Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Stanley Jevons (1835–1882)

by J. A. La Nauze

This article was published:

William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882), economist and logician, was ninth of the eleven children of Thomas Jevons, iron merchant of Liverpool, England, and his wife Mary Anne, daughter of William Roscoe, historian. After schooling in Liverpool, he attended University College School, London, in 1850-51 and in October entered University College where he studied mainly scientific subjects, though he was already interested in social conditions and the occupations of the people of London. He had decided to leave University College before taking a degree and to go into business in Liverpool. Early in 1854 he was recommended for a position of assayer at the new Sydney Mint. He accepted, mainly for his family's sake since his expected income would be relatively high, and his father's firm had been bankrupted in 1848 after the railway boom collapsed. After learning the techniques of assaying he sailed for Sydney, arriving on 6 October.

The original arrangements had envisaged his private practice as an assayer, with a retainer and payment by the Mint for work done on its behalf, but Jevons was soon employed by the Mint at a fixed salary. With regular hours and security of income he was able to devote much time to his scientific and intellectual interests. He made good use of his opportunities. His professional work was highly competent and he made some improvements in the standard processes; but the interest of his years in Sydney, both for his own career and for his modest but distinct contribution to Australian history, lies in his private occupations.

A systematic, careful and imaginative observer and speculator on causes, Jevons was a pioneer of scientific meteorology in Australia. From 1855 he made and recorded elaborate daily observations which were published at regular intervals in (Sir) Henry Parkes's Empire. He concluded this work with several detailed articles, published in 1859, on Australian climate. According to Henry Russell, government astronomer, writing in 1888, his 'was the most valuable contribution to the meteorology of Australia that had been made up to the time of its publication'. In 1857 Jevons became interested in the new art of wet-plate photography. His photographs—portraits, interiors, urban and landscape scenes—were not known outside his Sydney contemporaries and family until 1953. Though not the earliest Australian amateur collection, they are considered to be possibly the most interesting of the period both for their technical and pictorial quality.

Known in Sydney as an able, if diffident, scientific observer and writer, Jevons was also quietly extending his interests in social and economic phenomena, and recording his speculations and plans in his journals and home-letters. In solitary journeys on foot to various parts of New South Wales, including the diggings at Braidwood, he was interested not only in geological and botanical observations but in the lives and habits of the people and the growth of new towns. As he read and reflected on books on political economy and statistics he began to see his lifework as the scientific study of social phenomena. He published several articles in the Empire on theoretical aspects of land and railway policy in New South Wales and single-handed attempted a 'social survey' of Sydney in 1858, the data for types of houses, location of trades, etc., coming from his own notes and observations.

Though Jevons, as he recalled in later years, was happy and healthy in Sydney, even the prospect held out to him of a large income in private business could not alter his firm resolve to return to England to pursue the work to which he had now decided to devote his life. His years in Australia were decisive in his intellectual development, turning youthful interests into creative activity. In April 1859 he sailed for England by way of America. In 1860 he returned to University College (M.A., 1862), concentrating on logic, mathematics and political economy. He soon began to publish the studies in logic, economics and scientific method which give him a high and enduring place in intellectual history. He was tutor and professor at Owens College, Manchester, in 1863-76 and professor of political economy at University College, London, in 1876-80. In August 1882 he was drowned while swimming.

In 1867 Jevons had married Harriet Taylor, daughter of John Edward Taylor, founder of the Manchester Guardian. Of their three children the oldest, Herbert Stanley Jevons(1875-1955), geologist and economist, published his Essays in Economics (1905) while a lecturer at the University of Sydney. A daughter, Harriet Winefrid Jevons (1877-1961), a pioneer in professional social work, presented some of his Australian manuscripts to the Mitchell Library.

Select Bibliography

  • H. A. Jevons (ed), Letters and Journals of W. S. Jevons (Lond, 1886)
  • J. A. La Nauze, Political Economy in Australia (Melb, 1949), and for bibliography of Jevons's Australian writings
  • J. M. Keynes, Essays in Biography (Lond, 1951)
  • I. Burke, ‘Australia's First Pictorialist’, Australasian Photo-Review, vol 62, no 1, Jan 1955, pp 6-23
  • R. Könekamp, ‘William Stanley Jevons (1835-1882). Some Biographical Notes’, Manchester School of Economic and Social Studies, vol 30, no 3, Sept 1962, pp 251-73
  • ‘Sydney in 1858’, Sydney Morning Herald, Nov-Dec 1929
  • manuscript catalogue under W. S. Jevons (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. A. La Nauze, 'Jevons, William Stanley (1835–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 13 July 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]




August, 1882 (aged ~ 47)

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