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Sir William Milne (1822–1895)

by Dirk Van Dissel

This article was published:

William Milne (1822-1895), by Townsend Duryea

William Milne (1822-1895), by Townsend Duryea

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6997

Sir William Milne (1822-1895), wine and spirits merchant and politician, was born on 17 May 1822 at Glasgow, Scotland, eldest son of William Milne, merchant, and his wife Elizabeth, née McMillan. Educated at Glasgow High School, he was trained in commerce. With a free passage as a farm servant he arrived at Port Adelaide on 29 October 1839 in the Palmyra. The family had intended to join him but their plans were changed when the father died. At Trinity Church on 4 March 1842 Milne married Eliza Disher (1818-1912) whose family also had free passages in the Palmyra and had settled near Nairne. Milne went to Van Diemen's Land but returned in 1845 and with his brother-in-law, John Disher of Oakbank, as partner set up as wine and spirits merchants. In 1846 they took over the business of Patrick Auld.

Successful in his distillery, Milne sold it in 1857 and represented Onkaparinga in the House of Assembly. He was commissioner of crown lands and immigration in the Baker ministry from 21 August to 1 September 1857, under Hanson from 5 July 1859 to 9 May 1860, under Ayers from 22 July to 4 August 1864 and under Boucaut from 28 March 1866 to 3 May 1867. He served as commissioner for public works in the Waterhouse ministry from 19 February 1862 to 4 July 1863, and under Blyth from 4 August 1864 to 22 March 1865. In 1868 he resigned from the assembly and in 1869 was elected to the Legislative Council. He served as chief secretary in the Hart ministry from 30 May 1870 to 10 November 1871 and under Blyth from 10 November 1871 to 22 January 1872.

While with the Crown Lands Department Milne ruled that before any land was put up for sale, a hundred be first declared so that every buyer could secure commonage rights. Under former ministers the best land outside the limits of hundreds had often been surveyed and put up for auction, thus placing agriculturists at such disadvantage that sections were usually bought by the squatter on whose run the land was situated. Milne's regulation thus encouraged land settlement by farmers. In 1863 he introduced an amendment to the Scab in Sheep Act which helped to extirpate the disease. He had cuttings made in the South-East to drain large tracts for agricultural purposes; 100,000 acres (40,469 ha) of rich alluvial soil were thus reclaimed and one section was named Milne's Gap. In 1866 he introduced the scrub lands bill which induced settlers to take up country covered with mallee and other scrub, hitherto regarded as valueless. In 1857-58 he helped to pass the Real Property Act and R. R. Torrens always referred to him as 'an early and warm supporter of the cause'.

In June 1870 the Hart government initiated the construction of the overland telegraph to Port Darwin and Milne carried the bill authorizing it through the Legislative Council; he was responsible for carrying out the work. By surmounting the difficulties which arose through the failure of contractors to complete their sections, he enabled the line to be completed within the specified time. He was associated with other public works such as telegraphs to Sydney, Mount Gambier, Port Augusta, Moonta and Milang, the extension of waterworks to Port Adelaide and Port Augusta, the erection of lighthouses at Cape Jaffa and Cape Jervois and the building of many railways. He was also responsible for many bills and in 1859 alone initiated eight Acts relating to statute law consolidation and two more for establishing militia and volunteer forces. On 25 July 1873 he was nominated president of the council by William Morgan, who drew attention to Milne's social standing and influence, the respect he commanded in the colony, his parliamentary experience and his firmness to 'guard carefully the privileges and rights of the council'. For his services to the colony he was appointed K.B. on 12 October 1876 but in 1878 recommendation by Governor Jervois failed to win him a K.C.M.G. He retired from politics in 1881 and visited Britain in 1884.

Milne was agent of several absentee colonists, a director of the Moonta Mine Co. from 1873 and chairman in 1888-90. After the amalgamated Wallaroo and Moonta Mining and Smelting Co. was formed he was chairman of its board in 1890-95. He was also a trustee of the Savings Bank, a councillor of the Zoological and Acclimatization Society and served on the committee of the Institution of the Blind and the Central Roads Board in 1858-59. Prominent in the volunteer movement, he became a captain in the mounted and foot forces. After a short illness he died at his home, Sunnyside, Glen Osmond, on 23 April 1895, survived by his wife, three of their four sons and three of their five daughters. His funeral service at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Adelaide, was well attended and his estate of £53,000 was left to his family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. Pascoe, History of Adelaide and Vicinity (Adel, 1901)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia (Adel, 1909)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 27 Apr 1895
  • Musgrave to Carnarvon, 14 May 1875, Jervois to Hicks-Beach, 26 Oct, Dec 1878 (Confidential dispatches, State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'Milne, Sir William (1822–1895)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 13 June 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

William Milne (1822-1895), by Townsend Duryea

William Milne (1822-1895), by Townsend Duryea

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6997

Life Summary [details]


17 May, 1822
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


23 April, 1895 (aged 72)
Glen Osmond, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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