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Sir William Herbert Phillipps (1847–1935)

by Joan Hancock and Eric Richards

This article was published:

William Herbert Phillipps (1847-1935), by Stump & Co., c1925

William Herbert Phillipps (1847-1935), by Stump & Co., c1925

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4740

Sir William Herbert Phillipps (1847-1935), merchant and philanthropist, was born on 3 December 1847 in Adelaide, son of James Phillips, saddler, who had arrived in the colony in 1839, and his wife Susanna, née Humphryes. James died in 1856 leaving a widow, six daughters and Herbert who went to school in Carrington Street, then to J. L. Young's Adelaide Educational Institution and Fellenberg's Commercial (or Grammar) School. In 1861 he joined the office of W. A. Wearing, crown solicitor. From 1864 Phillips worked for Joseph Stilling & Co. and at 21 was managing their shipping business. He attended night classes in mathematics at the Union College of South Australia (forerunner of the University of Adelaide). On 18 December 1877 he married Caroline Mary Tarlton at Glenelg Congregational Church; they had three daughters and two sons and eventually lived in style at Craigmellan, Gilberton. By the time of his marriage Herbert had altered the spelling of his name to Phillipps. Sir Thomas Phillipps, Bart (1792-1872), a famous English antiquarian and collector of books and manuscripts, of whom he came to possess a portrait, may have been a relation. In later life Herbert was given to making claims about his distinguished ancestry.

In 1878 Phillipps set up as a general merchant and prospered. While working as a tally clerk at Port Adelaide, he had noticed the problem of shipping sulphate slimes from Port Pirie to England. Shipping firms were reluctant to carry this cargo because it was unstable and unsafe. Phillipps was credited with developing a novel technique that ensured safe transportation.

In 1881 he visited England and merged his interests with G. & R. Wills & Co., headed by his wife's uncle George Wills and in which his father-in-law had been a partner. He became the Australian managing partner of the shipowning and merchant firm, George Wills & Co. It undertook extensive shipbroking and charter business to England and New Zealand, in addition to coastal trade; and it operated offices in London and the Australian capitals. Phillipps organized the sending of the first steamers to Port Augusta and Port Pirie and his firm was for a time the contractor for the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. He also on his own account managed the Chaffey brothers' commercial affairs when they pioneered irrigation on the River Murray, and helped to form the Blue Anchor shipping line.

He also became chairman of directors of the Stannary Hills Mines & Tramway Co. Ltd and a director of many other companies: Westralia Timber & Firewood Co. Ltd, United Fire & Marine Insurance Co. Ltd, Executor, Trustee & Agency Co. of South Australia Ltd, Federal Coke Co., and South Australian Land Mortgage & Agency Co. Ltd. President of the Adelaide Chamber of Commerce in 1888-89 and 1903-04, he was a founder and president in 1899-1903 of the South Australian Employers' Federation.

Phillipps's early retirement in 1900 from George Wills & Co. indicates that he was wealthy. Having won repute for his probity and acumen, he occupied himself, especially after his wife's death in 1896, in a second career of public and charitable service, becoming a model of the benevolent Christian capitalist, reminiscent of George Fife Angas. In 1898 he was appointed to the board of the Savings Bank of South Australia and became chairman for some thirty years, giving intelligent, stable and experienced leadership.

He was also president of the Young Men's Christian Association of Adelaide and chairman of the Queen Victoria Maternity Hospital; he was an office-bearer or board-member of the Adelaide Children's Hospital, the Royal Institution for the Blind, the Cottage Homes for the Aged and Infirm Poor and Widows, the South Australian Institution for the Blind and Deaf and Dumb, the British and Foreign Bible Society and the London Missionary Society. Phillipps was a committee-member of the St John Ambulance Association's South Australian centre in 1889-1935; for his long service he was appointed an officer of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in 1922. He was a foundation member of the board of commercial studies at the University of Adelaide from 1903, and was a life member and councillor of the local branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. He had also been chairman of the Congregational Union of South Australia.

For many years Phillipps was president of the Port Adelaide Seamen's Mission and Sailors' Rest and made repeated and eloquent appeals on behalf of seamen to the mercantile community for financial assistance. However, he deplored the power of the seamen's unions.

Phillipps enjoyed motoring, walking, gardening, literature and music. He maintained an interest in archaeological discoveries, especially with regard to their religious significance. He belonged to the Australasian Club in London and the Australian Club in Melbourne and was a Freemason. Knighted in 1929, he was decorated by the Belgian government for his service in 1897-1922 as their honorary consul.

Sir Herbert was a 'fluent and cultivated speaker' and in his last years was said to be a 'wonderfully vigorous octogenarian'. His death at Gilberton on 6 January 1935 occasioned many tributes: Sir Wallace Bruce rated him as 'one of Australia's finest business men' and J. C. Rundle, Savings Bank trustee, had found him the 'soul of honour'. Phillipps was buried in St Jude's Anglican cemetery, Brighton, and his estate was sworn for probate at about £80,000; he willed £250 to each of the charities he had sustained.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Loyau, Notable South Australians or Colonists Past and Present (Adel, 1885)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • Our Century. A History of the First Hundred Years of the Savings Bank of South Australia (Adel, 1948)
  • H. N. Huffadine, These Hundred Years: The Story of G. & R. Wills & Co. (Adel, 1949)
  • V. Hankel, Sir Thomas Phillipps and Australia (Adel, 1987)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1888, 3 (90), p 103
  • Port of Adelaide Seamen's Mission, Annual Report, 1900-35
  • Quiz (Adelaide), 30 Jan 1903
  • Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, 36 (1934-35)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 2 May 1903
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 7, 9 Jan 1935
  • News (Adelaide), 9 Jan 1935
  • Sir W. H. Phillipps, autobiographical notes (State Library of South Australia, A 588).

Citation details

Joan Hancock and Eric Richards, 'Phillipps, Sir William Herbert (1847–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 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

William Herbert Phillipps (1847-1935), by Stump & Co., c1925

William Herbert Phillipps (1847-1935), by Stump & Co., c1925

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 4740

Life Summary [details]


3 December, 1847
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


6 January, 1935 (aged 87)
Gilberton, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.