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William Knox D'Arcy (1849–1917)

by David Carment

This article was published:

William Knox D'Arcy (1849-1917), mining entrepreneur, was born on 11 October 1849 at Highweek, Newton Abbot, Devon, England, son of William Francis D'Arcy, solicitor, and his wife Elizabeth Baker, née Bradford. He was a direct descendant of Lord Darcy de Knayth, lord justice and chief governor of Ireland during the fourteenth century and founder of a prominent Anglo-Norman family in Ireland. D'Arcy was educated at Westminster School, London, in 1863-65, then moved with his family in 1866 to Rockhampton, Queensland. He qualified as a solicitor in March 1872, initially working with his father and later in his own practice.

In 1882 D'Arcy began his connexion with mining. In that year the brothers Fred, Edwin and Thomas Morgan pegged out gold claims at Ironstone Mountain (later Mount Morgan), some twenty-four miles (38 km) south of Rockhampton. Unable to raise sufficient funds to exploit their find, they approached T. S. Hall, a bank manager, for capital. On Hall's suggestion, they also approached William Pattison, and D'Arcy. Convinced that the proposition was sound, D'Arcy, Hall and Pattison formed a syndicate. Worried about the initially low rate of recovery, the Morgans sold their interests by October 1883 to the syndicate for approximately £100,000. Though increasingly large profits were soon made, D'Arcy and his partners still had problems. Of particular concern were the claim-jumpers who attempted to move in on parts of the syndicate's area, and D'Arcy's legal training was tested fully in the complicated litigation which resulted. In 1886 the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. was established with one million £1 shares. He was one of the eight original shareholders and directors, with 125,000 shares in his own name and 233,000 in trust. As at one stage the shares reached £17 1s. each, he became a millionaire.

Outside his mining interests, he was not a prominent public figure. He lived with his family at Ellen Vanin, a comfortable home in Rockhampton's Wandal district. His main recreations were shooting, racing and rowing. President of a rowing club and on the committee of the Rockhampton Jockey Club, he took no interest in any charitable institutions.

D'Arcy disposed of his legal practice in 1886 and left for England next year, never to return. He remained a director of the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. as chairman of its London board. The main reason for his departure was a wish to use his fortune to establish a place in English upper-class society. Despite over twenty years in Australia, he seems to have found that his social ambitions could not be fulfilled there.

He soon put his wealth to work. He purchased Stanmore Hall, an impressive mansion in Middlesex, and a London town house, in both of which he entertained lavishly. In what was commonly seen as a deliberate attempt to emulate the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII), he leased a shooting estate in Norfolk, had a stand at Epsom and went to Marienbad, Germany (Czechoslovakia) for health cures. His growing girth exhibited an inability to resist the attractions of good living. But he was not without financial worries. He and his family lost money through the closure of the Queensland National Bank in 1892 and by the late 1890s the value of his Mount Morgan shares had declined. He also noticed the mounting costs of his extravagant life-style. He was thus prompted to reconsolidate his position through investment in a new mining venture.

The opportunity came in 1900 when Sir Henry Drummond Wolff, a former British minister to Teheran, approached him to invest in Persian oil exploration. Early in 1901 D'Arcy sent to Teheran an emissary who in May obtained a concession to search for oil over 480,000 sq. miles (1,243,195 km²). D'Arcy agreed to provide all necessary finance for the search. But at the end of 1903 he had spent £150,000 with no result. His financial position was now desperate. He had to mortgage his Mount Morgan shares at a time when they had dropped to £2 10s. each. By May 1905 he had used £225,000 and could spend no more. He began negotiations with the French branch of the Rothschild family for the sale of the concession. But on 20 May the British owned Burmah Oil Co. stepped in with an offer. D'Arcy agreed to it and made over the rights to his concession in return for 170,000 Burmah Oil shares and a payment to cover expenses he had incurred.

On 26 May 1908 Burmah Oil finally found the biggest oilfield yet known in the world in D'Arcy's old concession. This led in 1909 to the formation of a new company, Anglo-Persian Oil, which later became Anglo-Iranian Oil and ultimately British Petroleum. The British government paid £2 million for a controlling interest in the field. D'Arcy was appointed to the board of the new company, where he remained until his death. His wealth was restored: for the second time in his career a gamble had paid off most lucratively.

D'Arcy's character and work still arouse widely varying interpretations. Some observers point to the visionary way in which he established one of Australia's richest gold-mines and secured for Britain the Persian oil concession. Others argue that his achievements are over-rated and that he took credit which should have gone elsewhere. There is some truth in both views. Although he displayed considerable foresight throughout his career, he also owed much to quite extraordinary good luck and the loyalty of associates. He had few, if any, ideals, his main aim being to win and then maintain wealth and social esteem.

He was married twice, first in Sydney on 23 October 1872 at St Patrick's Catholic Church to Elena, daughter of S. B. Birkbeck of Glenmore, near Rockhampton. She died in 1897. His second marriage took place in London on 30 January 1899 to a divorcee, Mrs Ernestine Eliza Effie Nutting, daughter of A. L. Boucicault, a Rockhampton newspaper proprietor. From his first marriage there were two sons and three daughters.

D'Arcy died on 1 May 1917 at Stanmore Hall of broncho-pneumonia, survived by his wife and children. He was buried at Stanmore with Church of England rites. His estate of £984,000 was left almost entirely to his family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. G. Pattison, ‘Battler's’ Tales of Early Rockhampton (Melb, 1939)
  • G. Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended (Melb, 1963)
  • Lord Casey, Australian Father and Son (Lond, 1966)
  • M. R. Kent, Oil and Empire (Lond, 1976)
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, 115 (1939)
  • Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton), 3 Mar 1870, 1 June 1871, 6 Apr 1875, 7 May 1881, 21 Mar 1884, 2 Oct, 2 Dec 1886, 7 Jan, 25 June 1887, 29 May 1900, 12 May 1908, 6 Jan 1939
  • 'Court Circular', Times (London), 4 May 1917, p 9, 'Wills and Bequests', Times (London), 17 Sept 1917, p 11
  • G. A. Richard, The Great Persian Oil Fields: How Mt Morgan Men Held the Titles (1934, State Library of Queensland)
  • Birkbeck-D'Arcy correspondence, 1887-1906 (privately held).

Citation details

David Carment, 'D'Arcy, William Knox (1849–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 May 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

Life Summary [details]


11 October, 1849
Newton Abbot, Devon, England


1 May, 1917 (aged 67)
London, Middlesex, England

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