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Westgarth, William (1815–1889)

by Geoffrey Serle

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

William Westgarth (1815-1889), merchant, financier, politician and historian, was born on 15 June 1815 in Edinburgh, son of John Westgarth, a surveyor-general of customs for Scotland, and his wife Christian, née Thomson. The Westgarths were a Durham, England, landed family. William was educated at high schools at Leith and Edinburgh and at Dr Bruce's academy at Newcastle upon Tyne. He then worked with the mercantile firm of G. Young & Co. of Leith, which had Australian interests. Attracted by business opportunities, Westgarth left Leith on 23 July 1840 and arrived in Melbourne on 13 December. On Christmas Eve he wrote to his mother, 'the grand bent of all is the making of money, and I do think some is to be made here'. Within two years, however, he was caught in the economic crisis and made a settlement with his creditors. But he soon flourished as a general import merchant, in partnership with Alfred Ross from 1845; James Spowers joined the firm in 1858.

Always an 'improver' determined to promote the diffusion of knowledge, Westgarth was prominent in the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute and in founding the Benevolent Society. In 1844 he began his prolific career as an author with Observations on the Present Commercial, Agricultural, and Civil Condition of the Australian Colonies, published in Leith, and the first of his commercial, statistical and general half-yearly reports (which continued until 1848) on Port Phillip. This pre-governmental statistical service 'afforded some agreeable and improving exercise for leisure time'. In 1846 he published in Melbourne a 40-page Report on the Condition, Capabilities and Prospects of the Australian Aborigines, which is notable for its sympathy and insight. He had also been prominent in the campaign for the separation of the Port Phillip District from New South Wales and suggested that the boundary would be best settled by the direction of the tracks of bullock-teams. Westgarth left the colony on business in January 1847 and on the voyage home wrote much of Australia Felix; or, a Historical and Descriptive Account of the Settlement of Port Phillip … (Edinburgh, 1848). Impressed by the success of German migration to South Australia, he persuaded the colonial land and emigration commissioners to subsidize the emigration of German 'vine dressers, agricultural labourers and shepherds' to Port Phillip, and made the recruiting arrangements in Germany. Many difficulties had to be overcome but in 1848 and 1849 migrant parties arrived in Melbourne and formed settlements at Thomastown, Doncaster and elsewhere.

Soon after his return in November 1849 Westgarth quickly became one of the two or three most respected public men in the infant colony and a spokesman for the broad radical front, including many Scottish businessmen, which opposed the conservative, largely Anglican, official class. Encouraged by William Kerr, Westgarth was elected unopposed in November 1850 to the New South Wales Legislative Council in succession to Earl Grey, and fought vainly for the secret ballot and a democratic new Victorian Legislative Council. At the first election in September 1851 he topped the poll as one of three members for Melbourne. In January-February 1851 he had been one of three Victorian delegates to the conference which formed the Australasian League for the Abolition of Transportation. Westgarth then became secretary of the Victorian branch, subscribed 100 guineas to the cause, and in 1852 was a delegate to a conference in Adelaide and on a mission to rally enthusiasm in Van Diemen's Land. In July at a time of public outrage over the goldfields depredations of emancipists and escaped convicts from Van Diemen's Land, Westgarth successfully introduced the Convicts Prevention Act which had been drafted by Kerr. Intent on mobilizing the mercantile community as an enlightened political force, he formed the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce almost off his own bat and became its first president in July 1851. The chamber collaborated with J. H. N. Cassell, the collector of customs, in drawing up the straightforward free-trade tariff of 1852 which wiped out the intricate system inherited from New South Wales. At his instigation in 1853 the government opened unsuccessful negotiations with the other colonies to unify tariffs. Westgarth was prominent in the foundation of the first gas company and the Bank of Victoria (of which he was briefly a director), encouraged promoters of railways, and was the almost automatic choice as chairman of public functions such as the 'breakfast' in honour of Edward Hargraves in December 1852.

Westgarth had few of the qualities of a popular political leader, but he carried much more authority in the Legislative Council than the eccentric John Pascoe Fawkner or the demagogic James Johnston. In his consistent support of manhood suffrage, abolition of property qualifications, the ballot, state education, abolition of state aid to religion and even direct taxation of wealth, he was probably more radical than any other member of the council. Broadly, he gave moderate expression to the vitriolic campaigns of his friend Edward Wilson in the Argus against Charles La Trobe's administration. 'Garryowen' refers to his 'plodding consistency' as a popular leader. As a voluntaryist, he unsuccessfully supported abolition of state aid and, failing that, state support for the Jewish religion. He took his full part in the 1852 campaign for unlocking of the lands. During that year he was overwhelmed by the 'vast incessant tide' of public and private business. His only leisure was a half-hour walk and thought early in the morning; the rest of the day was a succession of private business, public meetings and deputations, and council meetings and committees.

In April 1853 Westgarth again left the colony for Britain and did not return for eighteen months. Perhaps one leading motive was to 'run home for a wife': early in 1854 he married Ellison Macfie, by whom he had three daughters. His absence when the new Constitution was being drafted lost him the chance of greater historical fame, for he was fitted to provide the coherent radical critique which in the event was conspicuously lacking. On his return, he was soon appointed by Lieutenant-Governor Sir Charles Hotham to the commission of inquiry into the goldfields of Victoria and was a natural choice as chairman. Backed by strong-minded colleagues like Fawkner and (Sir) John O'Shanassy, Westgarth led the commission in refusing to comply with Hotham's order not to investigate the immediate causes of Eureka. In January 1855 they recommended a general amnesty — but Hotham pressed on with the treason trials. On the other hand, the commission avoided public investigation of some of the more inflammable features of the conflict. After three months work they presented a statesmanlike report which abounded in generalizations bearing the mark of Westgarth's pen. The major recommendations — an export duty in place of the licence fee, a miner's right which gave legal rights and the vote, and the creation of local courts — were adopted, and brought peace to the goldfields. Westgarth and his fellow commissioners, who were amazed by the extent of resistance to capitalist organization, also paved the way for legislation enabling the formation of limited liability mining companies.

Westgarth did not return to the Legislative Council and refused an offer by W. Nicholson late in 1855 to join the ministry he was attempting to form. He remained active in politics, however: in 1856 he helped to shape the democratic 'people's programme' before the election, was working on a plan for free selection of land and supported the movement for election of governors. He vehemently resisted a proposal that the government should take over the issue of bank-notes.

'Regretfully, under the calls of business', Westgarth left the colony for London in 1857 and established a sharebroking firm; he retired from Westgarth, Ross and Spowers about 1863. From the early 1860s he 'became the centre of the syndicates of speculators who have chiefly controlled Australian loans'. In his regular business circulars and privately with colonial politicians, he encouraged consolidation of the wide variety of colonial stocks whose varying particulars made negotiability, and even quotation on the Stock Exchange, difficult. In the late 1880s he was trying to persuade the Australasian colonies to confederate, if only for joint guarantee of colonial debts; thereby he was certain that they could borrow as much as they wanted for as little as 3 per cent interest. Over the years he carried out innumerable minor diplomatic tasks and odd jobs for the Victorian and other colonial governments.

In 1853 on the voyage to Britain Westgarth had written Victoria: Late Australia Felix (Edinburgh, 1853). In 1856 he revised James Bonwick's Discovery and Settlement of Port Phillip (Melbourne, 1856) for publication, and produced Commerce and Statistics of Victoria, From the Commencement of the Colony (Melbourne, 1856). In 1857, again on board ship, he wrote Victoria and the Australian Gold Mines in 1857 (London, 1857). In London he continued to write. His contributions to the Encyclopaedia Britannica on 'Australia' and 'Australasia' were revised and expanded into Australia: Its Rise, Progress, and Present Condition (Edinburgh, 1861); other articles for the Britannica included those on the goldfields of Australia, Melbourne, Sydney and Tasmania. He contributed to Chambers' Encyclopaedia on Australia. In 1863 he edited John Davis's Tracks of McKinlay and Party Across Australia (London, 1863), and followed it with The Colony of Victoria … Down to the End of 1863 (London, 1864).

Westgarth quickly became prominent in London as an old colonial hand. In 1860 he was a Victorian representative in the General Association for the Australian Colonies and at an International Statistical Congress. He joined with Edward Wilson and H. Childers in 1862-64 in the campaign against continuation of transportation to Western Australia. He was active among the group of Australians who largely contributed to the foundation of the (Royal) Colonial Institute in 1869, presented the first paper to the first ordinary meeting 'On the Relations of the Colonies to the Mother Country', gave papers annually for several years, and was the society's auditor from its foundation until his death. Working closely still with Wilson, he drew up the resolutions for the Cannon Street meetings of 1869-70. He professed himself to be a thorough disciple of the Manchester school except for his conviction that trade followed the flag, deplored the loss of the old imperial outlook, and in 1872 or earlier was recommending annexation and colonization of New Guinea. In 1870 he and others in the Colonial Institute discussed the need for imperial federation, but roused little support. In 1884, together with F. T. Labilliere, he was one of the preliminary committee of six which founded the Imperial Federation League. He was so struck with reverence for the Queen and the overriding requirement of imperial unity for defence that in this area alone, perhaps, he was totally at odds with prevailing colonial opinion. His solution to the problem of colonial representation, which he consistently put forward as an intermediate step, was representation of the colonies in the imperial cabinet as a rudimentary federal chamber — either formally, or as a council of ten colonials resident in Britain nominated by the Queen sitting with the cabinet of sixteen as a council of advice on imperial questions.

In the 1870s and 1880s Westgarth gave frequent papers to the British Association and the Social Science Congress and wrote several articles and pamphlets on general economic matters. He considered the case for bimetallism, and argued for land taxation as he had in the 1850s. In 1883 in 'Practical Commerce versus Theoretical Political Economy: Crises', Chamber of Commerce Journal, he propounded a 'detailed trade cycle hypothesis based on assumed changes in expectations but embodying also descriptions of over-production and inventory oscillations'. In a pamphlet published in London in 1887 he attempted a Sketch of the Nature and Limits of a Science of Economics. He persistently defended free-trade philosophy with hoary arguments, praising the wisdom of New South Wales and conceding protectionist measures only in the case of 'very clearly demonstrable social or political necessity'. In 1881, at last, he had succeeded in founding a Chamber of Commerce in London. At this time, also, he was preoccupied with the problem of poverty — the inadequacy of wages over a wide field of employment to provide a healthful, let alone a cheerful or respectable life. He planned a London reconstruction trust, using unearned increment of site value as the basis of a self-remunerative means of reconstructing central London, but had to abandon the massive enterprise as impracticable. In 1883 he gave £1200 to the Society of Arts as prize-money for essays on the best means of providing dwellings for the London poor and replanning the city. The essays were published in 1886, with an introduction by Westgarth, as Essays on the Street Re-alignment, Reconstruction, and Sanitation of Central London, and on the Rehousing of the Poorer Classes, as a contribution to combating 'the absolute despair which seizes upon many minds at the inequalities of the country's socio-economic condition, and the drastic measures that are often proposed for its cure'.

In 1888 Westgarth paid a last visit to Australia which he saw as still far more advanced in progress than Britain. On the voyage out he wrote his Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne & Victoria (Melbourne, 1888), one of the very best of Australian pioneer reminiscences, a happy and lively re-creation of arcadian Victoria with many vivid but charitable sketches of his contemporaries. In the opening procession of the Centennial International Exhibition he was specially honoured as a pioneer, together with Francis Henty; the Chamber of Commerce fêted him and he rejoiced in meeting so many surviving old friends. On the voyage back to Britain he wrote Half a Century of Australasian Progress, a Personal Retrospect (London, 1889).

After his return Westgarth had a serious bout of pleurisy, and was in feeble health when he retired in July 1889, taking £100,000 from the business. The firm of Westgarth & Co. was carried on by W. Devon Astle, but it failed late in 1890, partly because too many Victorian commitments were being carried. Westgarth had not lived to see such a sad day. On 28 October 1889 he fell from an attic window of his South Kensington home and died; a verdict of accidental death was found at the inquest when it was suggested that in a weakened physical state and being a fanatic for ventilation he had probably climbed up and forced open the window. The funeral was held in Edinburgh. Westgarth left a considerable estate. He had been a member of the Church of Scotland and held regular morning prayers in his household.

'Serious Mr. Westgarth', Hugh McCrae remembered as his father's [George Gordon McCrae] description: this unobtrusive, unostentatious, methodical, indefatigable supporter of all good causes was the type of conscientious citizen Victoria desperately needed in the period of gold-rush opportunism. The most earnest of improvers, he would take the trouble to write to his temperance friends to report on the success of public drinking-fountains in Liverpool. A prolix speaker, though mellow and wise, he could be something of a bore, but he was by no means incapable of humorous repartee. Most genial and conciliatory, a natural peacemaker, he was convivial, too — a vigorous man who delighted in his trips to the pastoral interior and the goldfields, and one whose curiosity about men and nature produced continual enjoyment. Westgarth was almost infinitely tolerant and understanding of the follies and foibles of mankind. He remained a businessman almost in spite of himself; his scholarly and cultural inclinations constantly distracted him. Few men in Australia history can have led more useful lives.

Three modern historians have described Westgarth as 'the John Stuart Mill of Victoria', 'the outstanding sociological thinker of the colonies', and 'the most perceptive of early Australian historians'. His four major books on Victoria, each of which were fresh treatments, were written primarily to provide accurate information on the colony and also to advertise it. For the most part, they are unpretentious, simply written narratives. However, Westgarth is distinctive in his period for his efforts to explain the course of historical events and to seek reasons for change, and for his occasional generalizations about the nature of colonial society. In particular, he developed discussion about the relation of wide distribution of property and assumptions of social equality to political democracy, and stressed the fundamentally conservative nature of democracy in such circumstances. His pioneering statistical work was an aspect of his modern approach to the conduct of business and government. But his practical work as one of the most advanced radical liberals of his day ranks equally with his intellectual and literary achievement.

Select Bibliography

  • Garryowen (E. Finn), The Chronicles of Early Melbourne (Melb, 1888)
  • G. Serle, The Golden Age (Melb, 1963)
  • C. D. W. Goodwin, Economic Enquiry in Australia (Durham, N.C., 1966)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 30 Oct, 2 Dec 1889
  • G. H. Nadel, Mid-Nineteenth Century Political Thought in Australia (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1950).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Westgarth, William (1815–1889)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/westgarth-william-4830/text8057, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 23 November 2014.

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

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