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Andrew Lyell (1836–1897)

by Suzanne G. Mellor

This article was published:

Andrew Lyell (1836-1897), businessman, politician and conciliator, was born at Newburgh, Fife, Scotland, son of James Lyell, linen manufacturer, and his wife Margaret, née Haggart. Educated at Abdie Grange School near Newburgh, he joined Moon, Langlands & Co. of Dundee in 1849. He arrived at Melbourne in the Penola on 1 January 1853. He worked for Henry Langlands, ironfounder, and in 1855 joined Langlands, Buick & Co., warehousemen. In 1861 the firm became Buick, Christie & Lyell, retail drapers and importers, with branches throughout Victoria. After five successful years, Lyell became a trade assignee with Gowan and in 1875 Ackroyd & Danky took over the accountancy and assignee side of the business, with Lyell's firm devoting itself to the public loans and large estates in which English investors were interested. He was also a large landowner in the north-east and Loddon plains. In 1881 Lyell & Gowan merged into the Mercantile Finance and Guarantee Co. Ltd, of which Lyell was manager and a director until 1888. By 1892 its successor, the Mercantile Finance Guarantee & Trustee Co., formed by B. J. Fink was bankrupt, and ironically Lyell and William Baillieu were assigned to liquidate the existing companies.

In 1888 with Allard, Densham and later Butler as his partners, Lyell opened offices in Melbourne, Sydney and London. The company had its own steamers and investments in timber, slate and tin in Tasmania. In all his private business he had conspicuous success and was recognized as 'the best accountant Melbourne ever had'.

In Emerald Hill Lyell had been municipal councillor in 1865-67 and in 1877-80 he represented that seat as a free trader in the Legislative Assembly. His lucid pamphlet, Emerald Hill Election: Political Views of Mr. Andrew Lyell, revealed him as a follower of Bentham and J. S. Mill. He was opposed to the sale of crown lands, payment of members and excessive government expenditure. In the assembly he displayed marked debating ability, especially on financial subjects. In the political crisis in 1878 over payment of members, he was entrusted by the assembly to negotiate with the council and reached a successful compromise.

Lyell became known in the 1880s as the 'prince of negotiators' especially in conciliating. In the bootmakers' conflict in 1884-85 he arranged the preliminaries which led to a joint conference. In January 1886 he represented the Employers' Union in the wharf labourers and seamen's dispute, where his sincerity, lack of partisanship and 'consummate skill' in finding common ground prepared the way for a return to work and settlement by the arbitration of W. C. Kernot. In this case Lyell suffered great loss through not attending to a business crisis of his firm in another colony. In 1886 he helped to draft the constitution of the voluntary Board of Conciliation, formed by the Employers' Union and the Trades Hall Council. In February 1888 the Tramway and Omnibus Co. rejected his offer to mediate in the strike over union membership but later, after a four-month strike by the Ironworkers' Union, the employers accepted his voluntary arbitration and the issue was resolved. He was insolvent in September-October 1890 but active and in great demand as conciliator in the maritime strike. In Sydney on 23 April 1891 he told the royal commission on strikes that he advocated voluntary arbitration because compulsion by legislation was not likely to suit both sides, but he agreed that compulsory conciliation was desirable because it could lead to a conference and settlement.

Lyell's capacity for work was enormous. In 1878 he assisted in negotiations by the Victorian government to acquire the Hobson's Bay United Railway. He was active in building societies and with W. Macredie founded the National Fire Insurance Co. In 1886 he was a founder and later president of the Incorporated Institute of Accountants and for years was auditor of several banks and public companies. He cheerfully devoted much time to public affairs and in both public and private business won repute for integrity which was then almost unrivalled. He visited Britain in 1861, 1868, 1873 and 1896 primarily for his health and he died on 18 December 1897 in Melbourne. He was twice married: first, in 1859 to Charlotte, née Owens, who bore him two sons and seven daughters; and second, to Janet, née Hamilton.

Select Bibliography

  • The History of Capital and Labour … (Syd, 1888)
  • G. Serle, The Rush to be Rich (Melb, 1971)
  • Table Talk, 28 Oct 1897
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Dec 1897.

Citation details

Suzanne G. Mellor, 'Lyell, Andrew (1836–1897)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


Newburgh, Fife, Scotland


18 December, 1897 (aged ~ 61)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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