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Williams, Henry Roberts (1848–1935)

by Charles Fahey

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Henry Roberts Williams (1848-1935), mining director and politician, was born in 1848 at St Just, Cornwall, England, son of William Lanyon Williams, miner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Roberts. With his mother he arrived in Victoria in 1860 and settled at Sandhurst (Bendigo), where his father had pioneered quartz mining and opened up the Williams United mine. As a young man, Henry gained practical experience both underground and as an engine driver in his father's mine; he studied at night at Bendigo High School and received private tuition. In 1874 he became manager of the mine and invested widely in mining companies in the boom of the early 1880s.

Elected to the Eaglehawk borough council in 1874, Williams was also president of the Bendigo National Reform League. In May 1877 he was returned to the Legislative Assembly as member for Mandurang. A staunch supporter of (Sir) Graham Berry, he was minister for mines in Berry's government from August 1880 to July 1881. In 1878 Williams had been a member of the Victorian crown lands commission of inquiry which examined the workings of the 1869 Land Act. Defeated in 1883, he failed to win Sandhurst in a by-election that year and Mandurang in 1885. After the Mandurang electorate was divided, Williams represented the new mining constituency of Eaglehawk in 1889-1902. He was minister of railways and vice-president of the Board of Land and Works (1894-99), and minister of health (1895-99) in the Turner government. During his parliamentary career he sat on ten different royal commissions, select committees and boards of inquiry. Defeated by the Kyabram Reform Movement's candidate Hay Kirkwood in 1902, he again stood unsuccessfully in 1908.

Committed to miners' welfare, in 1879 Williams had opposed the attempt of the major Bendigo mine-owner, George Lansell, to reduce wages. Following his election to parliament Williams sought to reform the practice of tributing in mines: in 1897 he helped to have the Mines Act amended in order to introduce a subsistence wage for tributers. When moves were made to repeal this section in 1902, he called upon miners to insist on their rights, claiming that, as a mine-owner and director, he had always paid tributers full wages. Williams supported other liberal initiatives: he argued for an old-age pension that was more than 'a mere starvation allowance', supported the extension of the franchise to women in 1902 and condemned the sacking of married women teachers.

Like many of his fellow Cornish migrants at Bendigo, Williams was a practising Methodist and a vigorous temperance campaigner. A leading Freemason, he was a justice of the peace and a councillor of the Bendigo School of Mines. He was twice married at Eaglehawk: to Kate Gruby (d.1891) with Presbyterian forms on 11 June 1878, and to Louisa Cyrena Davidson with Methodist forms on 5 December 1892. Williams died at Murrumbeena, Melbourne, on 12 November 1935 and was buried in Eaglehawk cemetery. His wife survived him, as did four daughters and a son of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackay, The History of Bendigo (Melb, 1891)
  • W. B. Kimberly, Bendigo and its Vicinity (Ballarat, 1895)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 Nov 1935
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 14 Nov 1935.

Citation details

Charles Fahey, 'Williams, Henry Roberts (1848–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-henry-roberts-9114/text16073, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 19 January 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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