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Sir William John Lyne (1844–1913)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Sir William John Lyne (1844-1913), politician, was born on 6 April 1844 at Great Swan Port, Van Diemen's Land, eldest son of John Lyne, farmer, later member of the Tasmanian House of Assembly, and his first wife Lillias Cross Carmichael, née Hume. John had arrived in Hobart Town in 1826 from Gloucestershire, England. William was educated first by a tutor, Rev. Andrew Mackersley, then at Horton College, Ross, in 1851-59 and finally by Rev. H. P. Kane at Rostella. Robust, adventurous and an excellent horseman, at 20 he went with a cousin to western Queensland, then took up a sheep station, Merton Vale, near Burketown on the Gulf of Carpentaria. But hardship, illness and his cousin's death drove him back to Tasmania, where in August 1866 he became council clerk with Glamorgan Municipality. Responsibilities included those of superintendent of police and town surveyor. He also became rector's warden of All Saints Church for nine years and captain of the local cricket club. On 29 June 1870 at Swansea he married Martha Coates 'Pattie' Shaw.

In 1875 Lyne moved to New South Wales. His brother Bishop took up land near Germanton (Holbrook). William leased Bowna, near Albury, a sheep-run of about 5000 acres (2024 ha), part of Cumberoona station. Again he quickly became a community leader—playing in the cricket team, joining the committee of the Albury and Border Pastoral Agricultural and Horticultural Society and officiating at local races. He became chairman of the Albury district's sheep directors and his Lincoln rams won prizes at the 1878 local show.

Free selectors had heavily settled in the Riverina during the 1870s. Lyne involved himself in the growing agitation for amendment of the Land Acts. In July 1880 he was appointed a delegate to a free selectors' conference to meet in Sydney in October, by which time he had become a candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of the Hume. In November, supporting pro-selector policies, he topped the poll.

Lyne immediately aligned himself with the Opposition to the Parkes-Robertson coalition, supported the unsuccessful attempt to remit interest on conditional purchases and opposed the pro-squatter ring-barking on crown lands regulation bill. But in 1881 he had himself become a squatter, buying Tyrie, a run of about 60,000 acres (24,281 ha) in central New South Wales, with two partners. An infrequent attender in parliament in 1882, he did not vote in the division in November which unexpectedly overturned the government. At the ensuing election he urged moderate reform of the land laws and was re-elected unopposed. Generally supporting the Stuart ministry, Lyne was prominent in the long session which framed J. S. Farnell's Crown Lands Act, 1884, and his sympathy with squatter interests became evident. A persistent advocate of water conservation, in May 1884 he became president of a royal commission whose only practical outcome was the establishment of a water conservation and irrigation branch in the Department of Mines.

His strong parliamentary performances and ambition marked Lyne as increasingly important in the anti-Parkes faction during the 1880s. A hardened bushman, bearded, 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall, he had an impressive physical presence. In the first Dibbs ministry on 2 November 1885 he succeeded H. S. Badgery as secretary for public works. The government lasted only until 21 December. In early 1886 Lyne acted temporarily as leader of the Opposition, but stood aside in favour of Sir Patrick Jennings on 10 February. From February 1886 to January 1887 he was secretary for public works in the Jennings cabinet.

Despite being occasionally laid up with gout, Lyne was a hard-working minister. Faced with a financial deficit, he dismissed hundreds of fettlers. Yet he continued his predecessors' railway expansion, pushing ahead with the Culcairn-Corowa line in his own electorate. His government railways bill, proposing a board of commissioners, was later implemented by Parkes in an altered form.

In his 1880 election manifesto Lyne had 'entirely agreed with the principle of free trade' and condemned the 'influence of protection as unsound and delusive'. But in March 1886 he suggested reciprocal duties against Victoria, especially on cereals—a policy popular in his border electorate. In the election of February 1887 Lyne was returned unopposed, now advocating outright protection, as he was to do for the rest of his career. Prominent in the opposition to Parkes, in December Lyne was a founder of the protectionist journal, the Australian Star (in 1890 chairman of directors). He was secretary for lands in the brief Dibbs ministry (January-March 1889). On 23 October 1891 he became secretary for public works under Dibbs, supported by protectionist Labor members. Though criticized for lacking 'bold ideas of a national policy' by the Review of Reviews, and for continuing with costly railway expansion, Lyne was generally adjudged to be successful in his portfolio. The government resigned on 2 August 1894.

Lyne had moved his family to Sydney by about 1887, and for some time also had a residence at Katoomba. Later he lived at North Sydney. He relinquished Bowna in May 1893. In the depression of the 1890s he was rumoured to have faced the possibility of bailiffs. In 1895 he was a director of the Citizens Life Assurance Co. Ltd. He continued to run Tyrie, selling it in 1908. In 1912 he purchased the family property, Gala, in Tasmania.

In 1895 he held aloof from a frail alliance between Parkes and Dibbs, who lost his seat in the snap election held in July. Lyne became leader of the Opposition. It was difficult to counter wily (Sir) George Reid, who exploited his opponent's slow thought processes and tendency to bluster through difficulties; but Lyne responded with persistence and pugnacity. Late in 1895 he reformed the party organization, founding the National Protection Union. For the next three years he withstood attempts to make the party reactionary and shrugged off rumours of Dibbs's return to depose him.

The Federation question posed problems for Lyne. He was a delegate to the 1897-98 Australasian Federal Convention and a member of its finance committee, but argued strongly that sections of the draft bill disadvantaged New South Wales. He particularly objected to equal representation of States in the Senate. In the June 1898 referendum he opposed acceptance of the Constitution bill. But most Protectionists supported Federation, and Lyne was forced to stand aside when (Sir) Edmund Barton became leader of the National Federal Alliance for the July election and was elected parliamentary Protectionist leader in October. In the June 1899 referendum Lyne, after hesitating, again opposed the bill.

With Federation assured, Barton's lack of support from radical Protectionists re-emerged and on 23 August he resigned. In a series of subterranean moves, Lyne again became Opposition leader, and Labor withdrew support from Reid. Opponents alleged that these changes were orchestrated by the Daily Telegraph which, despite its free-trade policy, now supported Lyne, whose ministry was sworn in on 14 September.

In detaching Labor from Reid Lyne had promised specific reforms, and achieved an astonishing list of important legislation: early closing of retail shops, coal mines regulation and miners' accident relief, old-age pensions, graduated death duties and Sydney municipal reform. In July-December 1900 no fewer than 85 Acts were passed. Unlike Reid's, Lyne's progressive legislation passed the Legislative Council. Important industrial arbitration and woman's suffrage legislation, enacted in 1901-02, had been introduced in his term. He also acted promptly to send military forces to the South African War and to combat the plague in Sydney. In June 1900 he was appointed K.C.M.G.

On 19 December 1900 Lord Hopetoun invited Lyne to form the first Commonwealth government. Although this was eventually described as 'the Hopetoun blunder', Lyne's political strength and New South Wales's position as the senior colony explain the governor-general's action. But Lyne was unable to form a ministry when Barton declined to serve and Alfred Deakin persuaded leading Victorian and South Australian politicians also to refuse. Barton was sworn in as first Australian prime minister on 1 January 1901 and Lyne became minister for home affairs.

He immediately had to set up the machinery for the first Commonwealth elections. He resigned his New South Wales seat on 20 March and on 29 March was elected for the Federal seat of Hume. Retaining the home affairs portfolio, he was responsible for the Commonwealth Electoral Act (enfranchising women) and for establishing the Commonwealth Public Service. On 7 August 1903 he became minister for trade and customs. Next month Deakin replaced Barton as prime minister after Lyne failed to secure enough party support for the leadership; he remained minister for trade and customs until April 1904.

Upon the defeat of J. C. Watson's government in August, Lyne and (Sir) Isaac Isaacs joined Labor in a formal alliance. In June 1905 Labor caucus rejected a proposal for a coalition with Protectionists under Lyne. Again minister for trade and customs in Deakin's second ministry, he had charge of its New Protection legislation, which linked 'encouragement to Australian industry … with measures to prevent the growth of injurious monopolies and ensure fair prices … and fair wages'.

In 1907 he visited England with Deakin for the Colonial Conference, where he bluntly urged preferential trade upon the unresponsive British government, and was Australia's chief delegate at the conference on merchant shipping legislation. Acting prime minister during Deakin's illness in June-September, he ably handled the wire-netting controversy with (Sir) Joseph Carruthers. In July 1907 he became treasurer and was responsible for Australia's first truly protectionist tariff. In presenting his well-judged 1908 budget Lyne suggested 'a government bank of issue, a treasury note system and a local coinage, which it was left for Labour to achieve'. His term as treasurer, ending in October, set the pattern for Australian financial arrangements for the second decade of the Commonwealth.

In April he had made another effort for the highest political office. Deakin offered to resign if Lyne could re-form the government as a coalition with Labor. Again he failed, again he accepted failure calmly in public. But in May 1909, when Deakin withdrew support from the Fisher government, overriding Lyne's protests within the party, the old man's composure finally broke. In parliament he attacked Deakin angrily, accusing him of the treachery of Judas. With Australia's political map now totally recast, Lyne was left in bitter isolation. Close to Labor, which did not oppose him in Federal elections for Hume, he never joined the party, though his brother Bishop was a member. In 1910 Lyne was re-elected as a pro-Labor Independent. Next year, nominated by Fisher's government, he attended the coronation of George V in London.

Expert at managing his difficult electorate, 'Old Bill' would tour it at election time 'with the boot of his buggy filled to the gunwales with liquid refreshment'. Unable, through illness, to campaign in May 1913, he was narrowly defeated. His wife had died in 1903. Lyne died at his Double Bay home on 3 August 1913 and was buried in South Head cemetery with Anglican rites. He was survived by three daughters and a son, and by his second wife Sarah Jane Olden (1869-1961) and their daughter. His estate was sworn for probate at £17,862.

Lyne was one of the key political figures in a crucial thirty-year period of Australia's history. His career began in the years of faction politics and land agitation of the early 1880s, spanned the period of fiscal grouping under free traders and protectionists, and was enmeshed in the great national questions of Federation and the accession to power of the Labor party. A home-loving man, 'he liked the races. He was fond of a first-class concert. He occasionally went to the theatre … When he read anything it was usually a magazine'. He was neither an orator nor an intellectual and his reputation has, like Reid's, suffered from the predominantly Deakin-inspired political history of Australian Federation. Deakin's biassed description of Lyne—'a crude, sleek, suspicious, blundering, short-sighted, backblocks politician'—has stuck.

In 1907 the Catholic Press, often unfairly critical of him for an alleged leaning towards 'Orangeism', recalled Parkes saying that Lyne 'looked around him when he entered a room like a policeman seeking clues'. In 1927 the Melbourne Age remembered him as having 'courage and mental pertinacity' and 'a rugged, semi-articulate vein of common sense'; he was 'broad-shouldered, erect as a flagstaff, and 17 st. [108 kg] in weight, without corpulence … In the Parliamentary Chamber … his laugh was the loudest, his interjection of dissent was the most emphatic. His full blue eyes danced with merriment or gleamed like incandescent lights in anger'. A 'great personality … courageous, open-handed, cheery, boyish-spirited', he was 'a hard fighter, who displayed much grit and great shrewdness'.

A portrait of Lyne by W. H. Gocher is at the National Library of Australia, and a marble bust by Theo Cowan at Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1945)
  • W. M. Hughes, Policies and Potentates (Syd, 1950)
  • G. Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1901-29 (Melb, 1956)
  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, J. A. La Nauze ed (Melb, 1963)
  • P. Loveday and A. W. Martin, Parliament Factions and Parties (Melb, 1966)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • L. Nyman, The Lyne Family History (Hob, 1976)
  • Report of a Conference … Merchant Shipping Legislation, Parliamentary Papers (United Kingdom), 1907 (Cd 3567)
  • Express (Sydney), 10 Dec 1885
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 Feb 1886, 4 Aug 1913
  • Evening Echo (Ballarat), 26 Sept 1903
  • Catholic Press, 5 Sept 1907
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 4 Aug 1913
  • Age (Melbourne), 14 May 1927
  • H. S. Evans, Sir William Lyne and the Australian Constitution (M.A. thesis, University of New England, 1984)
  • Edmund Barton papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • William Lyne papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Lyne, Sir William John (1844–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Lyne, n.d.

William Lyne, n.d.

National Library of Australia, 24232189

Life Summary [details]


6 April, 1844
Great Swanport, Tasmania, Australia


3 August, 1913 (aged 69)
Double Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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