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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smith, William Howard (1814–1890)

by G. R. Henning

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

William Howard Smith (1814-1890), master mariner and ship-owner, was born at Yarmouth, Norfolk, England, son of Ormond Smith, mariner, ship-owner and mail contractor for Amsterdam and Rotterdam, Holland, and his wife Kesier, née Edmunds. At 10 Howard Smith went on his first voyage; he later studied navigation and qualified as a master. He became a partner of his father at 21 and was given command of the steamship Adonis. For some years he was employed by Malcolmson Bros, ship-owners, and sailed to Dutch, Spanish and Latin American ports. His first wife Anna Geil, née Hansen, died without issue; in 1854 he brought his second wife Agnes Rosa née Allen, and their five children to Australia.

With S. P. O. Skinner, a marine engineer, Smith had bought the Express, a 136-ton schooner-rigged steamer, and entered the Port Phillip Bay trade between Melbourne and Geelong. After eight good years Smith sold out to his Geelong agent, T. J. Parker, later a founding partner of Huddart, Parker & Co., and entered the intercolonial trade. In 1862 he and his family revisited Europe. He bought the steamer Kief, renamed it You Yangs, and from mid-1864 commanded it in competition with the powerful Australasian Steam Navigation Co. between Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle. The venture was successful and two years later he bought another steamship in England, the Dandenong. It was his last command and he remained ashore after 1870.

Establishing himself in the Newcastle coal trade, Howard Smith formed a limited partnership with L. J. L. Burke, who had a large coal business in Melbourne in the mid-1860s; he acquired the firm afterwards and it became one of Melbourne's largest and most efficient coal importers, constantly acquiring vessels because of the growing demand for passenger and general cargo services from Melbourne to all the eastern coast ports. In the late 1870s he had three of his sons in the partnership and they took charge of the Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane offices. The firm became a limited liability company in September 1883, William Howard Smith and Sons Ltd, with a nominal capital of £1 million, paid up to £500,000: all the £10 shares issued were taken up by the family. He became managing director at Melbourne and his second son, Edmund, at Sydney. Howard Smith retired from active management in 1884 and his sons Walter S. and Arthur Bruce succeeded him. He continued as chairman until 1887.

Smith was a justice of the peace, a director of many commercial companies, a commissioner of the Melbourne Harbor Trust in 1884 and a member of the Marine Board of Victoria in the late 1880s. He was also a committee-man of the Melbourne Sailors' Home in 1874-80 and chairman next year, and a committee-man of the Victorian Shipwreck Relief Society in 1877-80. Aged 76, he died on 22 March 1890 in Melbourne, survived by his wife and seven sons and two daughters of their twelve children. His estate was sworn for probate at £137,153. The business was reorganized under the control of four sons, Edmund (Melbourne), Walter (Geelong), Harold (Sydney), and Ormond (Brisbane) who later acquired extensive pastoral properties near Kilcoy, Queensland. Howard Smith's great entrepreneurial ability had ensured the firm's prosperity in the 1890s.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Franklyn, A Glance at Australia in 1880 (Melb, 1881)
  • W. H. Smith & Co., Handbook of W. Howard Smith & Sons' Line of Intercolonial Steamers (Syd, 1883)
  • Howard Smith Ltd, The First Hundred Years 1854-1954 (Syd, 1954)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 10 Jan 1881, 12 Oct 1883
  • Journal of Commerce, 28 Apr 1891
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Mar 1890
  • E. H. Collis, ‘Sea carriers of the colonies: growth of Howard Smith Ltd’, Today (Sydney), May 1933
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1935.

Citation details

G. R. Henning, 'Smith, William Howard (1814–1890)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

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