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 Cattanach (1863–1932)

by Ronald East

This article was published:

William Cattanach (1863-1932), administrator, was born on 17 May 1863 at Hotham (North Melbourne), son of Thomas Cattanach, builder, and his second wife Mary, née Masterton, both Scottish-born. He was educated at denominational and state schools and matriculated from Scotch College in 1880. After six years as an accountant with the Bank of Victoria, he became town clerk of Flemington and Kensington and then Essendon.

In May 1906 (Sir) Thomas Bent's government appointed Cattanach one of the three members of the newly constituted State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. He succeeded Dr Elwood Mead as chairman in 1915. The commission was set up to direct the investigation, development and control of country water-supplies throughout Victoria. It became responsible for the administration of closer settlement in irrigation districts in 1912, and after 1918 for the settlement of discharged soldiers from World War I; by 1923 some two thousand soldier settlers were located in irrigated areas, notably Red Cliffs, Woorinen, Merbein, Nyah, Stanhope, Tongala, Shepparton and Rodney. With the assistance of quite a small settlement branch he had to deal with practically every problem of allocation, many of which were very difficult.

Cattanach played a leading part in obtaining government support for co-operative canneries at Kyabram and Mooroopna on the lines of the successful Shepparton cannery set up in 1916. He also aided establishment of co-operative packing sheds for dried vine-fruits at Red Cliffs, Merbein and Woorinen and was active in the negotiations for marketing canned fruits overseas. Under his administration, new and enlarged reservoirs added greatly to the capacity of the country water-storages of the State, and the irrigated areas increased by 50 per cent.

Cattanach was tall and well built, with crisp curly hair, but he was acutely cross-eyed and this certainly disturbed any who might argue with him. Except for the very few who worked closely with him, most of his officers feared rather than liked him. He was very hard-working, and he took no recreation leave in his years as chairman. In 1912 he had visited the United States of America, and in 1927 he toured Canada to seek markets for Victorian canned and dried fruits.

Away from the office Cattanach was friendly and even charming. He was several times president of the Old Scotch Collegians' Association, was a popular member of the Wallaby (walking) Club, and an interesting travelling companion on visits to country districts. In 1925 he was appointed C.M.G.

Cattanach married Kate Lachlan Robertson at the age of 39; they had no children. For many years they lived at the George Hotel, St Kilda. He died on 20 July 1932 while still in office, and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £14,591.

Cattanach had made a substantial contribution to the development of Victorian water-resources, the expansion of irrigation, the subdivision of large holdings for closer settlement and the development of the fruit industry.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1910, 2 (46)
  • J. N. Churchyard, ‘Pioneers of irrigation in Victoria … William Cattanach’, Aqua, July 1957
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Jan 1925, 21 July 1932
  • F. W. Eggleston, confidential notes (Australian National University Library).

Citation details

Ronald East, 'Cattanach, William (1863–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 July 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]


17 May, 1863
North Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 July, 1932 (aged 69)
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.