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William Giles (1791–1862)

by John M. Tregenza

This article was published:

William Giles (1791-1862), by Townsend Duryea, c1865

William Giles (1791-1862), by Townsend Duryea, c1865

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6673/2

William Giles (1791-1862), company manager, was born on 27 December 1791 at Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire, England, the son of Thomas Giles and his wife Mary, née Stokes. On leaving Kimbolton Grammar School he was placed with a gentleman farmer in Kent, a relation with whom he gained a varied rural experience before becoming private secretary to a wealthy banker. In 1813 he married Sarah Roper, also of Great Staughton, who died in 1833 leaving him with six sons and three daughters. While living in Surrey at Mitcham, a name he later gave to an Adelaide suburb, Giles came under the influence of Rev. Rowland Hill, who helped to turn him from a strict Churchman into an ardent Independent. On the death of his employer he went to London, where he met George Fife Angas who invited him to manage the Swan River branch of the Union Bank and, when that fell through, to take charge of the South Australian Co.'s station at Kingscote on Kangaroo Island. Conscious of the better opportunities a new country would offer his many children, and attracted by the prospect of civil and religious equality, Giles accepted the offer, though personally gaining little financial advantage. With his young second wife, Emily Elizabeth, née McGeorge, her two infants, one born on the voyage, and the nine children of his first marriage, four of them travelling as assisted immigrants, he arrived at Kingscote in the Hartley on 16 October 1837 and found an idle and discontented community of nearly 300 souls living under primitive conditions. Within a few months the company had instructed him to carry out drastic retrenchment, a thankless and, in the absence of police, dangerous first duty.

On David McLaren's departure in January 1841, Giles was appointed colonial manager of the South Australian Co., and moved from Kingscote to Adelaide. With the coming of depression he was ordered to wind up all the company's commercial operations and to cut costs to the bone. Although little land could be sold he carefully managed the company's properties and improved its wool clip with imported Saxon rams. By allowing tenant farmers to pay their rents in grain, Giles kept most of them on their farms, and in 1843 found a market for the colony's first flour export. When the colony's fortunes revived with the 1845 boom in copper mining he tried hard to make rich gains for the company, but the grasping policy of his directors made him unpopular and he failed to acquire any El Dorado. He did, however, increase the company's tenants from 124 to 476 in 1846-51, and was quick to exploit the advantages of the new reaping machine made by John Ridley. By 1850 the company's tenants were harvesting just under a fourth of the colony's total wheat crop. In 1851-53, when the Victorian gold rushes posed a new threat to the colony's and the company's fortunes, he worked hard to keep tenants wedded to their farms, allowing rent arrears to stand over and persuading most to sow down their usual acreage before leaving for the diggings.

Giles was a close friend of Rev. Thomas Stow, and actively assisted him in carrying the Independent Chapel in Freeman Street through the depression of the 1840s, and afterwards in founding and maintaining other Independent churches. For many years he was a busy lay preacher. In 1841 he shared in founding the Society for the Preservation of Religious Freedom, and became treasurer when it was revived in 1846 to fight state aid to religion. When representative government was granted in 1851 Giles stood for Port Adelaide as an advocate of vote by ballot and separation of church and state. Beaten in a riotous election, he stood again for Yatala and won by three votes. Although he did not seek re-election in 1855 in deference to the wishes of the company directors, he knew by then that his main political goals were secure. In this decade the company's land and stock steadily increased, and absorbed most of his attention, although be remained an active member of the Central Board of Main Roads, and of the Board for Superintendence of the Relief of the Destitute Poor. He retired from the company's service in January 1861 and died at Beaumont, near Adelaide, on 11 May 1862.

Though never paid more than a modest salary, Giles was a faithful and enterprising servant of the company. He was from the first a firm believer in the agricultural future of South Australia, and by his sound management of the company's landholdings contributed materially to the progress and stability of the colony in its first quarter century. Pious, charitable, shrewd in business and devoted to the principles of religious and civil equality, he was a representative leader of early South Australian Dissent. He was also the patriarch of a very large family of twenty-one children and seventy-eight grandchildren. Of his sons, Thomas (1820-1899) was associated with G. A. Anstey in developing pastoral leases on Eyre and Yorke Peninsulas, Mortimer (1848-1914) was registrar-general of deeds, and Clement (1844-1926) secretary-manager and first London representative of the South Australian Farmers' Co-operative Union and later sole elected representative of Australian farmers on the compulsory wheat pool of 1917.

Select Bibliography

  • J. I. Watts, Family Life in South Australia Fifty-Three Years Ago (Adel, 1890)
  • I. A. Diamond, History of South Australian Co: The First Decade (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1955)
  • W. R. C. Jaques, Impact of the Gold Rushes on South Australia, 1852-1854 (B.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1963)
  • South Australian Co records (State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

John M. Tregenza, 'Giles, William (1791–1862)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (Melbourne University Press), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Giles (1791-1862), by Townsend Duryea, c1865

William Giles (1791-1862), by Townsend Duryea, c1865

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6673/2

Life Summary [details]


27 December, 1791
Great Staughton, Huntingdonshire, England


11 May, 1862 (aged 70)
Beaumont, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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