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William Frederick Buchanan (1824–1911)

by Marjorie Lenehan

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William Frederick Buchanan (1824-1911), pastoralist and gold prospector, was born on 21 June 1824 in Dublin, son of Lieutenant Charles Henry Buchanan of the 69th Regiment, and his wife Annie, née White, and grandson of Captain Andrew Buchanan of Mersheen, County Waterford. Buchanan arrived at Sydney in the Statesman on 16 January 1837, with his parents and four brothers, amongst whom was Nathaniel. Charles Henry and his family settled near Invermein (Scone) a few miles north of his brother William's grant, Mersheen, on the Hunter River. William had arrived in the colony in 1822, served as civil engineer and surveyor at Norfolk Island, Sydney and Newcastle, and then followed pastoral pursuits at Mersheen and later at Tara in the New England district.

In October 1838 Charles Henry was licensed to depasture stock on the Liverpool Plains, north-west of the Namoi River near Gunnedah. Next year with his son, William Frederick, he leased Rimbanda, a cattle run of 38,400 acres (15,540 ha) at Carlisle's Gully in the New England district. William Frederick later leased Looanga, a sheep run adjoining Rimbanda to the north. Soon afterwards he took over the control of the family properties and accepted responsibility for managing the stock, convict servants and relationships with local Aboriginal populations.

In 1849 Buchanan went gold prospecting in Gippsland and then hastened to Ophir after gold was discovered there in 1851. He had little success, but he noticed that the geological formation of the area was very similar to that of New England, and he returned to Rimbanda to use his knowledge and experience. He later claimed: 'I was the first to discover the northern goldfields and open them up. I spent many months prospecting the country with my pick, shovel and dish and two horses, seldom two nights in one place, and found gold to exist everywhere over the vast area of at least one hundred miles [160 km]'. The original discoverer of gold in New England is uncertain and several people have claimed the distinction, but the area was undoubtedly auriferous and by 1856 five thousand miners were at Rocky River, near Uralla.

After his gold fever subsided Buchanan returned home, but his wider knowledge made him realize that Rimbanda was not entirely suited to his pastoral ambitions, and in September 1853 he transferred the lease to Thomas Holt. In the next few years he took up and relinquished several runs on the Castlereagh River in the vicinity of Gilgandra and Coonamble. On 3 June 1856 the lease of New Eringanaring was transferred to him by George Rattray; on 22 January 1857 he advertised for sale the leases of Breeland (Breelong), Borandah, Eringanaring and New Eringanaring and on 5 July 1859 he transferred the two latter leases to George Tailby. In 1860 he settled on Warrana near Coonamble and by 1 January 1866 had acquired the adjoining runs of Moolambong, Magometon, Moorambilla, Koonambil and Yoolundry, a total of 188,000 acres (76,082 ha). His cattle on Warrana were considered the best stock in the district and he improved his sheep by the purchase of high-class Spanish merinos from Edward Ogilvie of Yulgilbar on the upper Clarence. While occupying Warrana he bought Kellett House, Darlinghurst, the home of Sir Stuart Donaldson. In 1885 he had it demolished and built the Hotel Mansions and the houses called Bayswater Terrace.

Buchanan's interest in cattle and markets for meat was not entirely local. He was anxious to further the successful shipment of meat to Britain and in February 1868 joined the first executive committee to investigate the freezing process which was being promoted by Thomas Mort. In the early 1880s Buchanan left Warrana and in 1882 bought Killarney, Narrabri, from A. J. and A. J. F. Doyle. On this 40,680-acre (16,463 ha) property he ran pedigree Shorthorns bred by Doyle and improved them by introducing Shorthorns of the best Tasmanian blood. His pedigree sheep were high-class merinos and Lincolns, as testified by the gold medal he won for wool at the Calcutta Exhibition of 1883-84. Killarney became one of the best-known stations in New South Wales. It was worked with the adjoining station of Tarriaro, making a total of 80,000 acres (32,375 ha), until Tarriaro was given to his son William.

About the time he bought Killarney Buchanan took over pastoral leases in the Northern Territory on Sturt Creek, adjoining the immense property of Wave Hill, recently taken up by his brother Nathaniel and the two Gordon brothers on the upper Victoria River. Soon afterwards he went into partnership with his brother and used his vast wealth and experience to purchase beef cattle and find markets for meat. Wave Hill was reputed to have some of the best cattle country in the world but inaccessibility prevented the leases from prospering. Stock was driven each year to Newcastle Waters, thence to Anthony Lagoon and Lake Nash and down the Georgina River to Glengyle station, near Bedourie in western Queensland, another of Buchanan's properties. At Glengyle the cattle were spelled before being driven to the markets in Brisbane and Sydney, a long and expensive trip with little profit in it. Nathaniel tried to open markets for the cattle in Singapore and Western Australia but overhead costs made these ventures uneconomic; when cattle prices fell in 1894 he had to give up Wave Hill to his brother. Prosperity came two years later when a cattle-shipping business was opened from Wyndham to Fremantle.

In 1886 William Buchanan became a life member of the Royal Colonial Institute just before leaving for England. On 21 July the freedom and livery of the Clothworkers' Company of London was conferred on him for his services to the wool industry; the ceremony was followed by a banquet in the company's hall in Mincing Lane, London. While touring England and the Continent he became conscious of the extreme lack of knowledge about Australia, and soon after his return in 1888 he published Australia to the Rescue (London, 1890). It gave facts and figures of all the Australian colonies and some biographical details, and aimed to encourage suitable British emigration to Australia. Another patriotic gesture was his gift of £10,000 in October 1909 to the fund inaugurated to buy a dreadnought for the Royal Navy but later used to train for the land young boys brought out from England.

Buchanan's interests were many and varied: he was a justice of the peace; a magistrate of New South Wales from 1857; a fellow of the Royal Historical and the Royal Geographical Societies; a member of the Union Club, the pastoralists' social club (the Warrigal), and the Royal Society's Club in London. The properties he owned at various times included Millie, Burren Junction; Bostobrick, Grafton; and Wallah, near Charleville, Queensland. He bequeathed Wallah to his nephew, Charles Henry Buchanan, who had been managing it for him. Other bequests were £250 to the Narrabri Hospital and £250 to St Cyprian's Church of England, Narrabri, to which denomination he belonged.

Buchanan was among the most notable pioneers in the Australian pastoral industry. He was an excellent horseman and bushman, and an overlander with his own herds of cattle. His vast empire was built by hard work, keen foresight, sound common sense and straightforward business methods. An autocrat of the old school, intelligent, correct and courteous, his word was law amongst his many employees. He was often very generous, especially to his relations, but for the most part his carefulness verged on parsimony and sometimes occasioned a rebuke from the press. An obituarist declared, 'Not that he had the milk of human kindness much, but that he had the majesty of manhood more'.

On 31 January 1857 at St James's Church, Sydney, he had married Laura Eliza, daughter of Henry Connell of the Commissariat Department. He died on 2 May 1911 at Mosman, New South Wales, predeceased by his wife and survived by a son William and four daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at more than £270,000.

Select Bibliography

  • W. Hanson, The Pastoral Possessions of New South Wales (Syd, 1889)
  • A. C. Fox-Davies, Armorial Families, 4th ed (Lond, 1902)
  • E. J. Brady, Australia Unlimited (Melb, 1918)
  • G. Buchanan, Packhorse and Waterhole (Syd, 1933)
  • New South Wales Government Gazette, 1838, 1848, 1849, 1853, 1856, 1857, 1859, 1860
  • Australian, 3 Apr 1838
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Jan 1857, 7 Feb 1868
  • Narrabri Herald, 5, 9 May 1911
  • Pastoral leases register, vol 1 (Land Titles Office, New South Wales).

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Citation details

Marjorie Lenehan, 'Buchanan, William Frederick (1824–1911)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 23 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

Life Summary [details]


21 June, 1824
Dublin, Dublin, Ireland


2 May, 1911 (aged 86)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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