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Robertson, William (1798–1874)

by J. Ann Hone

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

William Robertson (1798-1874), pastoralist, was born on 7 October 1798 at Alvie, Inverness-shire, Scotland, son of Donald Robertson, sheep-farmer, and his wife Christian, née MacBean. Educated at Baldow School, he was trained in sheep breeding by his father. In 1822 with his brother John he sailed in the Regalia to Van Diemen's Land. Their brother Duncan had preceded them and Daniel and James followed. William and John were granted 1400 acres (567 ha) near Campbell Town and they also took up a large cattle run. In 1832 they sold the Campbell Town property, acquired a run near Melton Mowbray and became merchants in Hobart Town. William was a leader of the Anti-transportation League. In 1834 he married Margaret Whyte of Berwick, Scotland, and they had four sons and three daughters.

In 1835 William joined the Port Phillip Association and contributed much to the cost of Batman's first expedition. In 1836 he sailed with J. T. Gellibrand in the Norval to Westernport. They overlanded to Melbourne and with William Buckley as their guide explored west of Corio Bay, a rugged trip which was easily met by Robertson's great physical strength and endurance. Robertson returned to Hobart but on another trip to Port Phillip in 1837 he acquired 6000 acres (2428 ha) near Colac and 7000 acres (2833 ha) at Bolinda (Sunbury) on Deep Creek. In 1843 he bought some of the Bolden brothers' stud and by 1847 had acquired Foster Fyans's run and herd in the Colac area. In 1849 he acquired the 40,000-acre (14,188 ha) Ondit run, north of Colac. In 1852 he retired from the Hobart business but did not make Victoria his permanent home until 1865. Meanwhile he had visited Britain and selected Herefords and Shorthorns for his Colac property, The Hill, by then one of the best cattle studs in Victoria. Robertson died on 18 January 1874, predeceased by his wife and a daughter; his extensive Colac property was divided equally between his sons, John (1837-1875), William (1839-1892), George Pringle (1842-1895) and James (1848-1890).

Working their properties in conjunction as Robertson Bros with James as managing director, they continued and improved their father's work. Continuing to specialize in breeding Shorthorns they also bred Clydesdales and light horses for the Indian market. Their most important innovation was the annual sale of stud cattle, the first in November 1874. Later described as 'not necessarily great breeders but great organizers and born salesmen', they had five main sales in 1874-78 for a return of £95,000. They issued a herd book in 1875 which contained the names of 189 bulls alone and for a time they were selling three-quarters of all the Shorthorns disposed of in Victoria. In 1875 the brothers bought the Mount Derrimut Stud herd of thirty-seven animals for £27,000. In January 1876 their most notable sale realized some £31,000. The boom in cattle broke at the end of the 1870s; George, William and James dissolved the partnership in 1885 and turned to sheepbreeding.

William, the second son, was born on 29 March 1839 and educated at the High School, Hobart, and Wadham College, Oxford (B.A., 1862) and in 1861 rowed in the winning crew against Cambridge. In 1863 he was called to the Bar at the Middle Temple, before returning to Melbourne where he was admitted to the Victorian Bar in 1864 and practised until 1876. On 24 April 1863 at Tunbridge Wells, he had married Martha Mary Murphy of Melbourne, by whom he had two sons and three daughters.

In 1871-74 William held the seat of Polwarth and South Grenville in the Legislative Assembly. In 1876-77 he visited Europe and North America. He won the seat again in 1880 and supported the Service reform bill but lost at the July elections; he held the seat in 1881-86. In 1886 he was elected to the Legislative Council for South Western Province but took little part in debates. He had leave of absence from August 1887 and retired by rotation next year.

William was a Colac Shire councillor from 1877 and president in 1880-81. An active supporter of the Colac Agricultural Society, he was a promoter of the 1879 Colac Regatta and its first president. A staunch Presbyterian, he supported the Colac Presbyterian Church and also other denominations. He inherited the splendid stone mansion, The Hill, where he lived the life of a 'hospitable and sport-loving country gentleman'. He died in an operation for cancer of the throat on 23 June 1892, leaving an estate worth £50,000.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • M. H. Ellis, The Beef Short-Horn in Australia (Syd, 1932)
  • A. Henderson (ed), Australian Families, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • J. N. Chapman, Historic Homes of Western Victoria (Colac, 1965)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 June 1892
  • Colac Reformer, 26 June 1892.

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Robertson, William (1798–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robertson-william-4491/text7339, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 October 2014.

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

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