Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Withers, William Bramwell (1823–1913)

by Austin McCallum

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

William Bramwell Withers (1823-1913), journalist and historian, was born on 27 July 1823 at Whitchurch, Hampshire, England, youngest son of Jason Withers (d.1846), tenant farmer and Wesleyan lay preacher, and his second wife Elizabeth, née Hendy (d.1829). Educated at a grammar school until 13, he was apprenticed to an uncle, a general storekeeper at Winchester. From 1843 he was a lifelong opponent of capital punishment and in 1846 wrote articles for temperance and vegetarian journals. With a legacy of £300 in 1846 he bought 300 acres (121 ha) of land in Natal, South Africa, and went there in 1849. He later bought a 6000-acre (2428 ha) farm with James Ellis but, affected by the solitude, sold out to him and went to Pietermaritzburg, where he wrote for newspapers and learned to set type in Dutch and English.

Attracted by the Australian gold discoveries, Withers reached Melbourne in the Hannah in November 1852. He walked to Ballarat but failed as a prospector and soon returned to Melbourne where he found shelter at Canvas Town and worked as a roadmaker; he was later a dray driver and a clerk on the wharves. In 1854 he joined the Argus as a reader and then as a reporter, but soon transferred to the Herald. By June 1855 he was back in Ballarat, but still could not find gold and worked as a reporter and part-time compositor on the Ballarat Times; on 22 September 1855 he joined the newly founded (Ballarat) Star.

Withers proved a fluent and scholarly journalist, and often spiced his reporting, leaders and literary articles with appealing humour. As mining correspondent for both the Star and the Miner and Weekly Star he documented business and investment in the booming township. He had little time for outside activities, but he was elected to the first committee of the Ballarat Mechanics' Institute in 1859 and was a founder and first champion bowler in 1865 of the Ballarat Bowling Club. Sharing a comfortable home in Lyons Street with Mrs Mary Ann Dusatoy, Withers resolved to write a history of the town; for five years he corresponded with goldfield pioneers, participants and eye-witnesses of the Eureka affair and the surviving local squatters. The Ballarat Star published his History of Ballarat in twelve weekly parts, beginning on 11 June 1870; bound volumes were sold from 9 August and there were two other editions.

Reviewers praised Withers for his thorough research, literary style and objectivity, and his reputation in his beloved Ballarat reached its peak. He flourished with the city and was briefly co-proprietor of the Ballarat Star with Henry Nicholls and E. E. Campbell. His two novels were widely serialized: 'Eustace Hopkins' (1882), which won second prize in a competition sponsored by the Age, and 'The Westons' (1883). After the sale of the Ballarat Star Withers was engaged by the Ballarat Courier to write leading articles and literary pieces as he desired. The reminiscences he published in Austral Light in December 1895 to November 1896 were a revelation of his writing talent, tolerance and gentle character.

In 1887 a second and revised edition of the history was published in Ballarat by Francis Niven with a printing of 10,200 copies at a price of one guinea. The book was elegantly and extravagantly produced but sales were slow; remainder tables in Ballarat bookshops insulted the short, bristly whiskered, long-striding, frock-coated historian as he walked from his home in Lyons Street, always umbrella under arm, down Sturt Street past a half-dozen bookshops.

In 1901 Withers left Ballarat for Sydney, where by 1907 he was living at Dulwich Hill with Mrs Dusatoy and her son William Leslie Withers Dusatoy; he continued to write for the Ballarat Courier. He left Australia to visit England on 19 March 1903 and from September to December the Ballarat Star published 'A Pilgrim Pioneer', which described his return to Winchester and his memories of a long life, but his writing had become pedantic. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage at Dulwich Hill, Sydney, on 14 July 1913 and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery. He left his estate, valued at £90, to Mary Ann Dusatoy.

Select Bibliography

  • T. W. H. Leavitt (ed), Australian Representative Men, 1st ed (Melb, 1887)
  • R. Gay, Some Ballarat Pioneers (Mentone, 1935)
  • private information.

Citation details

Austin McCallum, 'Withers, William Bramwell (1823–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/withers-william-bramwell-4879/text8161, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

View the front pages for Volume 6

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