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Rounsevell, William Benjamin (1843–1923)

by G. L. Fischer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Benjamin Rounsevell (1843-1923), by Thomas Adcock, c1870

William Benjamin Rounsevell (1843-1923), by Thomas Adcock, c1870

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 9585

William Benjamin Rounsevell (1843-1923), pastoralist, businessman and politician, was born on 23 September 1843 in Adelaide, son of William Rounsevell (1816-1874) and his second wife Mary, née Palmer. Son of a Cornish farmer, William senior came to South Australia with his family in 1839, where he became a sergeant in the police force before going to the Victorian diggings. From 1854 his Adelaide livery stables grew into South Australia's chief mail-contracting and coaching service. He was an honourable businessman and generous to his employees. In 1867 Cobb & Co. bought the business and Rounsevell pursued other interests including Corryton Park, his pastoral property near Mount Crawford. Late in his life he acquired a coat of arms.

By his first wife Grace, née Rowe (d.1839), William senior had a son John born on 4 April 1836 at Tregony, Cornwall. He attended the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, then joined his father and managed the northern coaching lines; he became a great whip, once driving twenty-four grey horses through the streets of Adelaide. He held contracts for constructing a section of the Overland Telegraph, handling railway freight and supplying sleepers; he was also an explorer, a vigneron, bred merino sheep and worked northern pastoral runs. He represented Light (1865-68) and Gumeracha (1880-81) in the House of Assembly and sat on the Adelaide and Mount Crawford councils. Well known and liked, he died of heart failure on 15 May 1902 and was buried in West Terrace cemetery. He had married four times, and had issue from three of these unions.

John's half-brother William Benjamin was educated at Whinham College and the Collegiate School of St Peter. After training in office work, he joined his father's business. On 14 March 1864 he married Louisa Ann Carvosso (d.1912); they had no children but reared her nieces Olive and Bessie Earle; Bessie, at least, was reared in 'an advanced feminist manner'. 'Big Ben' Rounsevell had a brief interest in Cobb & Co., but concentrated on his many farms and northern pastoral interests; he was a vigneron and stock-breeder who imported game, raced horses and greyhounds, and grew European grasses experimentally. He later successfully moved in parliament for the provision of the Botanic Park site for the South Australian Acclimatization and Zoological Society. A cattle judge, he became president (1911-12) of the Royal Agricultural Society of South Australia. His wine and spirit firm merged with the South Australian Brewing, Wine & Spirit Co., of which he was managing director. He was chairman of directors of the hardware firm Colton, Palmer & Preston, had interests in other companies, was chairman of the Mount Crawford District Council and mayor of Glenelg in 1880-82 and 1912-13.

Rounsevell held the House of Assembly seat of Burra in 1875-90 and 1899-1906, and Port Adelaide in 1890-93. Initially a free trader, he experienced the practical difficulties of this position. Federation, intercolonial trade, tariffs, railway construction and water conservation interested him. Constitutionally conservative—he once said that he did not wish South Australia to be 'entirely democratic'—he yet supported women's suffrage and compulsory, free, secular, but rudimentary, national education, though he advocated some higher education for women. He scrutinized all land, pastoral and financial measures of the government in the interests of prudent economy. Vice-president of the Bi-Metallic League of South Australia, which supported currency reform, he sought better terms and larger holdings for selectors and fairer taxes for the working class. Possibly influenced by Henry George, he saw land as the ultimate source of revenue.

In 1881 Rounsevell was briefly treasurer in (Sir) William Morgan's ministry. From June 1884 to June 1885 he was treasurer under (Sir) John Colton and introduced the 1884 Act for a tax on land and on the income from real and personal property, professions, trades and avocations, Australia's first income tax legislation. He was again treasurer for six months in 1892 (as well as commissioner of public works (1890-92)) in Thomas Playford's ministry and in 1892-93 under Sir John Downer. He also joined Vaiben Solomon's December 1899 eight-day ministry.

A man of 'liberal ideas and honorable principles', Rounsevell was popular with all political parties; he 'loved this land far more than any party in it'. He mastered the Treasury's onerous duties, and ensured that legislation was clear, simple and explicit. Though he spoke bluntly in stentorian tones, occasionally quoting from literature, he accomplished much. A man of massive rotundity, profusely bearded, and with a 'genial phiz', he displayed 'heartiness, love of fair play, boundless good nature'. He wore a carnation button-hole and was a familiar and expansive Edwardian figure in his horse-drawn landau. He joined the Adelaide Club in 1877. Once a Wesleyan, he became a fervent theosophist, probably from the 1890s, and read widely in spiritualism.

Rounsevell died at Glenelg on 18 July 1923. After a service with Liberal Catholic forms, he was cremated and his ashes were placed in his wife's grave at Saint Jude's Anglican cemetery, Brighton. He left bequests to the Adelaide Theosophical Society and for the establishment of the Liberal Catholic Church in South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • British Australasian, 26 June 1902
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 May 1902, 19 July 1923
  • Register (Adelaide), 16 May 1902, 19, 21 July 1923
  • Bulletin, 31 May 1902
  • Mail (Adelaide), 13 Sept 1913
  • research note no 264 (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

G. L. Fischer, 'Rounsevell, William Benjamin (1843–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rounsevell-william-benjamin-8281/text14511, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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