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William John Clarke (1805–1874)

by Hugh Anderson

This article was published:

William Clarke, by Samuel Calvert, 1874

William Clarke, by Samuel Calvert, 1874

State Library of Victoria, 49328883

William John Turner Clarke (1805-1874), pastoralist and landowner, was born on 20 April 1805 in Somerset, England, the second son of William Clarke of St Botolf, Aldgate, London, and his wife Sarah, née Turner, of Weston Zoyland, near Wells, Somerset. His yeoman father died in 1819 and William was placed under the guardianship of his uncle Joseph. He began to work for a drover taking cattle from Somerset to Smithfield and became a shrewd judge of livestock. At 21 the meat firm he was working with failed and he pledged himself to independence by making money, cautiously investing his savings in cattle and avoiding debt. In May 1829 he married Elizabeth (1801-1878), daughter of George Pyke Dowling, rector of Puckington, Somerset, and his wife Anne, née Biggs, of an old and wealthy Bristol family. A weak chest and a congenitally malformed hip as well as the prospect of new opportunities induced him to emigrate, and he arrived at Hobart Town with his wife in the Deveron on 23 December 1829.

He first set up as a butcher and meat contractor to the government in partnership with William Ladds, and for a time lived at the shop in Elizabeth Street, Hobart. Clarke later said that he had brought a capital of more than £3000, but on 11 January 1830 when he applied for a land grant, he declared a capital of £1410 in dollars, a cow that had cost £25 in London, a bull 'not over-valued at £100', and a mare that had been worth £200 in England. Although he explained to the Land Board that he had rented the farm of Captain Briggs at Campbell Town and would have to put an overseer on his grant, he was given 2000 acres (809 ha) which he located in the Campbell Town district and called Windfalls. In November 1831 he claimed to be renting 8000 acres (3238 ha) and depasturing 6000 sheep and 800 cattle; he also had a mortgage of £600 on his Lovely Banks property near Jericho and £200 on a house at Campbell Town and expected £800 for his wool clip. For thus employing his means and time he asked for an extension of his original grant, but was refused. According to a dispatch from Denison in January 1853, Clarke then owned 80,000 acres (32,375 ha) and rented 50,000 (20,235 ha) in Van Diemen's Land.

His partnership with Ladds was dissolved in 1834 and next year Clarke bought the rights of Munmurra run near Cassilis, New South Wales, but abandoned it after a few months, finding the drought and heat too severe for his health. In 1837 he shipped 1612 ewes across Bass Strait, and took them first to Station Peak in the You Yangs between Melbourne and Geelong, and then to Dowling Forest near Ballarat. Here he acquired pastoral licences for some 30,000 acres (12,141 ha), and during the depression in 1842 set up a boiling-down works which realized a considerable sum of money. He then had 100,000 sheep in the Port Phillip District and each year extended his landholdings. In 1850, under the special survey clause of the Waste Lands Act, he successfully claimed 31,375 acres (12,697 ha) at 20s. an acre, and located it near Sunbury, twenty-five miles (40 km) from Melbourne. He next obtained the adjoining 31,000 acres (12,545 ha) under the Order-in-Council of 1847, both acquisitions displacing several pastoral licensees, and making a single property that stretched from Sunbury to the Sydney Road.

Known generally as 'Big' Clarke and 'Moneyed' Clarke, he was widely feared for his ruthless land hunger, but respected for consummate ability in pursuit of fortune. He never meddled with agriculture but stuck to the 'raising of sheep' as a 'better paying game', and to his great profit he introduced the Leicester breed of sheep into Australia. The gold rush further increased his prosperity; meat sales boomed; money received from his wool clips he lent at high interest to Australian import houses, and in time he acquired the reputation of being the wealthiest man in the country, this being regarded as a consequence of what his obituaries term 'parsimonious habits'.

Apart from visiting his mainland stations for shearing, Clarke lived in Tasmania until 1850 and in 1870 he made his home in Melbourne at Roseneath, Essendon. He represented Southern Province in the Victorian Legislative Council from the inauguration of responsible government in 1856 until 1870, except for two years, and was an active member though often absent through travel and ill health. With the years he put on weight and left much of his pastoral management to his sons, William and Joseph, while he gave more attention to money-lending, business investment and landed property in Melbourne. He was a director and substantial shareholder in the Colonial Bank and had large interests in other banks and insurance companies. His health declined and in 1870 he became partially paralysed, but insisted on attending directors' meetings although it took four men to carry him to his carriage. He died at Roseneath on 13 January 1874, leaving an estate of some £2,500,000, besides approximately 215,000 acres (87,008 ha) of freehold throughout Australasia. He bequeathed £800 a year to his wife who lived apart from him, both in Tasmania and Victoria. Money also was left for a great-nephew in Tasmania. His properties in Victoria, worth about £1,500,000, went to his eldest son, William John (1831-1897). The second son, Thomas Bigges (1832-1878), was left out of the business affairs of the estate; his children were left £20,000 each and he received only the rich pastoral property of Quorn Hall and two farms in Tasmania. Joseph (1834-1895), the youngest son, inherited some 750,000 acres (303,518 ha) in South Australia, 50,000 (20,235ha) in New Zealand, 50,000 (20,235 ha) in Tasmania, and a large share of his father's business interests.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Clarke, The Clarke Clan in Australia (Melb, 1946)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • C. H. Bertie, ‘The Clarkes of Victoria’, Home (Sydney), 1 Dec. 1931
  • W. J. T. Clarke, notes and letters (State Library of Victoria)
  • correspondence file under W. J. T. Clarke (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Hugh Anderson, 'Clarke, William John (1805–1874)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Clarke, by Samuel Calvert, 1874

William Clarke, by Samuel Calvert, 1874

State Library of Victoria, 49328883

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Clark, William John

20 April, 1805
Bridgwater, Somerset, England


13 January, 1874 (aged 68)
Essendon, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death


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