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William Acland Anderson (1829–1882)

by Warren Perry

This article was published:

William Anderson, by Hamel & Co, 1860s

William Anderson, by Hamel & Co, 1860s

National Library of Australia, 9288367

William Acland Douglas Anderson (1829-1882), army officer, was born on 31 October 1829 at Blackburn, Lancashire, England, only surviving son of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Anderson and his wife Mary, née Campbell. In April 1846 he joined the 50th Regiment as an ensign and was promoted lieutenant in August 1848. In June 1852 he exchanged into the 65th Regiment, then in New Zealand, and was promoted captain.  

Anderson went on leave to Victoria where his parents had settled and from July 1853 to April 1855 he was an assistant gold commissioner. He sold his commission and retired from the British army in March 1854. From May 1856 to April 1857 he was a commissioner for Melbourne's sewers and water supply. In November 1856, as member for Evelyn and Mornington in the Legislative Assembly, he advocated a moderate conservative policy and supported the Haines ministries. In August 1853 he had been appointed a magistrate for the colony of Victoria and in July 1858 a member of the royal commission on the colony's naval and military defences.

In November 1854 Anderson had been commissioned lieutenant-colonel in the new Volunteer Military Force of Victoria and appointed to command the Melbourne Volunteer Rifle Regiment which was converted in January 1856 to the Victoria Volunteer Artillery Regiment. Granted leave he resigned his seat in the assembly and left for England in November 1858. On his return he resumed military duty in August 1860. On 2 April 1862 Anderson told the select committee on military and naval forces and defences that he was the senior 'volunteer officer in the colony and the first volunteer sworn in'. He was appointed colonel commandant of the volunteer force the same day and gradually gained the confidence of the force by tact and prudence.

In August 1870 the British government withdrew its troops from Australia and in the local reorganization in January 1871 Anderson became commandant of the military and naval forces of Victoria. This dual appointment was probably an economy measure, for he had no professional experience of naval matters. In December 1874 the imperfections of the force he commanded were sharply focused in public attention by 'the Sergeant Empson case'. It began when volunteer non-commissioned officers sent to the commandant, collectively instead of individually, a written statement of a grievance. To Anderson this was an unmilitary procedure and, according to the press, Empson was 'punished on a formal and worthless, if not a contemptible issue'. However, in April 1875 a royal commission on the volunteer forces agreed with Anderson's proposals to amend the Discipline Act of 1870 and recommended drastic reform of the inefficient conditions which he condemned. On 24 May 1878 he was appointed C.M.G.

In February 1881 the New South Wales government appointed Anderson a member of the royal commission to inquire into all aspects of the organization, administration and training of the colony's military forces. This was the last of his major official tasks. Soon after his return to Victoria in May he went on sick leave but his health worsened. He died at his home, Fairlie House, South Yarra, on 23 January 1882 and was buried with military honours in the Church of England portion of St Kilda cemetery. At St Paul's Church, Melbourne, on 1 May 1856 he had married Caroline, only child of Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Davidson and his wife Mary, née Faulkiner. They had two daughters, Mary and Fairlie, and two sons, Acland Alfred Gordon and Douglas.

Anderson and the forces he commanded were often criticized in parliament and press, but not all the complaints against him were fair or informed. Many critics did not comprehend the military, political and financial difficulties with which he had to grapple, at the ministerial level, before his forces could be fed, clothed, equipped and trained. Other critics failed to realize that his problems as commandant of a mixed regular and volunteer command were not those of a regimental commander, or that he was restricted by the legal, social and economic conditions under which his forces had to operate.

Select Bibliography

  • Select Committee on Military and Naval Forces and Defences, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1861-62, 2 (D63)
  • Royal Commission on Volunteer Forces, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1875-76, 3 (77)
  • Royal Commission on Military Defences, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1881, 4, 672
  • Journal of the United Service Institution of Victoria, 3 (1894), Sept
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Nov 1856, 24 Jan 1882.

Citation details

Warren Perry, 'Anderson, William Acland (1829–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 17 April 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

William Anderson, by Hamel & Co, 1860s

William Anderson, by Hamel & Co, 1860s

National Library of Australia, 9288367

Life Summary [details]


31 October, 1829
Blackburn, Lancashire, England


23 January, 1882 (aged 52)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (face)

Cultural Heritage

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Military Service