Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Houston (1846–1932)

by Kenneth W. Knight

This article was published:

William Houston (1846-1932), public servant, was born on 14 June 1846 in Sydney, son of William Houston, surgeon, and his wife Mary Anne, née Harris. Educated at Dr W. S. Creeny's Lyceum School and privately by Dr Stanley, Houston joined the Department of Lands in 1863 as a cadet surveyor. Next year he became a supenumerary draftsman and by 1877 had risen to first-class draftsman. In 1878 he reorganized the numerous branches of the Lands Department, his work providing the basis for later decentralization of administration after the 1884 Crown Lands Act. Appointed inspector of Local Land Boards and Crown Land Offices in 1885, Houston implemented the new Act's provisions on pastoral runs so skilfully that he was promoted chief inspector in 1886. In that year he also served on a commission of inquiry into the department's operations, which led to estimated savings of over £73,000 and a further annual saving of £30,000 resulted from his reorganization of country land offices in 1887.

In October 1888 Houston became assistant under-secretary of lands and on 7 January 1890 was appointed under-secretary. On 1 March 1900 he became a commissioner of the Land Appeal Court and held office until it was dissolved on 10 December 1921. He had also served as deputy administrator of Norfolk Island affairs and in 1903 as the State's royal commissioner had carried out the division of New South Wales into electorates under the Commonwealth Electoral Act, 1902. In 1906 he was awarded a C.M.G.

In 1864-80 Houston was active in the Volunteer Artillery and in April 1872 was made a second lieutenant. In 1875 he was adjutant at the Campbelltown encampment. A sportsman and a good shot, he loved sailing and 'was almost continually on the water' until prevented by official duties. He was also an 'omnivorous reader'. He died on 3 January 1932 at his home in Bondi and was buried in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. He was predeceased by his wife Rose Anna Williams, whom he had married in the Sydney Unitarian Church on 15 September 1869, and was survived by three sons and three daughters.

Houston was not a spectacular or controversial public figure but he contributed significantly to land administration and departmental organization in New South Wales. He is a good example of the sort of official who could achieve senior rank even before the reform of personnel practice which followed the creation of the Public Service Board in 1895.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1903, 2, 165
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1921
  • Government Gazette (New South Wales), 6 Mar 1900
  • Illustrated Sydney News, 27 Jan 1894
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 Jan 1932
  • K. W. Knight, The Development of the Public Service of New South Wales 1856-1895 (M.Ec. thesis, University of Sydney, 1955).

Citation details

Kenneth W. Knight, 'Houston, William (1846–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 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

William Houston, 1913

William Houston, 1913

State Library of New South Wales, 186163

Life Summary [details]


14 June, 1846
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


3 January, 1932 (aged 85)
Bondi, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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