Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Smith, William Collard (1830–1894)

by Weston Bate

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

William Collard Smith (1830-1894), agent, investor and politician, was born on 19 July 1830 at Bollington, Cheshire, England, youngest son of William Smith, cotton manufacturer, and his wife Margaret, née Wright. He arrived in Melbourne in the Birmingham in October 1852, went to Bendigo, returned to Melbourne and was at Creswick before settling at Ballarat early in 1855. Well built, with a good voice, ready wit and genial manner, he won repute as an auctioneer and land agent in partnership with E. A. Wynne, doing a brisk trade in crown land and often acting for squatters. In 1856 he was returned to the newly formed Ballarat West Council, and became chairman in 1860. By then, with Wynne, he had founded a bank and was a leader in mobilizing the vast investment needed to develop Ballarat's mines; he was prominent in the late 1860s in companies exploring the westward extension of the field; in 1868 he visited England with limited success to raise money for The Winter's Freehold Gold Mining Co. He was also interested in mining in South Australia and joined Wynne in several pastoral ventures.

Smith was elected to the Legislative Assembly for West Ballarat in August 1861. His platform reflected concern for local water-supply, a higher gold price and democratic reforms of the Upper House, education, land and the tariff. Never a centralist, he initiated the idea of country districts collecting and spending their own revenues and proposed the payment of country members of parliament. He was a pragmatic liberal democrat, though the Age saw him as a pseudo-liberal because he was acting as a land shark. Opponents claimed later, and some admirers conceded, that he lacked principles, but he was no demagogue and often formed policies in advance of the mood of the electorate. His sincerity and personal disinterestedness were never in question; although wealthy and an employer, he believed in social justice. After resigning from parliament and from the Ballarat West Council through pressure of business in 1864, he returned to parliament in 1871 on a platform that included inspection of mines, the protection of miners' wages by a lien on company plant and a radical taxation policy. He wanted to abolish the Mines Department, to introduce free and compulsory education, new electoral boundaries and strictly controlled immigration. One of his meetings broke up in complete disorder on the education issue.

Smith identified the future of Ballarat with that of the colony. He opposed Melbourne 'influence' sucking up public money and forcing expensive railway construction, which put a burden on country people. He favoured single track, light lines to open up the hinterland rapidly. In 1871 he influenced legislation that stipulated that miners should not work on Saturday night and in 1873 he brought down Australia's first Factory Act which helped to protect seamstresses and to improve conditions in factories; he chaired the 1882-84 royal commission into shops and factories and possibly wrote its scouring reports that produced the Factory Act of 1885. He was at home with the young and in 1877 he advocated votes for 18-year-olds and a free university. In 1873 he had chaired the royal commission on local government legislation.

The support of the Orange Lodge and membership of the Loyal Liberal Organization and later the National Reform League defined Smith's connexion with Graham Berry, under whom he served as minister of mines (1875), mines and public instruction (1877-80) and education (1880-81). As acting treasurer in 1879, he was misled into planning the expenditure of a non-existing £2 million, which caricaturists depicted as having been lost in his boots: the 'Major's boots' became famous. Later he fell out with Berry apparently over Federation, and clearly over factory reform, and was not a member of the coalition ministries of the 1880s. His championing of Federation, however, earned him a place in the Federal Convention of 1890. Neither an orator nor a convincing debater, his ministerial strength lay in his great skill as a negotiator and energetic administrator. Yet there was a justified outcry in 1880 over his crowding of the Education Department with people from Ballarat, and anger when his influence gained a third member of parliament for Ballarat West.

Smith's pride in Ballarat was matched by the community's acceptance of him as its most popular public figure. He was a life patron of the Ballarat Imperial Football Club, an office-bearer of many other sporting clubs, prominent in the Old Colonists' Association and, from its inception, marshal of the important eight-hour procession. Commonly called 'The Major', he was a captain in the Ballarat Rifle Rangers in 1861, major in 1872 and retired in 1884 as an honorary lieutenant-colonel. A member of the Ballarat City Council in 1870-99, he was mayor in 1874-75 and 1887-88.

On a visit to California in 1891 Smith contracted a severe heart and liver illness from which he never fully recovered. His misgivings about his health contributed to his defeat in the 1892 election. He stood again in 1894 and was returned in September, but died on 20 October and was buried at Ballarat with public honours. In 1854 at St Francis's Church, Melbourne, he had married Ellen Teresa Newman, a Catholic, who died on 12 March 1881, aged 41; their only son had died in 1875. In his last years Smith lived at Brunswick with Eliza Ellen Turnbull, who was referred to in his will as his housekeeper and nurse and whose daughter Mabel he had adopted: they were well provided for under the will. He had hoped even in death to serve Ballarat by a residual bequest to provide over £2000 for statuary for the Botanical Gardens or pictures for the art gallery, but his estate was sworn for probate at £19 2s. 5d.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Ballarat Star, 14 Sept 1860, 17 July, 8 Oct 1861, 11 Mar 1871, 22 Jan, 16 Mar 1874
  • Ballarat Courier, 16 Jan 1871, 12 Jan 1877, 12 June 1890, 22, 23, 24 Oct 1894
  • Ovens & Murray Advertiser, 19 Jan 1875
  • Table Talk, 6 Nov 1891.

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Smith, William Collard (1830–1894)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-william-collard-4619/text7605, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 April 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014