Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Cain (1831–1914)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published:

William Cain (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1895

William Cain (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1895

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/03/95/3 [detail]

William Cain (1831-1914), businessman, was born at Rushen Abbey, Isle of Man, and baptized on 21 April 1831, son of Robert Cain, mason, and his wife Jane, née Curphey. Educated locally and at the Liverpool Institute, he worked for a year with the Admiralty survey of the Isle of Man and then in Douglas learnt the building business. In 1852 he sailed to Victoria in the Anna, arrived in July and headed for the Bendigo goldfields. Unsuccessful as a digger he returned to contracting and built the gold commissioner's office and supervised the erection of temporary barracks. In 1853 he moved to Melbourne, where as a contractor he was associated with the building of the Melbourne Hospital's west wing, the London Chartered Bank of Australia and the Bank of Victoria. In 1863 he went to New Zealand and constructed the piers and railway embankment at Bluff Harbour and New River. Cain visited England in 1865. On his return to Victoria in 1867 he took the Melbourne Town Hall contract, the £70,000 building being opened in August 1870. In 1875 he revisited Europe, returning in 1877 with his wife Sarah Jane, widow of W. H. Dickson and daughter of A. T. Cobbold of Ipswich, Suffolk. Cain constructed part of the Benalla-Wodonga railway and until 1885 had railway contracts in New South Wales.

Cain was a member of the Melbourne City Council from 1880 to 1888 and as mayor in 1886-87 prepared the ground for the Metropolitan Board of Works. He was a director of the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane Tramway Cos, the National Trustees and Executors Co., chairman of the 1888 Exhibition Building Committee and a member of the Yarra Dredging Board. Cain invested in Coan Downs in the Hillston district, New South Wales, in Inverleigh and Hughenden stations, Queensland, and owned Madowla Park near Echuca. He was a large shareholder in the Squatting Investment Co. and in Goldsbrough Mort & Co., of which he was director in 1890-97. Valued by his company as a man 'who has always been disposed to regard everything from the most conservative and critical point of view', he represented the Melbourne board at the 1892 London conferences. He was active in the company's reconstruction schemes after the 1893 crisis and was its adviser on building and construction projects in Victoria and Queensland.

Cain suffered heavy financial losses in the early 1890s but the rumours of his ruin circulated in 1893 were not justified. However, to the embarrassment of his Melbourne and London colleagues he was at first unable to meet the Goldsbrough Mort & Co. calls made in 1895. Despite this strain Cain carried out with his usual thoroughness his duties as a member of the 1895 Railway Inquiry Board.

In 1903 Cain, supported by the National Reform League, was returned to the Legislative Council as member for the Melbourne Province, a seat he held until 1909. He promised to promote economy in all public expenditure and was attentively listened to on railway matters. Church of England affairs, always of great interest to Cain, occupied an increasing amount of his time as he grew older and he was actively concerned with the building of St Paul's Cathedral. He was a member of the Melbourne Grammar School Council from 1894 until his death on 29 October 1914 and gave £400 to the school. His sons gave £1000 in 1919 to found the William Cain scholarship.

A tall man with a quiet and courteous manner, Cain was remembered especially for his patent honesty and intense, almost obstinate, loyalty to any cause or person whose interest he espoused. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and the three sons to whom he had earlier transferred his pastoral interests.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Eastman, Memoirs of a Sheepman (Deniliquin, 1953)
  • Messenger (Church of England, Victoria), 6 Nov 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Nov 1886, 17 Feb 1903
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Feb 1895
  • Table Talk, 12 July 1895
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Nov 1914
  • Goldsbrough Mort & Co. records (Australian National University Archives).

Additional Resources

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'Cain, William (1831–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 18 July 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 Cain (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1895

William Cain (1831-1914), by unknown photographer, 1895

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, IAN01/03/95/3 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


21 April, 1831
Rushen Abbey, Isle of Man, England


29 October, 1914 (aged 83)
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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