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Spargo, William Benjamin (Bill) (1888–1959)

by Donald S. Garden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

William Benjamin (Bill) Spargo (1888-1959), skier and prospector, was born on 16 July 1888 at Bairnsdale, Victoria, eldest child of William John Spargo, a Victorian-born brewer, and his wife Mary Isabella, née Greenaway, who came from England. Bill was raised and educated at Bairnsdale before the family moved to Brunswick, Melbourne; his roots and heart remained in the Gippsland mountains and the Australian Alps. In his twenties he worked on the roads between Omeo and Mount Beauty. Norwegian miners in the area taught him to ski and he probably did some prospecting.

By the 1920s Spargo was employed with the Victorian Country Roads Board. In 1923 the board took responsibility for the Alpine Road between Harrietville and Omeo, and appointed him supervisor. Based at Hotham Heights, he lived in a stone cottage which served as his depot. At his request, the building was enlarged to accommodate up to twenty visiting skiers. From 1925 the C.R.B. allowed him (when he was not engaged on road patrols) to use the premises as a guest-house, Hotham Cottage (Hotham Heights Chalet). He ran it in partnership with a ski instructor for a short period, then brought in his brother Cecil to assist him. Within a few years the chalet became a favourite stopover for skiers, and Bill was a well-known and popular identity.

Spargo was variously described as 'strange, weird and erratic, but very lovable', and as 'a lean and wiry man of the mountains with a dry sense of humour, outgoing and . . . cheerful'. He had joined the Ski Club of Victoria in 1925. Two years later he donated the Spargo Cup for a ski race which was to be held annually until 1948. A skiers' hut in the Mount Hotham district was named after him.

The C.R.B. decided in 1933 to discontinue the operation of the joint road depot and guest-house, and handed the chalet to the Victorian Railways. Spargo was deeply disappointed, but stayed on as the chalet's handyman and did a bit of prospecting for gold. He claimed to have mining in his blood, for his grandfather had been a miner from Cornwall. After he survived the 1939 bushfire (Hotham Heights Chalet did not), he turned to prospecting virtually full time. His perseverance was rewarded in 1941 when he discovered a reef at Mount Loch and named it Red Robin. At St James's Old Cathedral, West Melbourne, on 27 February 1946 he married with Anglican rites Evelyn Maud Piper, née Davies, a 45-year-old widow.

Turning down offers of purchase, Spargo worked the mine profitably himself. In 1951 he sold out and retired to Magnetic Island, Queensland. It was a strange choice for a man who loved the mountains and had taken pride in living in what had been Australia's highest residence. He died on 7 January 1959 at Mount Olivet Hospital, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Stephenson (compiler), Skiing the High Plains (Melb, 1982)
  • J. M. Lloyd, Skiing into History, 1924-1984 (Melb, 1986)
  • M. Hull, Mountain Memories (Melb, 1990)
  • Ski Club of Victoria, Year Book, 1926-27, p 80, 1927-28, p 20, 1930, p 69.

Citation details

Donald S. Garden, 'Spargo, William Benjamin (Bill) (1888–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/spargo-william-benjamin-bill-11738/text20987, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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