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William Austin Horn (1841–1922)

by Judith M. Brown

This article was published:

William Austin Horn (1841-1922), mining magnate, pastoralist and politician, was born on 26 February 1841 at Menaroo, New South Wales, second son of Edward Kirk Horn, storekeeper, and his wife Emily, née Austin. They moved to South Australia in 1852 where Horn entered the Collegiate School of St Peter. Afterwards he worked on (Sir) Walter Hughes's property at Wallaroo and while he was there a shepherd, Patrick Ryan, found copper ore. Hughes learned from Ryan the exact location, then contacted Horn, who had started on a trip, asking him to return. A rival syndicate had left for Adelaide seventeen hours before to lodge a claim; Hughes told Horn to try to reach Adelaide before 10 a.m. the next day to forestall them. After a marathon ride of 164 miles (264 km) in twenty-two hours, Horn reached the lands office but found the rival syndicate there. When the clerk opened the office he recognized Horn and processed his claim first. The other syndicate also lodged a claim and the matter was investigated by a select committee which reported against Hughes but left it to be settled in court. Hughes settled out of court, paying thousands of pounds for one of the richest mines in Australia; Horn became a shareholder.

In 1863 he bought the station Maryvale between Streaky and Venus bays, and 15,000 sheep, with (Sir) John Morphett and W. Mair. Several disastrous seasons put the property heavily in debt and financial backing was withdrawn. Horn went to his bank but refused their terms. He poured more money into the venture until at last the tide turned: his perseverance in adversity became proverbial. While at Maryvale he made many trips buying land in South Australia and New South Wales; two of his stations, Poolommaca and Mundi, bordered on the still undiscovered Broken Hill.

In 1872-74 Horn visited England to raise money for a mining venture, and matriculated at Worcester College, Oxford. Though he never took a degree he continued to read the classics. In 1878 he travelled in New Zealand and on 24 September next year in St Andrews Church, Walkerville, Adelaide, married Penelope Elizabeth Belt; they had two daughters and six sons.

Horn's capital developed the Mutooroo copper mines and he helped to form the Octagon Syndicate to explore and prospect Western Australian mining areas. In New South Wales, when discoveries of silver were made east of Umberumberka in the Barrier Ranges, the town of Silverton sprang up in 1882 and Horn was a director of the Silverton mine. He and others built the Silverton Tramway, on the same gauge as the South Australian Railways, hoping that they would eventually be connected. Next year when Broken Hill was discovered he became a shareholder in the Broken Hill Proprietary Co.

Horn believed that the men best fitted for politics were those 'with a stake in the country and leisure to attend to its interests'. He entered the South Australian House of Assembly for Flinders in 1887. He favoured selling land on deferred payments. For public works he advocated that interest be paid on unpaid instalments and this money be added to general revenue; he supported the importation of coloured labour into the Northern Territory and opposed payment of members and further taxation. His caustic sarcasm enlivened parliamentary debates. After one series of bad seasons farmers unsuccessfully petitioned the government for a wheat subsidy. Horn had supported the petition and he was said to have lent seed wheat to every farmer in his constituency. All repaid him except one man who was unable to do so; Horn bought his holding and returned it to the farmer as a gift. He retired from politics in 1893.

He donated three statues to Adelaide: 'Venus of Canova' on North Terrace; the Farnese 'Hercules' in Pennington Garden west; and 'The Athlete' in Angas Gardens. In 1890 he had given the National Gallery of South Australia the famous Heinrich Heuzenroeder collection of coins, comprising 11,000 specimens, some of which were Roman.

In 1894 he organized and equipped the Horn Scientific Expedition to Central Australia which hoped to find evidence of older forms of life in the MacDonnell Ranges. Horn accompanied the party as far as Idracowra on the Finke River; it was led by explorer and surveyor C. A. Winnecke and included Professor (Sir) Baldwin Spencer, and Horn's brother-in-law F. W. Belt. They reached Larapinta Land and Spencer edited, and published in 1896, a four-volume report detailing their geological, biological, botanical and ethnological discoveries.

Horn was a director of the Kuala Selangor Rubber Co. Ltd and for nearly fifty years helped to develop parts of Papua, the Malay States, India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka). In 1896 he relinquished all his official positions in Adelaide and from 1898 lived at Wimbledon Park House in England, returning briefly to Adelaide in 1901 and in 1907 to sell his Walkerville house, Holmwood. He held that an Australian was simply an Englishman born in the sun.

Horn published two books, Bush Echoes (1901), verse of the stockwhip-and-saddle-school, and Notes by a Nomad (1906). He was a keen woodcarver and his self-portrait etched in a rock remains in the garden of his old summer home, Wairoa, at Mount Lofty. The house was used in the 1975 film Picnic at Hanging Rock. In England Horn was a director of the London board of the Bank of Adelaide and other companies. He donated £1000 to (Sir) Douglas Mawson's Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14 and contributed to various World War I causes. Although a prominent capitalist, he had supported the London dock strikers. He refused a knighthood, as he objected to 'titular distinction being made a matter of diplomacy, personal influence and barter' but one of his sons said that he would only have accepted a hereditary title.

Horn was both shy and aggressive. He did not suffer fools gladly but was able, humane and cultured, 'one of the most generous public men' in South Australian history. He died on 23 December 1922 in London and his estate, sworn for probate in England and Australia at over £200,000, was left to his family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe (ed), History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • W. B. Spencer and F. J. Gillen, Across Australia (Lond, 1912)
  • J. M. Brown, ‘The Almonds’ of Walkerville (Adel, 1970)
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 1 Aug, 14 Nov 1890, 23 July 1892
  • Critic (Adelaide), 23 Nov 1901
  • Observer (Adelaide), 21 Sept 1889
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 3 May 1894
  • Register (Adelaide), 19 Apr 1919, 27 Dec 1922
  • Times (London), 28 Dec 1922
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 5 Nov 1961.

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Citation details

Judith M. Brown, 'Horn, William Austin (1841–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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