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William Degraves (1821–1883)

by Patsy Hardy

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William Degraves (1821-1883), flour-miller, merchant and station-owner, was born in England, the second son of Peter Degraves and his wife Sophia, née McIntosh. He began work in his father's flour-mill and shipyard at Hobart Town. In 1849 he went to Melbourne and with his brother Charles as partner sought a site for a steam flour-mill. For £2000 they bought an acre (.4 ha) with a frontage to Flinders Lane and Degraves Street. Their mill, built in 1851, was said to have cost £10,000. William also became a director of the Hobson's Bay Railway Co. As an importer and buyer of gold and wool, he was soon a leading merchant. His three-storied Free and Bonded Stores, one of the earliest in Melbourne, was built in 1865 at the corner of Flinders and Russell Streets, on an acre (.4 ha) that cost him £8000. His home was at 182 Collins Street and he owned several other houses.

The main business of William Degraves & Co. was in Melbourne but branches spread to other centres and included flour-mills at Sandhurst, Malmsbury and Kyneton, and warehouses in the main railway towns; one at Echuca was served by a branch line much to the annoyance of local merchants who resented the special treatment of influential persons. Degraves was a director of the Union Bank of Australia. As a station-owner and land speculator he held at various times the runs of Woorooma and Westmeath in the Riverina, Coliban Park and Campaspe Mills estate near Kyneton, North and South Woodlands in the east Wimmera, Silesian Downs at Mount Carmel, a property at Elphinstone, and pastoral leases in South Australia. In the 1860s he was acclaimed one of the leading sheep and cattle breeders in Australia, with studs of imported Rambouillet rams and Shorthorn bulls. He was honourably mentioned for wool exhibits at the Paris Exhibition of 1867 and the first president of the National Agricultural Society of Victoria, formed in 1871.

Degraves represented South Province in the Legislative Council from 18 September 1860 until 24 May 1874. He was a member of the committee appointed 16 March 1865 to confer with a Legislative Assembly committee on the deadlock between the Houses over a proposed amendment to the Land Act of 1862. He was also a member of the royal commission on the Public Works Department in January 1873 but was unable to give the necessary attendance to join in the report. He was a reactionary and a staunch opponent of parliamentary reform, outspoken in his distrust of the 'levelling-system' and seeing in universal suffrage the cause of all mismanagement of public affairs. An immigration scheme he advocated was based on free land grants rather than free passages, a system which he believed would attract 'a higher class of citizen' who would also bring their servants with them. He also supported all projects for railway extension and irrigation by locking rivers.

Degraves saw himself as a squatter rather than as a businessman and bitterly criticized the administration of the Lands Department for failing to protect the rights of pastoralists against selectors and land jobbers. His concern seems to have been well founded: at one time reputed the Rothschild of Australia, Degraves retired to Tasmania about 1875 much reduced in wealth. He died in Hobart on 20 March 1883, a few days after returning from a visit to England. He left an estate worth £19,200 to his wife Robina, daughter of Major James Fraser; they were married in Hobart on 17 April 1855. His brother Charles died in 1874.

Select Bibliography

  • R. V. Billis and A. S. Kenyon, Pastures New (Melbourne, 1930)
  • H. M. Eastman, Memoirs of a Sheepman (Deniliquin, 1953)
  • R. B. Ronald, The Riverina: People and Properties (Melbourne, 1960)
  • Select Committee on Private Wharf Claims, Evidence, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1864, vol 1 (D16)
  • E. A. Mackay, ‘The First Flour Mills of Port Phillip’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 16, no 4, Nov 1937, pp 117-20
  • Illustrated Melbourne Post, 25 May 1865
  • Mercury (Hobart), 21 Mar 1883.

Citation details

Patsy Hardy, 'Degraves, William (1821–1883)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




20 March, 1883 (aged ~ 62)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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