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William Copley (1845–1925)

by Dean Jaensch

This article was published:

William Copley (1845-1925), by unknown photographer, c1892

William Copley (1845-1925), by unknown photographer, c1892

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 27296

William Copley (1845-1925), farmer and politician, was born on 25 April 1845 at High Green near Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, eldest son of James Copley, miner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Redfearn. The family migrated to South Australia in 1849 and lived at Burra Burra. They visited the Victorian goldfields in 1851, but returned to settle in West Torrens. Copley was educated at Hindmarsh Public School and James Bath's school, North Adelaide. In 1867-1910 he was a wheat-farmer, lastly on the Black Rock plain near Orroroo, and then moved to Gawler and Adelaide.

Copley's central interest remained agriculture. He examined students at the Roseworthy Agricultural College and was president of the Farmers' Association in 1883-84. In 1884 he was elected to the House of Assembly for Frome and two years later became a commissioner for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition. In 1887 he lost Frome but in July won a Legislative Council by-election for the northern division. As 'a strenuous opponent' of socialism, he was a founding member in 1892 of the National Defence League, a 'counter' to the new United Labor Party.

Copley was commissioner for crown lands and immigration in Thomas Playford's 1890-92 ministry. But the appointment of a legislative councillor to the position was opposed in the Lower House and he was transferred to agriculture and education. He was a 'strong farmer's advocate' and introduced progressive probate and succession duties and 'homestead block' measures, based on New Zealand legislation. This led to the inauguration of 10-acre (4 ha) holdings at Gawler Blocks, Peterborough, Cottonville and Croydon. He sat on the 1891 and 1898-99 pastoral lands commissions. Copley was minister of agriculture and education in Sir John Downer's 1892-93 ministry, and chief secretary briefly in 1893 when he piloted the bill for free education through the council.

Defeated in 1894, he returned to farming and assisting the N.D.L. In 1896-1902 he sat again in the House of Assembly as member for Yorke Peninsula. In 1902 he stood for Barossa and lost, and also failed in a bid to enter the Senate for the Australasian National League. A founder member and president of the Farmers and Producers' Political Union from 1904, he led discussions on its amalgamation with the Liberal and Democratic Union and the A.N.L., resulting in the formation of the Liberal Union in 1910.

Survived by his wife and four daughters, Copley died at Henley Beach on 16 September 1925, leaving an estate sworn for probate at £5308. His adherence to what 'he believed to be fair and right' had showed particularly in the South African War; as an Imperialist, he disliked the South Australian emblem outside Government House, and it 'excited a good deal of public attention' when he removed the flag and demanded that the Union Jack be hoisted. He was reserved but kindly, described by the Observer as 'not a genius' but 'a good, capable, inflexibly honest legislator'. The town of Copley commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1909)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1881, 4, 127
  • Pictorial Australian, Aug-Sept 1890, Oct 1892
  • Observer (Adelaide), 20 Dec 1890, 9 May 1896, 6 May 1899, 10 May 1902, 19 Sept 1925
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 26 Apr 1919
  • Register (Adelaide), 3 Dec 1921, 17 Sept 1925.

Citation details

Dean Jaensch, 'Copley, William (1845–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Copley (1845-1925), by unknown photographer, c1892

William Copley (1845-1925), by unknown photographer, c1892

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 27296

Life Summary [details]


25 April, 1845
High Green, Sheffield, Yorkshire, England


16 September, 1925 (aged 80)
Henley Beach, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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