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Sir Walter Watson Hughes (1803–1887)

by Dirk Van Dissel

This article was published:

Walter Watson Hughes (1803-1887), by unknown photographer

Walter Watson Hughes (1803-1887), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 26275

Sir Walter Watson Hughes (1803-1887), pastoralist, mine-owner and public benefactor, was born on 22 August 1803 at Pittenweem, Fife, Scotland, son of Thomas Hughes and his wife Eliza, née Anderson. He attended school in Crail and was apprenticed to a cooper, but soon went to sea and for some years was whaling in the Arctic regions. Hearing of good openings for enterprise in the East he voyaged in 1829 to Calcutta where he bought the brig Hero and traded in opium in the pirate-infested Indian and China seas.

In 1840 Hughes arrived in Adelaide where he settled to mercantile pursuits with Bunce & Thomson. On 21 September 1841 he married Sophia, daughter of the pastoralist and solicitor, James Henry Richman. In the financial crisis of 1840-43 Hughes turned to sheepfarming near Macclesfield in the Adelaide Hills and by careful management salvaged enough to buy another flock which he took north. In 1851 he took up The Peak at Hoyleton in the mid-north and in 1854 with his brother-in-law, (Sir) John Duncan, and family leased the vast Wallaroo station.

From observations in northern Yorke Peninsula, Hughes expected that mineral deposits existed there and instructed his shepherds to look out for any traces. In 1860 a shepherd, James Boor, made the first discovery of copper on the Wallaroo property. Hughes became the largest shareholder in the Wallaroo Mine Co. when it was founded. Soon afterwards another shepherd, Patrick Ryan, found copper on Hughes's Moonta property. After an amazing race to Adelaide, his horsemen managed to forestall rival claimants. The dubious acquisition of the mineral lease led to inquiry by a select committee which reported against Hughes but the Supreme Court and the appeal of rivals to the Privy Council failed to dislodge him. The matter was finally settled out of court by Hughes paying other claimants several thousand pounds and in 1868-69 an Act validated his lease. Several companies had been formed to work the discoveries. The Moonta mine had phenomenal success and was the first in Australia to pay over £1,000,000 in dividends. The Wallaroo mine was also profitable but salt water made it costly. Hughes always maintained that there was rich copper in the hills facing Hoyleton and Blyth and sank many trial holes but without success.

Hughes also owned large properties north-east and north-west of Watervale and planted the first Riesling vines at Springvale where in the early 1860s he established Hughes Park station. He also bought Gum Creek near the Burra, its 896 square miles (2321 km²) carrying 60,500 sheep. In 1872 he bought the Lake Albert and Peninsula estate, a property later increased to more than 33,000 acres (13,355 ha). He also owned Torrens Park near Mitcham, which was later sold to Robert Barr Smith and then became Scotch College. He had served on the last Adelaide Municipal Council in 1842-43 but apparently took no part in the controversies with Governor (Sir) George Grey. In 1871 he stood for the Legislative Council without success. In 1873 he joined with Thomas Elder in paying for Colonel Peter Warburton's exploration to the north-west.

In 1872 the council of the new Union College, which included Hughes's friend, Rev. James Lyall of the Flinders Street Presbyterian Church, approached him for a donation. His gift of £20,000 so exceeded the council's expectations that it decided to use the money to found a university instead. Hughes wanted two professorships to be endowed and reserved the right to nominate the lecturers already teaching at the Union College. The council of the University Association foresaw difficulties in these proposals and their desire to have them modified nearly caused Hughes to withdraw his gift; the problem was solved when one Hughes professor died and the other resigned within five years of the opening of the University of Adelaide. Because Hughes's gift inspired others to make similar ones, he is often called the 'Father of the University'.

In 1864-70 Hughes was in England and returned there permanently in February 1873, living at Fan Court, Chertsey, Surrey. In 1880 he was knighted for his services to South Australia. After a long illness he died on 1 January 1887, predeceased by his wife in June 1885 without issue. Both were buried in the village churchyard of Lyne, near Chertsey. His vast property was left to relations, including the children of Sir James Fergusson whose second wife was Lady Hughes's sister.

Hughes, like Thomas Elder, (Sir) William Milne and Robert Barr Smith, was one of the many Scotsmen whose public spirit and rise in influence were outstanding in the colony. Shrewd, gentle and kind, he had little formal education but shared the Scottish respect for learning. A window in his memory in the Flinders Street Presbyterian Church is now in Scots Church, Adelaide. In front of the university which his generosity brought into being is his statue, carved by F. J. Williamson and presented by the Duncan family in 1906.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Cockburn, Pastoral Pioneers of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1925)
  • A. J. Hannan, The Life of Chief Justice Way (Syd, 1960)
  • O. Pryor, Australia's Little Cornwall (Adel, 1962)
  • G. Blainey, The Rush That Never Ended (Melb, 1969)
  • Register (Adelaide), 5 Jan 1887, 29 Nov 1906
  • Adelaide News, 20 Feb 1933.

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'Hughes, Sir Walter Watson (1803–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 29 May 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

Walter Watson Hughes (1803-1887), by unknown photographer

Walter Watson Hughes (1803-1887), by unknown photographer

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 26275

Life Summary [details]


22 August, 1803
Pittenweem, Fife, Scotland


1 January, 1887 (aged 83)

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