Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilson, Sir Samuel (1832–1895)

by L. J. Blake

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

Sir Samuel Wilson (1832-1895), pastoralist and politician, was born on 7 February 1832 at Ballycloughan, County Antrim, Ireland, son of Samuel Wilson, farmer and landowner, and his wife Mary, née Singley. Educated at Ballymena, he had an aptitude for mathematics; although inclined toward a career as a civil engineer he spent three years as a linen manufacturer and farmer.

In May 1852 Wilson reached Victoria with his brother John who, with other brothers Charles and Alexander, had already established squatting runs in the Wimmera region. Samuel, after some success as a miner at Ballarat, Fryer's Creek, Ovens and Bendigo goldfields, prospered as a carrier of supplies from Melbourne to Ballarat and Pleasant Creek (Stawell) diggings, where he earned the sobriquet 'Bullocky Sam'. After managing Kewell station, which had been taken up by Alexander and John in 1845, Wilson sold his property in Ireland; with his brothers' help he bought from William Taylor Longerenong station at the junction of the Wimmera River and Yarriambiack Creek. There he created a system of dams and channels that foreshadowed the vast Mallee-Wimmera water gravitation scheme of today.

Wilson revisited Ireland in 1859. On 10 December 1861 in Melbourne, in a ceremony performed by Rev. Irving Hetherington, he married Jean, daughter of William Campbell; they had four sons and three daughters. The building of Longerenong homestead began next year and the property was subdivided into Longerenong, St Helens, Marma Downs, Green Hills and Kirkwood stations. The Wilson brothers, who had other extensive Wimmera holdings including Ashens, Vectis, Walmer and Talgany runs, acquired also Yanko on the Yanko Creek, New South Wales. Expert management enabled Wilson to gain sole ownership of Longerenong in four years and, in 1869 when the partnership was dissolved, to buy out his brothers; land values at the time were very low because of drought, but in the good seasons that followed he was able to complete most purchases by 1871.

Wilson supported the work of the Acclimatisation Society by experimenting with ostrich farming and with the breeding of Angora goats. In 1873, from T. and S. Learmonth and for the record price of £236,000, he bought the graceful homestead of Ercildoune near Burrumbeet with its famous merino stud. He bought freehold estates in the Western District at Mount Bute, Marathon and Corangamite to replace the Wimmera holdings that he sold to Albert Austin and W. H. Bullivant in 1874, and the New South Wales leases of Coree and Goolgumbla. By 1879 he held 117,452 acres (47,532 ha) freehold in Victoria, 150,000 acres (60,704 ha) freehold in New South Wales where he had Toorale and Dunlop stations on the Darling, as well as 2,500,000 acres (1,011,725 ha) leased in New South Wales and Queensland where he held runs along the Diamantina and Bogan rivers. At Ercildoune he established breeding ponds for English trout. He also spent £1000 in importing salmon ova for release in Victorian streams.

Wilson represented the Wimmera in the Legislative Assembly in 1861-64 and the Western Province in the Legislative Council from 1875 until his resignation in May 1881; according to Alfred Deakin he was 'ridiculed … and never attained any political influence'. His gift in 1874 of £30,000 to build a hall at the University of Melbourne was realized in October 1879 when he set the foundation stone for the Gothic Wilson Hall. He made many other donations to charitable and religious bodies. Governor Sir George Bowen, in recommending him for a baronetcy in 1874, estimated Wilson's average annual income as almost £100,000, stated that he owned 600,000 sheep, possibly more than anyone else in the world, and described his position and style of living as similar to an 'opulent country gentleman' in England. He was knighted in 1875.

In 1881 Wilson retired to England where he bought Hughenden Manor. Prominent in the imperial federation movement, he contributed articles to the National Review, September 1884, and the Nineteenth Century, April 1885. He was unsuccessful at an election in Buckinghamshire that year, but he represented Portsmouth in 1886-92. After visiting Australia in 1893-94 Wilson returned to England where he died at his residence in Grosvenor Square, London, on 11 June 1895. The rebuilt Wilson Hall is his chief memorial. A son Captain Gordon Chesney Wilson married Lady Sarah Churchill, aunt of Sir Winston; a daughter married the Earl of Huntingdon. Two sons were living at Ercildoune at the time of his death.

Select Bibliography

  • Fisken, Gibson & Co., Catalogue of … Sir Samuel Wilson's Merino Ewes and Rams … Ercildoune (Melb, 1879)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastoral Pioneers of Port Phillip (Melb, 1932)
  • P. McCaughey, Samuel McCaughey (Syd, 1955)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • T. Young, ‘Pioneer station owners’, Dennys, Lascelles Annual (Melb, 1926)
  • Australasian, 22 June 1895
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 22 June 1895
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 1 July 1895
  • Deakin letter, May 1889, Dilke papers, 4 (British Library)
  • CO 448/113/50.

Additional Resources

Citation details

L. J. Blake, 'Wilson, Sir Samuel (1832–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wilson-sir-samuel-1052/text8141, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 28 November 2014.

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

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