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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roberts, William Joshua (1863–1939)

by Stephen Salsbury

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

William Joshua Roberts (1863-1939), stockbroker, was born on 6 January 1863 at Italian Gully near Scarsdale, Victoria, son of Irish parents John Pounder Roberts, merchant, and his wife Frances, née Mooney. William was educated at Scarsdale and Cape Clear State schools, occasionally helping his father who had become a mining legal manager. After leaving school he spent a short time in Fiji representing James McEwan's hardware company, then joined the Melbourne Tramway & Omnibus Co. (where his brother John Garibaldi was later employed), rising to head its share and dividend department. Roberts came to the notice of W. T. (Billy) Jones, mining speculator, leading member of the Stock Exchange of Melbourne and racing enthusiast. Roberts became Jones's managing clerk in January 1888, at the height of the Broken Hill mining fever during which Jones made a fortune and returned to England. In November 1889 Roberts was elected to the Stock Exchange of Melbourne, remaining a member for forty-six years. On 22 June 1893 at St Kilda he married Caroline Edith Lennard.

'Not aggressively masterful but dominating in conference', he served on the stock exchange committee for over thirty years and was its chairman in 1901-04 and 1909-19. In 1903 he chaired in Melbourne the first interstate meeting of Australian stock exchanges. Roberts was ahead of his time in recognizing that the new Commonwealth needed a national sharemarket with common rules, as rivalry between the different exchanges remained strong until the 1980s. Nevertheless, the 1903 meeting fixed common brokerage rates for the four attending exchanges, adopted some common requirements for listing securities and established a procedure allowing companies to apply for simultaneous listing on two or more of the four exchanges. The meeting also decided on a policy for formally recognizing other exchanges. It was the beginning of a movement which culminated in 1987 in the formation of a single Australian Stock Exchange with branches in the six State capitals.

Cool and imperturbable in a crisis, Roberts attempted to stop panic share-selling at the beginning of World War I by securing agreement to close all Australian exchanges. Sydney did suspend trading briefly, but forced Melbourne to reopen against Roberts's wishes after eight weeks. During the war he took the lead in planning Australia-wide stock exchange support for raising war loans and in 1917 presided over the historic public auction of 36,000 enemy alien shares confiscated by the Federal government. The sale raised over £60,000.

Roberts was a council-member of Melbourne's Anglican diocese and for many years chairman of its finance committee. He was a founder and life governor of Trinity Grammar School, chairman of St Martin's Home and St John Evangelist's Homes for Boys, and a member of the committee of management of the Royal Melbourne Hospital. 'Willy' Roberts, 'a bit of a sport and something of a churchman' but not 'in the least a wowser', never forgot his small-town origins or reunions of the Scarsdale Old Boys which he had helped to found.

He died on 20 March 1939 at home at Kew and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His wife, four sons and two daughters survived him; another son had died at Gallipoli. His son Thomas Hope Roberts joined the stock exchange in 1923 and after 1935 carried on the family firm of W. J. Roberts & Son.

Select Bibliography

  • G. A. Adamson, A Century of Change (Melb, 1984)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 12 Dec 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 25 May 1916
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Aug 1935, 21 Mar 1939
  • records of the Stock Exchange of Melbourne and the Sydney Stock Exchange.

Citation details

Stephen Salsbury, 'Roberts, William Joshua (1863–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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