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William Sandford (1841–1932)

by John Perkins

This article was published:

William Sandford (1841-1932), by unknown artist

William Sandford (1841-1932), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 03520 [detail]

William Sandford (1841-1932), ironmaster, was born on 26 September 1841 probably at Torrington, Devon, England. He qualified as an accountant and worked in a bank and on the London-Bristol railway, before becoming manager of the Ashton Gate Iron Rolling Mills. In 1883, leaving two children by his first marriage in England, he was engaged by John Lysaght to establish a wire-netting plant at Five Dock, Sydney. He married Caroline, née Newey, formerly Jessop, probably on 3 May 1884 at Goulburn. Two years later he briefly leased the Fitzroy ironworks at Mittagong, before becoming manager of the Eskbank ironworks at Lithgow. He soon obtained a seven-year lease of the estate from James Rutherford, with the option to purchase, and in 1892 bought the whole undertaking, with the assistance of a loan of £68,260 from the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney.

Assured of an adequate supply of scrap-iron when the railways began replacing their iron tracks with steel, Sandford obtained a government contract to supply railway parts. He installed a mill to produce spikes, points and crossings in 1894. Also building a rolling-mill and plant, he profitably produced galvanized and corrugated iron until the lifting of a protective duty in 1896.

Although granted preferential rail rates, Sandford, convinced that an iron and steel industry was essential for industrial development and for defence, began bombarding the press and politicians for protection. He was a leader of the Lithgow National Protection Association, active in and sometime chairman of the National Protection Union and a member of the New South Wales Chamber of Manufactures. In 1895 he unsuccessfully contested the seat of Hartley. A member of the English Iron and Steel Institute, he repeatedly inspected works in England, Europe and the United States of America.

Despite higher production, Sandford faced constant financial difficulties because of the increasing scarcity of scrap-iron, rising costs and uncertain markets. In 1899 he tried to persuade Charles Hoskins to buy the works. Convinced, however, that Federation would bring protection, he installed a Siemens Martin steel furnace; its opening on 25 April 1900 was attended by fellow delegates to the Sydney Intercolonial Protectionist Conference. But it did not pay: it was too small and the imported pig-iron needed to charge it was too expensive.

Next year, the State government declined Sandford's offer to take over the works. He formed the public company, William Sandford Ltd, but this did not ease his shortage of capital as his family held 55,000 of the 60,000 fully paid-up shares. Bankruptcy became a real fear and his health and family relationships suffered. At times he retired to his farm at Bowenfels. Securing a promise of £750,000 from English investors provided the Commonwealth bonuses for manufactures bill was passed, he hired an English expert to report on Lithgow's potential as an iron-smelting centre and ordered a second small steel-furnace. He gave evidence at the royal commission appointed to inquire into the bill after its defeat.

In December 1903 Sandford stood as a Ministerialist for the Federal seat of Macquarie, but was defeated by the sitting member, Sydney Smith. In 1906 he campaigned informally against the re-election of (Sir) George Reid to the Federal Anti-Socialist leadership. He was now a 'red-hot Chamberlainite' Imperialist.

In 1905, encouraged by the premier (Sir) Joseph Carruthers, Sandford had negotiated a seven-year contract to supply all the State's iron and steel. He built a medium-sized blast furnace to produce pig-iron from ore from his Carcoar and Cadia leases. It was officially opened on 13 May 1907, but production costs had been underestimated, subsidiary plant was required and the local coke caused smelting problems. Approaching the overdraft limit of £135,000 with the bank in September, he issued the remaining shares of his company. Badly managed, the issue failed. He applied to Carruthers for assistance and, after an interdepartmental inquiry, a loan of £70,000 was approved, but the bank foreclosed on 9 December. Shortly after, G. & C. Hoskins agreed to take over the works, paying Sandford £50,000: £10,000 immediately and ten annual payments of £4000 without interest.

Sandford's lack of business acumen and technical background and his inability to obtain first-rate advisers contributed to his failure. But, warm-hearted and generous, he maintained fairly good relationships with his employees. He sold them land cheaply, assisted them to build houses to his design and planned parks and swimming-pools. Wages were adjusted six monthly, according to profits. He supported trade unions, wages boards of employers and employees and the distribution of profits in excess of 10 per cent to the workers. However, he believed that Australian wages were too high and that they should be related to individual productivity.

Sandford retired, fatigued, to Darling Point in 1908. A keen gardener, he later moved to a Castle Hill orchard, then to Eastwood. He continued to promote Lithgow as 'the arsenal of Australia' and in 1920 gave evidence at the royal commission into the State's coal-mining industry. He died on 29 May 1932 and was buried with Anglican rites. A son and daughter of his first marriage and a son and daughter of his second survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £2795. A portrait by Norman Carter is held by John Lysaght (Australia) Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Hughes, The Australian Iron and Steel Industry, 1848-1962 (Melb, 1964)
  • Australian Mining Standard, 29 May, 3 July, 2 Oct, 13 Nov, 4, 11 Dec 1907
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Apr 1900, 14 May, 20 Dec 1907, 30 May 1932
  • R. J. McInnes, Lithgow, 1869-1930 (B.Com. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1972)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • William Sandford papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Perkins, 'Sandford, William (1841–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 20 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 Sandford (1841-1932), by unknown artist

William Sandford (1841-1932), by unknown artist

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 03520 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


26 September, 1841
Torrington, Devon, England


29 May, 1932 (aged 90)

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