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William Bell Allen (1812–1869)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

William Bell Allen (1812-1869), manufacturer and politician, was born in Ireland, son of William Allen, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Bell. He arrived in Sydney on 11 March 1841; his wife Ruth, née Johnston late Sayers, and family followed in 1844. He established a soap and candle works in John Dickson's old factory in Sussex Street. With an annual output of seventy tons of soap, the works were in 1847 the fourth largest in the town; by 1851 he was manufacturing 'hydraulic pressed candles', able to withstand transport through the tropics and intended for the Californian market. In the early 1860s the increasing use of kerosene and continental stearin, together with the impact of superior tallow candles from Melbourne greatly reduced his domestic market, though he still exported to New Zealand. In January 1859 Allen and four other soap-makers petitioned the government for repeal of the prohibitory law (13 Vic. no. 42) against their activities within the city limits, but it became operative in January 1860. In 1865 Allen's candle works in Sydney employed eleven hands and produced about 150 tons a year; his soap boiling factory was then at Waverley where seven employees produced about 300 tons a year.

With William Alderson and John Elly Begg (1826-1881), Allen was one of the pioneers of the protectionist movement in New South Wales. At a meeting chaired by Alderson in the School of Arts, Sydney, on 23 February 1857, Allen spoke at great length on protection and moved a resolution setting up the Protective League of Australian Industry; by March its committee had twenty-two members and he was secretary. Firmly believing that manufactures could develop only if the protective policies of England and the United States were closely followed, he addressed many public meetings and wrote many letters to the press in furtherance of the protectionist cause. In October he and James Murphy, deploring the 'stagnation in manufacturing', petitioned parliament for greater development of the colony's resources and for protective duties. By May 1859 the league's central committee had grown to fifty-four. Encouraged by increasing support Allen stood as a protectionist for East Sydney in June 1859 but was soundly defeated.

To the select committee on the condition of the working classes in December 1859 Allen gave many examples of once flourishing local manufactures that now suffered from competition with imports, and again urged the adoption of protective tariffs which he said should not be less than 30 per cent, with non-protective duties not exceeding 5 per cent; he did not agree with indiscriminate ad valorem duties on all imports because they 'would plunge the Colony into inextricable insolvency, and press extremely unfairly on the industrious classes'. He disapproved the immigration system and suggested that the government might follow the example of the British government's gesture to the Irish Flax Society in 1847 and give a bounty for growing flax in the Illawarra district where many Ulstermen were already settled. He also told the committee of his concern for working-class children whom he thought were totally neglected and worse off than those in Europe. At the same time his attitude to education was liberal: 'we cannot pay too much for the development of the mental capacity of the people'. In 1860 in Sydney he published The Alarming Position of New South Wales and Lecture on Protection. Political Economy Proper for New South Wales. In 1861 he took up the cause of the gold miners at Lambing Flat and chaired a large meeting in Sydney protesting against the police and military action against them.

Allen became the first avowed protectionist in the New South Wales Legislative Assembly; elected unopposed he represented the Williams from December 1860 to November 1864. In the elections of December 1864 he was defeated by Marshall Burdekin. At 57 Allen died suddenly at Waverley on 5 December 1869 and was buried in the Necropolis, Rookwood. About 1835 he had married in Ireland Ruth Johnston, née Sayers; they had three sons and one daughter.

Alfred Allen (1839-1917), his second son, was born in Belfast, Ireland. While apprenticed to a firm of engineers in Sydney he was dismissed for associating with the early closing and eight-hour movements. He had a varied career as an engineer, gold digger, farmer, printer, manufacturer, and insurance agent for the Australian Mutual Provident Society. After his father died he carried on the soap and candle works for about twenty-five years and then sold out. Unlike his father and elder brother he was a free trader. He represented Paddington in the Legislative Assembly in 1887-94; for some time he acted as whip for Parkes's ministries. In the general election of July 1894 he stood for Waverley but lost to Angus Cameron. A leading Quaker, he was active in philanthropic and other works; he was a life governor of Sydney Hospital and a founder of the Sydney Night Refuge and Soup Kitchen; as honorary secretary of the parliamentary local option movement he gave strong support to the temperance cause. He died aged 78 at his home, Woolowin, Ebley Street, Waverley, on 5 August 1917 and was buried in the Quaker portion of Rookwood cemetery. On 9 September 1861 at Geurie station, Dubbo, he had married Amelia Petford, only surviving daughter of Mrs G. C. Tuting; they had three sons and a daughter.

William Johnston Allen (1836-1915), was born in Belfast, followed his father in the manufacturing business and later became principal of Allen Brothers. He sat in parliament as a protectionist opposite his brother for the same electorate from January 1888 to January 1889, but was defeated in the next election. In Sydney on 21 April 1868 he had married Edith Isabella, the only daughter of Charles John Crew; they had three sons and five daughters. He died at his home, Hollywood, Porter Street, Waverley, on 12 June 1915 and was buried in Waverley cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • W. F. Morrison, The Aldine Centennial History of New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1888)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1857, 1, 397-98, 1858-59, 2, 1037, 1859-60, 4, 1329-34
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Aug 1850, 25 Jan 1851, 24 Feb, 5, 11, 26 Mar, 29 Apr, 17 June, 4 Sept, 4 Nov 1857, 2, 17 May, 8, 11 June 1859, 8 Dec 1864, 4 Feb 1889, 20 July 1894, 14 June 1915, 7 Aug 1917
  • Sydney Mail, 8 Apr 1865
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 26 June 1894.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Allen, William Bell (1812–1869)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




5 December, 1869 (aged ~ 57)
Waverley, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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