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William (Billy) Rutledge (1806–1876)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

William Rutledge (1806-1876), merchant, banker and settler, was the eldest son of James Rutledge, of Ballymagirl, near Bawnboy, County Cavan, Ireland, and Martha, née Forster, of Longford. On reaching Sydney in the Harriet in December 1829 Rutledge set up as a contractor for government supplies, and after five years was assigned six convicts. In 1834 his address was the Field of Mars, Parramatta, and later he acquired land at Kissing Point and Eastwood. In 1837 he bought two blocks of 640 acres (259 ha) on the Molonglo River near Queanbeyan. He gave evidence before the select committee on the 1839 Squatting Act, and became a director of the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney and a justice of the peace. After establishing himself he brought out two sisters and four of his five brothers: Thomas, who remained at Carwoola near Queanbeyan, Richard and Lloyd who later went to Port Fairy, Victoria, and John who moved to California.

In 1838 Rutledge took sheep overland to Port Phillip. He bought several lots at the early Melbourne land sales and entered into a partnership with Benjamin Baxter, whom he financed to build cottages in the Port Phillip area at £650 each. At Kilmore he established a tenant community on a special survey which he never took up, although he became known as the town's founder and gave land for a Roman Catholic Church. In 1841 he applied for another special survey at Corner Inlet but decided against settling there. He moved back and forth between Sydney and Port Phillip; he was in Sydney on 18 August 1840 for his wedding at St James's Church, to Eliza, daughter of Richard Kirk (they had two sons and five daughters), and for the Lord Mayor's dinner in 1842; he became an early member of the Australian Club in 1839.

In 1843 he visited Port Fairy and immediately bought a mercantile firm started by John Cox. In partnership with Horace Flower and Francis Forster, he founded the firm of William Rutledge & Co. They shipped wool, tallow and, later, gold to England, and imported a wide variety of goods, using their own ships and wharf. They also issued their own notes and tokens, and by facilitating credit, fostered the early intercolonial cattle trade. The company flourished until 1862 when it went bankrupt with debts of some £117,000. Within a year the partners won an honourable discharge.

In 1843 Rutledge, with four partners whom he gradually bought out, took up a special survey of 5120 acres (2072 ha), known as Farnham, near Koroit, Victoria, the imprecise boundaries of which were to involve him in lengthy correspondence with Superintendent Charles La Trobe, ending in a stern rebuke. Farnham was worked by tenants from the first, Rutledge bringing out Irish families at his own expense. Reputed a kind and considerate landlord he furnished his tenants with rations, seed and implements. Until 1865 he lived at Port Fairy, but after the crash he eschewed commerce and moved to Farnham where he made another fortune by breeding Lincoln sheep. His stud was begun and maintained by purchases from the flock of J. R. Kirkham of Lincolnshire, for he strongly favoured inbreeding. Like all the men of his family a great lover of horses, he bred thoroughbreds, Clydesdales and Shetland ponies.

Called 'Terrible Billy' by Edward Henty for his explosive temper and unreserved use of 'the language of a centurion' and liking to have a finger in every pie, he had frequent quarrels, some of them with the authorities. In 1844 as a magistrate he began a turbulent career on the Port Fairy bench. In 1851 it was interrupted by an acrimonious dispute with a police magistrate, William Mair. Both parties bombarded the unfortunate La Trobe with complaints. Mair accused Rutledge of partiality in dispensing justice and of 'violent, arbitrary and tyrannical conduct'. Rutledge accused Mair of being dictatorial and using police horses for his private purposes. The disputes with Mair ended when Rutledge was charged with assault by his own court and fined £5. Mair was moved to Alberton; Rutledge was relieved of his magistracy but reinstated in 1857.

Rutledge had been appealing in vain for years for emigrants to be sent direct to Port Fairy to ease the shortage of farm labourers and domestic servants. In 1852, when the emigrant ship Runnymede came unexpectedly into Portland Bay, he sent his brother Lloyd, armed with blank forms of agreement, to board the ship. Despite Rutledge's complaints of 'obstruction and malversation' when Police Magistrate James Blair tried to prevent these doubtful activities, Lloyd got away with seventy souls.

In 1851 Rutledge was elected for Villiers and Heytesbury to the first Victorian Legislative Council. He told his constituents that he was in favour of squatting and commercial interests, state aid to all the Christian churches, education, and liberal expenditure in the pastoral districts, while he was strongly opposed to sinecures, all other wasteful public expenditure, and the appropriation of large sums for works in and round Melbourne. He sat in the first Victorian Legislative Assembly from 1856 to 1859 and remained a 'roads and bridges man'. His parliamentary career was surprisingly quiet except for a violent attack on Earl Grey in 1852 and for the election he fought in 1861. Although aware that he was 'disqualified' as a government contractor, he stood against Richard Davies Ireland and defeated him. Ireland appealed against his return and, after heated debate in the Legislative Assembly, was declared duly elected and promptly sworn in as attorney-general. In 1854 Rutledge had resigned from the Legislative Council to take his children to England to be educated. He was commissioned by the government to organize steamship mails, and was present at the launching of the colony's first warship, Victoria. He was also honorary secretary to the General Association for the Australian Colonies. He again visited England in 1861-62.

Rutledge was very active in local affairs; he was a trustee of the Savings Bank and president of the Villiers and Heytesbury Agricultural Society when it held its first show in 1854. He was responsible for the local jockey club, being its steward, starter and judge, as well as always having horses running. From 1868 to 1873 he was a member of the Warrnambool Shire Council and Roads Board. He was an Anglican and served his church well, being on the building committee in 1848 and first vice-president of the vestry in 1859. He died at Port Fairy on 1 June 1876.

William Rutledge was inextricably entwined with the early history and prosperity of Port Fairy, for he instigated many of its activities. His wife was 'beloved for her kindness and hospitality' and together they kept open house: their dinners, balls, musical evenings, and parties for the races were at the heart of the district's social life. He was warm-hearted, courageous, generous and outspoken, with a vigorous and energetic personality, which became a legend in the Western District. Despite his explosive temper he was loved and respected, if not always respectable. Charles Pasley, the colonial engineer, wrote to his father in 1854: 'I am glad you have met “Billy” Rutledge … as he is a man whom I like. He is thoroughly honest and straightforward, although a little queer and hot tempered, and is a fair specimen of a Colonial who has raised himself from poverty to competence, if not wealth, by honest, energetic and persevering industry'.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Bonwick, Western Victoria: Its Geography, Geology and Social Condition (Geelong, 1858)
  • R. Osburne, The History of Warrnambool (Prahran, 1887)
  • A. Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, vols 1-2 (Melb, 1888)
  • R. Boldrewood (T. A. Browne), Old Melbourne Memories (Lond, 1896)
  • W. Earle, Port Fairy (Port Fairy, 1896)
  • M. L. Kiddle, Men of Yesterday (Melb, 1961)
  • M. Rutledge, ‘William Rutledge: An Australian Pioneer’, Victorian Historical Magazine, vol 36, no 3, Aug 1965, pp 110-27
  • A. M. Baxter diary, 1844-49 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • William Rutledge letters (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of Australia and State Library of Victoria).

Additional Resources

  • funeral, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June 1876, p 5

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Rutledge, William (Billy) (1806–1876)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (Melbourne University Press), 1967

View the front pages for Volume 2

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]




1 June, 1876 (aged ~ 70)
Port Fairy, Victoria, Australia

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