Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Robert Giblin (1840–1887)

by E. M. Dollery

This article was published:

William Robert Giblin (1840-1887), premier and judge, was born on 4 November 1840 at Hobart Town, son of William Giblin, clerk of the registrar of deeds and deacon in the Congregational Church, and his wife Marion, née Falkiner. He was educated by his uncle and at the Hobart High School but left at 13 to work for the legal firm of Allport & Roberts; he was later articled to John Roberts. Giblin studied not only law but in other fields, reading widely and developing a literary style in his prose and verse. In 1864 he was admitted to the Bar and became a partner of the Hobart barrister, Henry Dobson, brother of William. His success in the courts was immediate and enabled him on 5 January 1865 to marry Emmely Jean, daughter of John Perkins.

Dedicated to the moral and social elevation of the underprivileged, Giblin founded in 1864 the Hobart Working Men's Club, the first of its kind in Australia, and was its president until 1887. He was also a founder and teacher of the Congregational Sunday school and helped in forming football teams to discourage larrikinism. He rowed in early club races and encouraged walking in the mountains. He publicly advocated the building of a railway from Hobart to Launceston for lowering the transport costs of primary producers. All these activities made him popular and in 1869 he was petitioned by hundreds of voters to stand for election to the House of Assembly. He was elected unopposed for Hobart Town and, after electorates were revised, represented Central Hobart in 1871-76 and Wellington in 1877-84. He served as attorney-general under (Sir) James Wilson in 1870-72 and in Alfred Kennerley's ministry in 1873-76. He joined the ministry of (Sir) Philip Fysh in August 1877 as colonial treasurer and attorney-general, and was premier as well from March to December 1878. From October 1879 to August 1884 he led a coalition government. As premier, treasurer and sometimes attorney-general he reorganized the colony's finances, secured the adoption of an equitable taxation policy and initiated an active programme of public works. In 1883 he represented Tasmania at the Australasian Convention which led to formation of the Federal Council. On 7 February 1885 he was appointed puisne judge of the Supreme Court. As acting chief justice he was administrator of the government in October-November 1886, the first native-born Tasmanian to hold this office. Worn out by heavy responsibilities and heart disease, he died on 17 January 1887.

Alfred Deakin described Giblin as 'remarkably impressive … too big for his colony'. By any standards he was a statesman, bringing order out of political chaos and saving the colony from long stagnation. His integrity, both public and private, was unusually high. He was brilliant and convincing in debate especially on forensic subjects, skills which won him repute throughout Australia. His philanthropy and active Congregationalism were also well known and his lectures on literary topics were in constant demand. He was survived by his wife, four sons and three daughters. His second son, Lyndhurst Falkiner Giblin, was a distinguished scholar, soldier and the first Ritchie professor of economics in the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of Tasmania, vol 1 (Hob, 1900)
  • B. R. Wise, The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900 (Lond, 1913)
  • F. C. Green (ed), A Century of Responsible Government 1856-1956 (Hob, 1956)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 4 Feb 1885, 18 Jan 1887
  • correspondence file under W. R. Giblin (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

E. M. Dollery, 'Giblin, William Robert (1840–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 15 April 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

William Robert Giblin (1840-1887), by J. W. Beattie

William Robert Giblin (1840-1887), by J. W. Beattie

Allport Library and Museum of Fine Arts, State Library of Tasmania, AUTAS001125880302

Life Summary [details]


4 November, 1840
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia


17 January, 1887 (aged 46)
Hobart, Tasmania, Australia

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.