Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Ah Ket (1876–1936)

by John Lack

This article was published:

William Ah Ket (1876-1936), barrister, was born on 20 June 1876 at Wangaratta, Victoria, only son and fifth child of Ah Ket, storekeeper and grower and buyer of tobacco, and his wife Hing Ung, who were married in Melbourne in 1864. His father had arrived in Victoria in 1855 and after some years on the goldfields established one of the earliest tobacco-farms on the King River. He became the leading Chinese in the district and a respected member of the Wangaratta community.

William was educated at Wangaratta High School and at home by a Chinese tutor. He was one of the few Australian-born Chinese proficient in both Chinese and English, and in his early teens acted as a court interpreter. It was his father's wish that he should qualify for the law in his countrymen's interests. Ah Ket matriculated in 1893 and entered law at the University of Melbourne, completing a single subject before proceeding to his articled clerk's course in 1898. He won the Supreme Court Judges' Prize in 1902, completed his articles with Maddock & Jamieson and was admitted to practice in May 1903. He read with (Sir) Stewart McArthur and signed the Bar roll in June 1904.

In the 1900s Ah Ket was active in the Chinese community's opposition to restrictive and discriminatory legislation, both State and Federal. In 1901 he helped to create a committee to agitate against the proposed immigration restriction bill. He was a member of the Chinese Empire Reform Association of 1904 and of the Anti-Opium League of Victoria, organizations which supported modernization and social reform among Chinese at home and abroad. He was a delegate to the first interstate Chinese convention held at Melbourne in 1905. As adviser and publicist Ah Ket was prominent in opposition to the Bent government's attempts between 1904 and 1907 to drive the Chinese out of occupations where they competed with Europeans, by requiring licensing of Chinese workers under the Factories and Shops Acts. He defended his people in A Paper on the Chinese and the Factories Acts (Melbourne, 1906), and was co-founder and president of the Sino-Australian Association, which was the first Australian-Chinese club. In 1912-13 Ah Ket visited China as the delegate of the Victorian Chinese Chamber of Commerce to participate in the election of overseas Chinese to the new parliament of the Republic. He was acting consul-general for China in 1913-14 and in 1917.

Ah Ket built up a healthy practice at the Victorian Bar, specializing in civil law. He was in the front rank of pleaders and became renowned as a fine cross-examiner—quietly spoken, courteous and shrewd—and as an outstanding jury man. He acquired a considerable reputation as a negotiator of settlements. Ah Ket's colleagues remembered him with warmth and affection as an amiable and gregarious man, greatly respected for his ability and integrity. He was an excellent after-dinner speaker, a prominent Freemason and a keen punter and golfer.

On 16 November 1912 he had married Gertrude Victoria Bullock at the Kew Methodist Church. They had two sons—one became a solicitor and the other a medical practitioner—and two daughters. Ah Ket died of arteriosclerosis and renal failure at Malvern on 6 August 1936, and was cremated after an Anglican and Masonic service. His estate was valued for probate at £4342.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. C. Sleeman, White China (Syd, 1933?)
  • A. Dean, A Multitude of Counsellors (Melb, 1968)
  • R. G. Menzies, The Measure of the Years (Melb, 1970)
  • Wangaratta Bi-Weekly Dispatch, 3, 6 June 1896
  • Wangaratta Chronicle, 3, 6 June 1896, 19 Nov 1902, 18 July 1908, 20 Nov 1912, 8 Aug 1936
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Nov 1902, 7, 8 Aug 1936
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Aug 1936
  • C. F. Yong, The Chinese in New South Wales and Victoria, 1901-1921 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1966).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Lack, 'Ah Ket, William (1876–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 June, 1876
Wangaratta, Victoria, Australia


6 August, 1936 (aged 60)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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