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Williams, Robert Ernest (1855–1943)

by Weston Bate

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

Robert Ernest Williams (1855-1943), teacher, journalist, town clerk and soldier, was born on 13 August 1855 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of English-born Robert Williams and his Welsh wife Catherine, née Newman, both schoolteachers. In 1852 they had migrated to Ballarat where Robert failed as a miner and a farmer. An adventurous boy, the second of ten children, Ernest left school at 11 to run errands. He became a clerk, then trained and worked as a teacher for about ten years. On 4 June 1884 he married Annie Clara de Hylton at St Paul's Anglican Church, Ballarat.

In 1881 Williams had switched to journalism on the Ballarat Courier, of which he became editor in 1889. A humane radical-liberal, he gave trenchant support to labour during the 1890s strikes. He prompted Alfred Deakin and (Sir) Alexander Peacock on such issues as the basic wage and old-age pensions, and promoted Ballarat as 'Golden City'. Like locally-born contemporaries in the South Street Debating Society, he read omnivorously and enjoyed discussion. He championed his friend George Morrison when Bishop Samuel Thornton belittled his criticism of missionaries in China. Williams held racist and imperialist views, but supported colonial independence.

Of average height, tough and wiry, with a strong forehead and nose, piercing eyes and a flashing smile, Williams was genial company. Despite his intellect, he was essentially a man of action. He loved cricket, golf, hiking and riding. In 1881 he had enrolled in the Ballarat militia, which thereafter shaped the way he thought and organized. He topped a Victorian officers' course, was commissioned in 1884 and rose quickly to become lieutenant-colonel (1895) commanding the 3rd Battalion (Ballarat Rifles). From 1907 to 1911 he was colonel in charge of the 2nd Infantry Brigade. Scornful of humbug and pretence, and distrustful of staff officers, Williams prized local autonomy and efficiency. He challenged officers to bring out 'the natural and acquired qualities, powers and resources of soldiers'. Although approachable, he expected high standards and delighted in rivalling crack British regiments at rifle-shooting, marching and drill. Frustration galled him in 1900 when the Ballarat Courier would not release him to lead Victoria's South African contingent.

Appointed town clerk of Ballarat West in 1902, Williams promoted the city, advocated decentralization, organized visits by celebrities and masterminded the erection at Ballarat of Victoria's major memorial to the South African War. He was made a justice of the peace in 1911.

On 26 July 1915, during the peak of Australian Imperial Force enlistments, Senator (Sir) George Pearce recalled Williams from the reserve and, with a day's notice, made him commandant of military forces in Victoria. Against opposition from permanent staff, Williams reformed the Broadmeadows camp, routed its prostitutes, and decentralized the accommodation and administration of 100,000 troops under training. He transformed attitudes to venereal disease by treating it as a medical issue, cleaned up the camp at Langwarrin and encouraged its demoralized inmates; outstanding results were achieved at that military base when he put a young Gallipoli veteran, Lieutenant Walter Conder, in charge. By far the best State commandant, Williams was mentioned in dispatches, appointed C.M.G. (1917) and promoted from brigadier to major general. At the end of hostilities he was appointed to boards and commissions that dealt with price-fixing, the property of aliens and the influenza scourge.

Returning to Ballarat in 1919, Williams resigned from the position of town clerk and accepted an invitation from Theodore Fink to write leaders for the Melbourne Herald, of which Williams became a director (1923-35). Sent on the Commonwealth government's relief mission in 1923, he cabled reports on the Yokohama earthquake. Japan excited him, as later did Mussolini's civic reforms. In the Herald Williams ventilated long-standing concerns about slum clearance, the subservience of the Australian Army to the British, and the importance of physical training for youths.

In the 1930s Williams wrote many charming reminiscences for the Ballarat Courier and a lively history, The Old Third and the New Seventh (1935). Much affected by his wife's death in 1918, he became withdrawn and egotistical, a Dickensian figure in a charcoal-grey raincoat and bowler hat. Survived by a son and a daughter, he died on 7 July 1943 at St Kilda, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. M. McCallum, Ballarat and District Citizens and Sports at Home and Abroad (Ballarat, 1916)
  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • W. Bate, Lucky City (Melb, 1978)
  • Newspaper News (Sydney), 1 May 1935
  • Punch (Melbourne), 29 June 1916
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 Apr 1935, 8 July 1943
  • Ballarat Courier, 8 July 1943
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Weston Bate, 'Williams, Robert Ernest (1855–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williams-robert-ernest-9117/text16079, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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