, where the Duke of Edinburgh visited, in London where Melba performed for his guests in June 1890, and in the opulent mansion, Ontario, which he built in Caulfield in 1890. He died at Caulfield on 16 July 1896 after a long illness and was buried in Boroondara cemetery, Kew.

Select Bibliography

  • K. A. Austin, The Lights of Cobb and Co. (Adel, 1967)
  • Australasian, 18 July 1896
  • Pastoral Review, 15 Aug 1896
  • Goldsbrough Mort & Co. records and Squatting Investment Co. papers (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Alan Barnard, 'Robertson, Alexander William (1831–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-alexander-william-4488/text7333, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 21 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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