Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

William Forrest (1835–1903)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published:

William Forrest (1835-1903), pastoralist, company director and politician, was born on 11 January 1835 at Ballykelly, Ireland, son of James Forrest, farmer of Dromore, Londonderry, and his wife Margaret, née Sherrard. Educated privately, he studied engineering at Glasgow. In December 1853 he arrived in Melbourne by the Ravenscraig, subsequently working as a goldminer and engineer in the New Chum and other Bendigo Golden Gully mines. Successful in mining, he joined the rush to pastoral Queensland in 1860, first managing an out-station for the Mt Hutton Pastoral Co. in the Dawson district and later (1867) purchasing the head-station with (Sir) Simon Fraser.

This venture prospered. In 1877 Forrest joined his old Bendigo chum, (Sir) Thomas McIlwraith, with William Collins and Patrick Perkins, in floating the North Australian Pastoral Co., an enterprise designed to lease vast tracts of land in the Northern Territory, fatten store stock in the Kennedy area and promote sugar-growing and land speculation in the Burdekin delta. He was the key figure in floating the company's securities in Melbourne, allaying the fears of Victorians about McIlwraith's grandiose schemes and shrewdly negotiating with conservative South Australians worried about their virgin incubus, 'the Territory'. Although difficulties were great and dividends small, the concern survived. This was a not inconsiderable achievement and the credit must go to Forrest.

Although Forrest had 'no special taste for public life', McIlwraith saw his ability, appointed him to the Legislative Council for life in March 1883 and twice offered him a portfolio. Running McIlwraith's northern campaign, Forrest 'frightened the over-confident and indolent into activity and stimulated the jealous to further exertions'. In 1893 he was gazetted Queensland's agent-general in London. Alas, although he had purchased an ornate court uniform and gilt sword, the financial problems of the Brisbane mercantile and pastoral community, of which he was a pre-eminent technician; pulled him back. A shrewd director and consolidator, he resigned as agent-general without taking office, to restructure the stock and station firm, B. D. Morehead & Co. and, most significantly, ensure the progress of the refrigerated meat export trade as both the chairman of directors of the Queensland Meat Export & Agency Co. and the chief public advocate for wholesale processing. He did, however, represent Queensland at the 1894 Ottawa Conference and discreetly, through business lubrication, facilitated the colony's entry into the Australian Federation.

In his pamphlet, The Present Depression: Its Causes and Cure (Brisbane, 1893), Forrest advocated an export-led economic recovery for Queensland based on new technology, control of the rabbit plague, and sound business management. This would free his world from the curse of experimental legislation and allow 'natural forces and laws to defeat all agitators and political misleaders'. Well might T. Macdonald-Paterson say in 1895: 'He put his shoulders to the wheel at a time when finance was depressed … the position of the meat export trade is largely due to [his] enterprise'. Business, in short, was his passion—'he loved it and expected others to feel the same'. 'Dogged perseverance and thrift leads', he said, 'to prosperity'. Brusque, yet lavish with advice and money to his friends, he was, if socially conservative, a more than competent representative of a somewhat discredited section of Queensland society. Most commodities Forrest measured in £.s.d. He was more tolerant of the Aboriginals than most, however, acknowledging their need for custom and movement, but this was like his advocacy of coloured labour to develop the north: he saw virtue in it because it was cheap, or, in the case of Aboriginals, both cheap and docile.

William died of heart disease at his brother's house, St Magnus, Bowen Terrace, on 23 April 1903. Unmarried, he left, after previous discreet disbursements, a mere £5490. His Anglican funeral, attended by the governor and the Brisbane Establishment, saw 'his old cabman drive an empty hansom, and four old servants of the Queensland Club (he was twice president) join in a common wreath and follow the hearse to the Toowong grave'.

His younger brother, John (1848-1911), born at Ballykelly on 18 October 1848, was less of an entrepreneur and more of a manager, reflecting shifts in Queensland's economic and political life. He migrated in 1868, joining William at Mount Hutton. Between 1875 and 1880 he managed Gin Gin station near Bundaberg for Thomas McIlwraith. Financed by McIlwraith he established Avoca sugar plantation in 1880 but failed through a combination of 'bad seasons, floods and dear kanakas'. Forrest acted as McIlwraith's constituency manager, Bundaberg political organizer and local government figure. Patronage plus ability secured him the post of pastoral inspector for the Queensland National Bank. In 1902 he succeeded William as chairman of Moreheads and managing director of the North Australian Pastoral Co. A local director of the Australian Mutual Provident Society and the North British Insurance Co., Forrest, like his brother, was offered but declined the agent-generalship in 1909.

A pioneer Brisbane golfer and president of the Brisbane Golf Club in 1902-09, he was also an enthusiastic horse-breeder and a committee-man of the Queensland Turf Club. Personally kind and generous, he was an active supporter of the Boy Scouts. On 11 May 1881 he married Edith Irene Hanford, a great-niece of Hamilton Hume; by her he had three sons of whom two survived him. Forrest died with coronary vascular disease at St Magnus on 29 September 1911 and was buried in the Church of England section of Toowong cemetery. A bust by Harold Parker is in the Queensland Club.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Connelly, John Drysdale and the Burdekin (Syd, 1964)
  • Sydney Mail, 31 Mar 1883
  • Maryborough Chronicle, 28 May 1889
  • Brisbane Courier, 24 Apr 1903, 30 Sept 1911
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 24 Apr 1903
  • Queenslander, 7 Oct 1911
  • Palmer-McIlwraith papers (State Library of Queensland).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Forrest, William (1835–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 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 January, 1835
Ballykelly, Londonderry, Ireland


23 April, 1903 (aged 68)
New Farm, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.