Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Orr (1843–1929)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published:

William Orr (1843-1929), mining entrepreneur and politician, was born on 13 February 1843 at Bourtree Hill, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of William Orr, farmer, and his wife Jean, née Hunter. The family migrated to Victoria in 1852, spending the next ten years on the Castlemaine and Daylesford goldfields. Orr then accompanied his father to Queensland where they mined gold at Gympie and ran sheep. On returning to Victoria he joined the well-established Beechworth stock and station agents, J. H. Gray & Co. When the firm opened a Wangaratta branch Orr moved there and became active in local affairs. Elected to the Wangaratta Borough Council in 1875, he served as mayor in 1878-79; he was also secretary of the Ovens and Murray Agricultural Society for seven years. On 12 June 1878 in East Melbourne he married Mary Fraser; they had no children.

During the early 1880s Orr decided to try his luck at the newly discovered silver mines at Broken Hill, New South Wales, and remained there for six years. The timing was fortuitous: in 1885 as a partner of A. E. Bowes Kelly he was an original shareholder in Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd. In 1888, riding on the boom at Broken Hill, Orr persuaded Kelly to join him in floating a silver mine at Zeehan on the west coast of Tasmania. Although Zeehan failed in 1891, the nearby Mount Lyell copper mine, purchased in 1892, became an outstanding success. Orr took up 15,000 shares in the newly formed Mount Lyell Mining Co. and became a director of the firm. Two years later he resigned his directorship and undertook a world tour, during which he visited copper-mines in Spain and in Montana and Colorado, United States of America, and the Comstock gold-mine in Nevada. When he returned he became chairman of Hampden Cloncurry Copper Mines Ltd, Queensland.

Orr retained his links with north-east Victoria by his purchase of a grain and sheep farm near Shepparton. In 1901 he was elected unopposed to the Victorian Legislative Council at a by-election for North-Eastern Province. A colleague accurately summed up Orr's political stance: 'A real rank tory on some subjects … but when he comes to water he is very liberal'. Orr constantly urged the government 'to go in for a bold, progressive irrigation policy'. Otherwise, he saw compulsory land acquisition as a 'communistic, socialistic movement', believed wages boards to be unnecessary state interference and, drawing on his Broken Hill experience, argued against official recognition of trade unions. In 1904 North-Eastern Province had its parliamentary representation reduced from three members to two; Orr did not seek re-election. He unsuccessfully contested Northern Province in 1907.

Orr died at his home at Toorak, Melbourne, on 6 February 1929 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His wife had predeceased him. His estate was valued for probate at £63,042 and largely bequeathed to friends and relations.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • G. Blainey, The Peaks of Lyell (Melb, 1954)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1902, p 14, 898, 1903, p 8
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Feb 1929
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Feb 1929.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Orr, William (1843–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 February, 1843
Bourtree Hill, Ayrshire, Scotland


6 February, 1929 (aged 85)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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