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William Baragwanath (1878–1966)

by John A. Talent

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William Baragwanath (1878-1966), surveyor, geologist and public servant, was born on 1 August 1878 at Durham Lead near Ballarat, Victoria, son of William Baragwanath, Cornish-born surveyor, and his wife Margaret Hunter, née Herberton, of Glasgow. He was educated at state schools at Durham Lead and Garibaldi, and later at the Victoria College and the Ballarat School of Mines. In 1894-97 he was articled to Robert Allan, land and mining surveyor, whom he assisted with topographic and underground surveys at Maldon, Daylesford and Ballarat. He joined the Department of Mines in 1897, and studied part time to pass the land surveyor's and mining surveyor's examinations in 1902-03; he received the certificate of geologist of the Ballarat School of Mines in 1911.

In 1897 Baragwanath was assistant surveyor and draftsman in the department's survey of the Walhalla goldfield, and was in charge from 1898 until 1900. Successive geologic, topographic and mine surveys of the Castlemaine-Chewton, Aberfeldy, Berringa and Ballarat goldfields earned him an enviable reputation for precision, perseverance and attention to detail, qualities he was to require of his juniors. Late in 1916 he began investigating the La Trobe Valley brown-coal region, selecting bore sites, carrying out topographic surveys and assisting in management of the coal-winning operations; he accumulated much of the data used later by the State Electricity Commission to establish the Yallourn open-cut mine and power-house. In 1922 he was appointed director of geological survey, in 1924 chief mining surveyor, and in 1932 secretary for mines; in 1934 he had to give up the last because of the depression-induced contraction of the mining industry, especially gold. He retired in 1943, but was retained as a consultant to the Department of Mines until 1950. He was a member of the State committee for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research in 1920-50, president of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1944-45, and a councillor of the Ballarat School of Mines in 1916-50; he was made a fellow of the Victorian Institution of Surveyors in 1958, and was appointed O.B.E. in 1952.

Baragwanath developed an unrivalled and encyclopaedic knowledge of the mining geology of Victoria. His memory for mine, bore and old assay data, the modifications of mine names (even of obscure 'scratchings'), and the chronology of discoveries, incidents and personalities became legendary; it was primarily for this reason 'Mr Barry' was retained as departmental consultant. His advice was highly valued by the mining industry because his opinions were invariably judicious and his optimism guarded. It was his pleasure to provide anyone with detailed information on geology and mining in Victoria, for geology and mining were his life; his favourite hobby was building model ships.

Baragwanath had argued from analogy with oil-bearing sequences elsewhere in the world that the Tertiary rocks of east Gippsland could be petroliferous. In 1922 the Department of Mines tested his theory by drilling a line of bores west of the Gippsland lakes; it was an unsuccessful experiment, but he lived to see his theory vindicated when off-shore drilling of the same sequence from 1964 led to the discovery of the Bass Strait oil and gas reservoirs. His major publications consist of four memoirs and eight bulletins of the Geological Survey of Victoria and about seventy shorter papers covering a wide spectrum of economic geology. His memoir on the Aberfeldy district attracted international attention because of his discovery of what were then the most ancient land plants, named Baragwanathia in his honour; unfortunately publication was delayed for over fifteen years until 1925.

Baragwanath died on 20 September 1966 at Prahran, and was cremated. He was predeceased by his wife Clara Ethel, née Jones, whom he had married at the Presbyterian Church, Flemington, on 9 May 1900, and was survived by two sons and six of his seven daughters. His estate was valued for probate at $99,024.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended (Melb, 1963)
  • Australian Surveyor, 4 (1932), 21 (1967)
  • Mining and Geological Journal, 6 (1970)
  • Department of Mines Archives (Melbourne).

Citation details

John A. Talent, 'Baragwanath, William (1878–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 April 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]


1 August, 1878
Durham Lead, Victoria, Australia


20 September, 1966 (aged 88)
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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