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William Clarke (1843–1903)

by F. M. Dunn

This article was published:

William Clarke (1843-1903), businessman and parliamentarian, was born on 26 June 1843 in Melbourne, son of William Joseph Sayers Clarke and his wife Mary Ann, née Welsford. He married Mary Ann Mortimer in Melbourne on 25 June 1862. Later he moved to Sydney where he became manager of the English Scottish and Australian Bank. He was elected to the New South Wales Legislative Assembly on 24 November 1880 as one of the two members for Orange, although he 'had only known the electors 14 days'. He was re-elected on 6 December 1882 and again on 17 October 1885. On 24 August 1886 he became involved in a vigorous if unscientific bout of fisticuffs in a room behind the Speaker's chair with (Sir) William Lyne, the minister for works. Reports conflict, but Lyne had his eye blackened and various peacemakers also exchanged blows. The participants apologized to the House, and Clarke also published his side of the incident in a letter to the Sydney Morning Herald. The scene was reproduced on a front page of the Illustrated Sydney News and gave some credibility to the view that Clarke had 'not as much voice as avoirdupois'. About this time he became manager of the Anglo-Australian Investment Finance and Land Co. Ltd.

On 21 January 1887 when he was sworn in as minister for justice under Sir Henry Parkes, the Town and Country Journal commented, 'Mr. W. Clarke, the most personally disliked man in the Assembly, who has been aiming at office ever since he entered Parliament, at once jumped at a portfolio'. A pamphlet, Our Present Parliament, What it is Worth (Sydney, 1886), by an 'Ex-M.L.A.', added that he had habitually opposed each ministry and had sought to form a third party in which only W. J. Fergusson would join him. Nevertheless he was re-elected on 9 February 1887. As a minister he first adopted a minor and somewhat humble attitude, filling his letters to Parkes with apologies for failings as a minister. Later he began to take a more positive position, with fairly confident proposals on financial matters and managing the business of parliament. He also seems to have advised Parkes on his personal financial business. On 12 January 1889 the ministry was unexpectedly defeated, primarily because Parkes refused to explain his appointment of a commissioner of railways. Clarke had difficulty with his electoral meetings and his two protectionist opponents were easily returned. Clarke may have anticipated this result for in November he had written to Parkes of his intention to go to England. Throughout this ministry Parkes had greatly overshadowed his ministers who were largely ignored by the press.

Clarke left in the steamship Zealandia on 20 February for London via San Francisco. In December he established the London office of the Australian Freehold Banking Corporation Ltd, for which he was managing director and chairman of the London board. This company had been incorporated on 25 July 1879, taking over the assets and shares of the Australian Mutual Permanent Building Society formed in 1869. At Clarke's behest it was reincorporated as the Standard Bank of Australia Ltd on 27 March 1890. His task was to raise British deposits, and anything suggestive of land speculation was unacceptable to the British market. Clarke claimed to have raised about £500,000 of deposits through agencies in the main towns of England, Scotland and Ireland, but the bank suspended payment in Melbourne on 3 December 1891. It reopened on 30 May 1892 but the London directors could not get information about the bank's advances which were mostly on freehold property. After some protests and a failure to persuade the British depositors to renew for a further period, the directors sent in their resignations on 7 April 1893. On the 28th the bank again suspended payment in Melbourne, apparently because the claims of the British depositors could not be met. Clarke chaired a meeting of English depositors on 5 August, where he blamed the trouble largely on the British investors. When the shareholders in Melbourne met on 26 February 1894, one asked if Clarke had been dismissed. The chairman replied that he had resigned but refused any further explanation.

Clarke was a justice of the peace in both Victoria and New South Wales. He was one of the many commissioners in New South Wales of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London in 1886. He died at Cape Town on 9 March 1903 and in the same week his only son William Mortimer was killed in a riot.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 12 (1888), 15-18 (1890-94)
  • Town and Country Journal, 28 Aug 1886, 22, 29 Jan, 12 Feb 1887, 12 Jan, 23 Feb 1889
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 15 Sept 1886, 26 Jan 1888
  • 'The Australian Bank Crisis: Another Suspension', Times (London), 29 Apr 1893, p 12
  • 'The Standard Bank of Australia (Limited)', Times (London), 9 May 1893, p 12, 20 July 1893, p 12 and 5 Aug 1893, p 11
  • Henry Parkes letters, 1887-92 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

F. M. Dunn, 'Clarke, William (1843–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 25 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

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