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Wallace, John Alston (1824–1901)

by Carole Woods

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

John Alston Wallace (1824-1901), mining entrepreneur and politician, was born on 15 December 1824 at Rutherglen, Lanarkshire, Scotland, son of James Wallace, draper, town councillor and magistrate, and his wife Jean, née Miller. Educated locally, he entered his father's store and later worked in a Glasgow drapery for a year and engaged in a coal-mining venture near Airdrie. After the death of his young wife Anne, née Hall, whom he had married about 1846, and hearing of the Victorian gold rushes, he decided to follow his brother Peter (1831-1886) to Victoria; he arrived in Melbourne in the Southampton in 1852.

Wallace went to the Ovens goldfield and with the proceeds of a find at Spring Creek opened stores in 1853 at Robinson Crusoe Gully and Myer's Flat, Bendigo. Back at the Ovens in 1854 he opened a store at Snake Valley (Stanley) and in 1855 the first of a chain of Star hotels in the north-east: with help from Peter, these enterprises were extended throughout the Ovens field; Wallace often rode through the night to supervise ventures as far away as Bright. Portly, with genial features, he delighted miners with his enthusiasm, spirited action, generosity and occasional madcap stunts. He backed small mining concerns, encouraged prospecting and, as initiator and a director of the Ovens Gold Fields Water Co. (1860), promoted a bold though abortive project of water conservation for sluicing. He bought the Beechworth Hotel in 1855 and transformed it into a popular Star hotel under the management of Peter; in 1859 he extended his interests to the new Indigo goldfield near Chiltern. In 1860 Rutherglen was named after his home town.

Wallace sold his stores and hotels in 1862-64 and turned more to mining. In the 1870s he formed the Chiltern Valley Gold Mines Co. and later acquired interests in other major Chiltern and Rutherglen deep lead companies. He invested heavily in the 1860s and 1880s in the quest for deep leads near Bright. The Rose, Thistle and Shamrock reef near Harrietville was the most celebrated of his quartz-mining projects in the Bright-Myrtleford area, and he had similar interests in the Upper Goulburn district. He made a major breakthrough in the separation of refractory ores at Bethanga and, after trying unsuccessfully to use non-union labour in the mid-1880s, employed about 150 men there. He revived the Yackandandah field in the 1890s by pioneering steam-driven sluicing and dredging and he also introduced dredging at the Woolshed diggings near Beechworth. His enterprise gave employment to hundreds of miners and appreciative banquets were held for him at Chiltern in 1880, Beechworth in 1884 and Yackandandah in 1888. He also had mining interests in New South Wales and Queensland.

Wallace visited Britain in 1872. In November 1873 he was returned unopposed to the Victorian Legislative Council for the Eastern Province, and moved to Melbourne. In 1882-1901 he represented the North-Eastern Province. Conservative in his political views, he exerted much influence over mining legislation. Although requisitioned by 3000 Victorian electors, Wallace failed to win a Federal Senate seat in 1901.

A liberal benefactor of the Ovens district hospitals, Wallace donated regularly to the Melbourne poor and the Salvation Army. In November 1865 he had married Theresa (d.1882), daughter of T. Monahan who later gave him several properties including Quat Quatta station near Corowa and the London Hotel in Port Melbourne. Theresa bore six sons and three daughters. In 1898 Wallace was estranged from his four surviving sons after they challenged his trusteeship of the Monahan estate. He later disinherited them and at the same time curtailed the inheritance of his only surviving daughter should she marry, to ensure that she did not 'endure the anxieties and sufferings caused by children'. He lost heavily in the 1890s depression; but moved to Quat Quatta, a gracious mansion in Elsternwick, and on 11 September 1895 married Ada Rona Reid, aged 25; they had no children. He died of heart disease on 17 October 1901 and was buried in the St Kilda cemetery. His estate was valued at £121,350.

Select Bibliography

  • Ovens and Murray Advertiser, 20 Sept 1884, 11 Jan 1890, 19 Oct 1901
  • Argus (Melbourne), 13-20 Sept 1898
  • C. Woods, The Early History of Beechworth (M.A. thesis, Monash University, 1970).

Citation details

Carole Woods, 'Wallace, John Alston (1824–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wallace-john-alston-4792/text7981, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 July 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

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