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Sir William John Clarke (1831–1897)

by Sylvia Morrissey

This article was published:

William John Clarke (1831-1897), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

William John Clarke (1831-1897), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H6257

Sir William John Clarke (1831-1897), landowner, stud-breeder and philanthropist, was born on 31 March 1831 at Lovely Banks, Van Diemen's Land, the eldest of three sons of William John Turner Clarke, and his wife Eliza, née Dowling. He was educated at Bonwick's Academy, Hobart Town, and later at Whitchurch Grammar School in Shropshire. On his return in 1850 William spent some years on his father's Victorian properties and then went to Tasmania to manage estates there with his younger brother Joseph. They lived at Norton-Mandeville. William became a member of the Hamilton Road Board and a justice of the peace. On 23 August 1860 he married Mary, daughter of John Walker. He took his bride to Victoria, lived at Sunbury, had a town house at St Kilda and took over the management of his father's estates. The eldest of their two sons, Rupert, was born in 1865; they also had two daughters. In 1862 William was elected to the Melbourne Club and in April stood against George Higinbotham at the Brighton by-election for the Legislative Assembly, but without success. Mary died on 14 April 1871, and on 21 January 1873 William married Janet Snodgrass. His father died in 1874 and William inherited all the Victorian properties worth about £1,500,000, becoming the largest landowner in the colony.

From this time William spent money on a lavish scale, starting to build the mansion, Rupertswood, at Sunbury in 1874, travelling abroad in style and becoming a leader in colonial society. He became famous for his encouragement of scientific farming and was on the committees of several Victorian agricultural societies and president of the one at West Bourke in 1874-91. Each year he gave generous prizes for the best farms and was a keen show competitor himself. Before the Department of Agriculture was established, he engaged R. E. W. McIvor to lecture in agricultural chemistry in farming centres, supplying him with a laboratory and publishing his lectures. He imported machinery for his farms, subdivided sheep runs in West Bourke and turned Dowling Forest, near Ballarat, into a model tenant farming estate. He charged his tenants moderate rents with long leases and encouraged improvements. He started a Shorthorn stud at Bolinda Vale and imported Aberdeen Angus cattle when they were still a rarity. His Leicester sheep and draught horses at Dowling Forest and his merino stud at Cobran were famous. Like many other squatters, Clarke extended his pastoral holdings and took up land in Queensland. He also bred thoroughbreds and his filly Petrea won the Victorian Oaks in 1879. Later he sold his stud and concentrated on coursing; the Victoria Coursing Club met on his land. In 1887, 1890 and later years he was president of the Australian Club. He was commodore of the Royal Victorian Yacht Squadron and his Janet won the first intercolonial yacht race in 1881. He was the first president of the Victorian Football Association in 1877 and president of the Melbourne Cricket Club in 1880-86.

Encouraged by his wife, he represented Southern Province in the Legislative Council in 1878-97. According to the president, 'although he was not a very active member, he was one whom we could ill afford to lose'. He attended seldom and spoke only on subjects that interested him. He opposed the livestock tax in 1879 with other graziers. Critical of the lack of colonial defence, he formed the Rupertswood battery of horse artillery and maintained it at Sunbury at his own expense. He also gave prizes for competition among other volunteer corps.

William made many donations to charities and appeals. Among his larger gifts were £2000 to the Indian Famine Relief Fund, £10,000 to the Melbourne Church of England Cathedral, £7000 to Trinity College in the University of Melbourne and a large sum to the Irish Relief Fund. He was president of the Homoeopathic Hospital and the Blind Asylum and a member of the Church Assembly and the Diocesan Council. He presented a statue of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, by the sculptor Charles Summers, and a portrait of Lord Melbourne by Robert Dowling to the National Gallery. William was also a prominent Victorian Freemason and was elected provincial grand master of the Irish Constitution in 1881 and district grand master of both the Scottish and English Constitutions in 1884, a unique record at that time. In 1889 he became the first grand master of the United Grand Lodge of Victoria, an amalgamation of the three branches. In 1885 he had largely financed the building of the Freemasons' Hall in Collins Street.

The Clarkes entertained splendidly at Rupertswood, their guests arriving in hundreds by train at his private railway platform. In 1882 the Clarkes visited England and founded the Clarke Music Scholarship of 3000 guineas at the Royal College of Music. He was also appointed a baronet for his services as president of the Melbourne Exhibition in 1880-81 and for his prominence as a colonist. In 1886 he received an honorary LL.D. from Cambridge, and in London was a member of the Victorian Commission to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition. In August 1888 the family moved to Cliveden, a large Italian Renaissance-style town house William had built in East Melbourne, an area which became the focal point of upper-class social life for the next twenty years.

William had inherited his father's large share in the Colonial Bank of Australia and served as its governor for twenty years. Like other banks it became involved in speculation, and Clarke lost heavily in the 1893 bank crash. However, the bank recovered, mainly because William with typical integrity met the calls with his own capital in the reconstruction which followed. His popularity was based on similar conscientious and generous actions, but the strain of the financial crisis contributed to his sudden death from a heart attack on 15 May 1897. He left an estate that later realized well over £1,000,000; it was distributed among his widow and ten surviving children; Rupert, the second baronet, inherited Rupertswood. The funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Victoria. Clarke is commemorated in a statue in the Treasury Gardens, Melbourne.

His brother, Joseph Clarke (1834-1895), was born on 1 January 1834 near Hobart and received a similar education to that of William. On 22 March 1860 he married his cousin Caroline, daughter of Lewis Clarke, and lived at Norton-Mandeville in the Derwent valley. He then took over the management of his father's southern and central Tasmanian estates of about 70,000 acres (28,328 ha) and was appointed a justice of the peace.

On his father's death he inherited most of the estates in Tasmania, at Mount Schank in South Australia and the Moa Flat and Teviot stations in New Zealand. He was a shareholder of the Colonial Bank and for a time its governor. In 1876 he bought a large home in Toorak, renamed it Mandeville Hall and lived there with his wife and two sons, William and Lewis. Joseph was a director of the Hobson's United Railway Co. in which his brother was also a major shareholder. His business interests included insurance and he was a director and original shareholder in the Mount Lyell Mining Co. in 1892. Like his brother he had large pastoral interests in Queensland. In the depression of the early 1890s he lost much of his fortune but provided a large sum to help the Colonial Bank through the crisis. He made generous public donations including £5000 to Trinity College in the University of Melbourne, £5000 to the Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne, and £1000 to the Hobart Cathedral. He died on 17 January 1895; his wife survived him until 25 June 1920 and was buried beside him near Norton-Mandeville.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Wallace, Rural Economy and Agriculture of Australia and New Zealand (Lond, 1891)
  • W. F. Lamonby, Some Notes on Freemasonry in Australia (Lond, 1906)
  • A. Henry, Memoirs of Alice Henry (Melb, 1944)
  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1954)
  • M. Cannon, The Land Boomers (Melb, 1966)
  • Kyneton Guardian, 2 June 1874
  • Daily Telegraph (Melbourne), 16 July 1875
  • Bacchus Marsh Express, 17 Feb 1877
  • Bulletin, 15 Oct 1880
  • Australasian, 22, 29 May 1897
  • Weekly Times (Melbourne), 22 May 1897
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 June 1895, 17 May 1897
  • J. E. Parnaby, The Economic and Political Development of Victoria, 1877-1881 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1951)
  • Annals of the Clarke family, 1830-1926 (State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Sylvia Morrissey, 'Clarke, Sir William John (1831–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 29 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 John Clarke (1831-1897), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

William John Clarke (1831-1897), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co, c1885

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H6257

Life Summary [details]


31 March, 1831
Lovely Banks, Tasmania, Australia


15 May, 1897 (aged 66)
Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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