Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Henry Archer (1825–1909)

by Cecily Close

This article was published:

William Archer, by John Botterill, c1870-74

William Archer, by John Botterill, c1870-74

State Library of Victoria, H29504

William Henry Archer (1825-1909), statistician and public servant, was born on 13 November 1825 in London, the elder son of William Archer, general dealer, and his wife Sarah, née Adams. From an early age he had to contribute to his family's support, but in 1841 joined the Medical, Invalid and General Life Assurance Co. as a clerk to train under the actuary, Francis Gustavus Pavius Neison. In his spare time he studied French, Spanish and German. He was converted to Roman Catholicism in 1848 and at once took a leading part in attempts to place Catholic friendly societies on a secure footing. In 1850 he became managing actuary to the Catholic, Law and General Life Assurance Co.; when its failure to expand led to his demotion, he and his parents decided to follow his brother to Port Phillip.

Archer arrived at Melbourne in the Diadem on 1 November 1852. In February 1853 Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him clerk to read the new Act which would introduce compulsory civil registration of births, deaths and marriages, and to recommend a plan for the guidance of the registrar-general, with detailed rules for local deputy-registrars. Quoting Neison's criticisms of the English system, Archer stressed the importance of identical boundaries for the purposes of registration and census, and suggested that schedules should require details of information recommended by the Registration Committee of the Council of the Statistical Society of London. La Trobe approved his proposals and appointed him acting registrar-general from 1 July 1853 at a salary of £600. Archer began to arrange the administration of the Act, expecting to receive permanent headship of the department; but in January 1854 La Trobe appointed Major Norman Campbell. Archer was consoled by the sympathy of the Herald and the Argus, appointment as assistant registrar-general without loss of salary, a gratuity of £200 from La Trobe, and a 'silver Wine Cooler' from his colleagues. Moreover Campbell was friendly and did not interfere with him.

Archer toured the colony to recruit and advise the deputy-registrars, making many uncomfortable journeys in search of willing and literate men, each centrally placed with a horse to enable him to visit outlying settlements. Under instruction to 'compile an Annual Official Register and Almanac' he edited the first issue of the Statistical Register which appeared in 1854. However, he hoped to reach a wider public, first with the privately-published periodical, Facts and Figures (1857-58), and second by the official Statistical Notes on the Progress of the Colony (1835-60), in which he gave the first agricultural and pastoral statistics for the colony and, for the period before separation, used figures and documents relating to land at Port Phillip that he had brought from Sydney in 1858.

When Campbell died in January 1859, Archer was appointed registrar-general by the O'Shanassy ministry. A self-confessed disciple of leading English and European statisticians, he sought in particular the advice and support of Dr William Farr (1807-1883) in his efforts to widen the scope of his investigations and to establish greater uniformity in statistical practice in the Australian colonies. Although the latter were in the main unsuccessful, he and his colleague in New South Wales persuaded their governments and those of South Australia and Queensland to hold the 1861 census simultaneously with that of the United Kingdom. While registrar-general he served on the royal commissions which inquired into the public service in 1859 and in 1870-72.

When the Land Transfer Act of 1862 introduced the 'Torrens title' system of land registration to Victoria, its administration was given to Archer. However, his control was disputed by those who held that, without legal training, he should confine himself to the compilation of statistics. Despite Archer's disappointment and O'Shanassy's resentment at infringement of his patronage, this view prevailed and Archer lost a responsibility that he had thought to be his. In 1863 he found his position intolerable and withdrew. He studied law at the University of Melbourne, was called to the Bar in 1867, and was invited to become registrar of titles in 1868. In May 1874, after an inquiry into the Lands Department, he was promoted secretary of lands and survey.

From his arrival in Melbourne Archer identified himself with the Catholic community, becoming a close associate of John O'Shanassy and Bishop James Goold. At the former's suggestion he sought permission to offer himself, though a civil servant, as a candidate for the Legislative Council in 1856. This was refused. Again when Goold nominated him to replace O'Shanassy on the Denominational Schools Board, his status as a civil servant was advanced as an obstacle; but this was promptly overcome when O'Shanassy assumed office. Archer took his seat in 1857, and remained when the single board was created by the Common Schools Act of 1862, though his friendship with O'Shanassy and many of the clergy was strained by his willingness to do so under a measure which they regarded as an attempt to crush the Catholic schools. Before his colleagues on the board and the royal commission on education in 1867 he pleaded the Catholic case for a trial of the system of payment by results, proposing that a capitation grant be given to any parent or other person who could show that he had imparted some degree of elementary education. After state aid was withdrawn in 1872 he worked for its reintroduction, and as a member of the royal commission in 1882-84 dissented from the majority view that the Education Act should remain undisturbed. In 1885 he joined other laymen in forming the Education Union League which was to work for state payment of teachers in Catholic schools, but the organization lapsed for want of support. In 1870 he had attempted to form a Catholic cultural society and in 1879 he organized a testimonial to Cardinal Newman from the Catholics of Sydney. As a prominent layman in church activities he received in 1870 the papal decoration of Gregory the Great, and in 1884 was appointed knight commander of the order of Pio Nono.

On 'Black Wednesday', 8 January 1878, Archer learned of his dismissal. Graham Berry and his supporters, especially the Age, had promptly represented the sacked higher public servants as dispensable and able to afford compulsory retirement. Moreover, Archer's prominence as a Catholic layman and his friendship with O'Shanassy made him an unlikely candidate for special consideration. He clung to the hope of re-employment but, when Berry continued to evade this subject, he applied for compensation in May and opened a legal practice in Temple Court. Later that year he formed a life assurance company in Sydney. He remained there during 1879 and was appointed to a royal commission on the New South Wales Real Property Act. His company, however, was a failure. In January 1880 he offered himself as a parliamentary candidate to James Service but found that his interest in Catholic education was an electoral embarrassment. In 1880 his application for the public librarianship in Victoria was favoured by the trustees but passed over by the Berry ministry in 1881. Temporary appointments led to nothing. Legal work, small investments, articles and lectures provided a moderate income until sale of his land in Burwood Road, Hawthorn, in 1889 brought him security once more. In a long retirement he sought comfort in the scientific and linguistic studies he had pursued since boyhood, and in painting, sculpture and other hobbies.

Archer had been elected a fellow of the Linnean Society and of the Institute of Actuaries. He was active in the Royal Society of Victoria and its precursors from 1855 until the late 1860s, and served on its council in 1861-63 and 1893-95. His introduction of the Holcus saccharatus into Victoria in 1857 attracted some interest, and his botanical and zoological studies were encouraged by Ferdinand Mueller and others. As well as publishing voluminous statistics Archer contributed many papers to learned journals and to the press, gave many public lectures and wrote Noctes Catholicae: The Position of Catholics in Victoria in Relation to Public Education (Melbourne, 1884).

On 10 September 1855 Archer had married Mary Charnley, daughter of Captain Philip Pitt Nind; he had become engaged to her in England. Of their five children the only survivor was Grace, who married Philip, son of Sir Charles Gavan Duffy. Archer died on 29 April 1909 at his home in Hornby Street, Windsor, and was buried in the Boroondara cemetery, Kew.

A portrait is in the possession of his family.

Select Bibliography

  • William Henry Archer papers (University of Melbourne Archives and National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Cecily Close, 'Archer, William Henry (1825–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 May 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 Archer, by John Botterill, c1870-74

William Archer, by John Botterill, c1870-74

State Library of Victoria, H29504

Life Summary [details]


13 November, 1825
London, Middlesex, England


29 April, 1909 (aged 83)
Windsor, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.