Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Hutchison Gresham (1824–1875)

by Donald S. Garden

This article was published:

William Hutchison Gresham (1824-1875), land reformer and idealist, was born at Hull, Yorkshire, England. He was later fond of recounting his varied youthful experiences at sea and in the backwoods of North America. In the early 1850s he migrated to Melbourne where, aged 29, on 15 March 1853 he married Jane Ingles who was born at Greenock, Scotland, in 1830. In 1855 Gresham joined Charles Ingles and John Adams as merchants in Footscray. Next year the partnership set up as ship-chandlers in Melbourne and in 1859 at Sandridge (Port Melbourne). Gresham also had a patent fuse factory at Footscray in 1867, managed the Evelyn Tunnel Gold Mining Co. in 1872 and his own commission agency and ship-chandlery at Sandridge in 1873-75.

Gresham had been a friend of J. S. Mill and continued to correspond with him after migrating. He was thus steeped in the latest British political and social philosophy which he tried to introduce into Australia. Mill remarked 'that Victoria deserved to be congratulated that she had such an enlightened politician as Mr. Gresham'. In the late 1860s Gresham began to pepper Melbourne and country papers with his ideas of reform on many political, social and economic questions. He also held office in several intellectual and political societies including the Working Man's Political Association and the Eclectic Association. He was best known for his work in the Land Tenure Reform League which in October 1870–November 1873 was a counterpart of the English association backed by Mill. The league was associated with the radical Democratic Association of Victoria and advocated state ownership of all lands with a single tax. In letters to newspapers and seven published tracts Gresham and his supporters carried out a wide campaign and won many important subscribers. The league may have had some influence on Berry's land tax bill, 1877. To implement his ideas Gresham contested the Sandridge seat in the Legislative Assembly in 1866, 1868 and 1874 but despite his organization of well-attended public meetings he failed each time because he handicapped himself by 'repudiating canvassing as an infringement of the sanctity of the ballot box'. Although he had many friends and admirers, his reforms were too bound in philosophical thought and jargon, and his style of speaking and writing was too nervous. In August 1873 Gresham was elected to the Sandridge Borough Council where he was very active and became involved in many projects. His business suffered and he bought the small Felix Holt to compete for trade by sailing down Port Phillip Bay to meet incoming ships. At 3 a.m. on 13 May 1875 with two boatmen he left Sandridge but ran into a storm. His battered boat was washed ashore near Mornington but despite thorough search the bodies of the three men were never found. Gresham's wife and eight children were left destitute but his fellow councillors raised a relief fund of over £500 to buy a house for his family. A daughter, Ada, taught mathematics at the Presbyterian Ladies' College in 1876.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Mayer, Marx, Engels and Australia (Syd, 1964)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 29 Jan 1866, 19 Feb 1868, 11 Mar 1871, 22 Apr 1874
  • Age (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1872, 18 May, 11 June, 6 July 1875
  • Daily Telegraph (Melbourne), 13 Feb 1872, 10 Feb 1874
  • Sandridge Reporter, May 1873–May 1875
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Citation details

Donald S. Garden, 'Gresham, William Hutchison (1824–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 23 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]


Hull, Yorkshire, England


13 May, 1875 (aged ~ 51)

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