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William Henry Shaw (1830–1896)

by Graeme Cope

This article was published:

William Henry Shaw (1830-1896), engineer and ironfounder, was born on 27 July 1830 in Belfast, Northern Ireland, son of James Shaw, builder and contractor, and his wife Mary, née Hunter. After working for his father, he was apprenticed to Gray Bros' Townshend Street foundry where he learnt all branches of ironworking but specialized in the mechanical drafting that greatly advantaged his later career. In 1852 he left Belfast to work for the Cork Steamship Co. Lured by gold, Shaw arrived in Melbourne in October 1853 but had little luck at Ballarat, Daylesford and Blackwood. He opened and managed a small foundry for Frederick Moore in Geelong before returning to Ballarat early in 1856 to join the moulder Robert Holden and two Lancashire-trained enginesmiths, Robert Carter and George Threlfell, in launching the Phoenix Foundry. The business prospered and by November 1861 was employing ninety-six hands on a wide range of products. Shaw was proud that the eight-hour day had been worked from c.1858 and that his employees did as much in that time as Englishmen did in ten hours.

At the time of a temporary decline in mining and an increase in protectionism, the firm became a public company in November 1870 and further diversified its output: in August 1871 it successfully tendered for the first of the Victorian government locomotive contracts. By January 1884, under Shaw's skilful and enterprising management, the company had capital in excess of £30,000 and employed over 350 hands; modernized after his visits to Britain in 1871 and 1885, it was reputedly the most advanced of its type south of the equator. He was so closely identified with the company that the celebration of the manufacture of the one-hundredth locomotive in April 1883 took the form of a public compliment to his 'energy and practical experience and indomitable perseverance'. 'Without the Phoenix Foundry', observed the Ballarat Star, 'Ballarat would feel insignificant among the cities of Australia'. In the 1880s dividends were declared for the first time and 200 locomotives were completed by October 1887. Thereafter the company faced difficulties. In 1889 Shaw's attempt to exclude members of the Ironworkers' Assistants' Society and to enforce a non-union shop produced a bitter conflict. Free traders' criticism of the Phoenix as a quasi-government workshop became more vocal as markets for both engines and mining equipment diminished because of depression, government manufacture at Newport and a declining rate of railway expansion; in 1906 the foundry was forced to close.

A justice of the peace, Shaw died in Ballarat on 23 August 1896, survived by his wife Annie Eliza, née Cleeland, seven sons and four daughters; he was buried in Ballarat cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £2250.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. L. Buckland and W. Jack, ‘The locomotive builders of Ballarat’, Australian Railways Historical Society, Bulletin, 12 (1961)
  • Ballarat Star, 27 Nov 1861, 12 Jan 1884
  • Ballarat Courier, 14 Apr 1883, 24 Aug 1896, 20 Sept 1906
  • G. S. Cope, Some Aspects of the Metal Trade in Ballarat, 1851-1901 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1971).

Citation details

Graeme Cope, 'Shaw, William Henry (1830–1896)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 20 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 July, 1830
Belfast, Antrim, Ireland


23 August, 1896 (aged 66)
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia

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