Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Townsend (1821–1882)

by Dean Jaensch

This article was published:

William Townsend (1821-1882), by John Hood, 1882

William Townsend (1821-1882), by John Hood, 1882

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11117

William Townsend (1821-1882), politician, was born in the Borough of Southwark, London, son of John Townsend, carriage draftsman. For a time assistant to his brother, a potato salesman, he later took a post as a clerk in a hop warehouse. On 25 December 1852 at St Pancras he married Emma Slade. As steerage passengers in the Dutch Fop Smit, he and his wife and child arrived in South Australia on 2 August 1853. His wife died soon after their arrival and he later married Jane Hooper. At first employed as a salesman in a boot shop, Townsend later opened a business as a boot-maker until advised to become an auctioneer by F. J. Botting, who was 'struck by his smartness and ready wit'. He learned the trade with various firms, including J. M. Solomon & Co., F. J. Botting, and Neales, Wickstead & Co., and later formed his own business, Townsend and Son.

Despite lack of education (he signed his marriage certificate with a mark), Townsend was a fluent and forcible speaker and a popular public lecturer. He was involved in politics from the beginning of responsible government, having helped to frame the 1855 Constitution. He was mayor of Adelaide in 1864-66 and of Unley in 1878-81. An unsuccessful candidate for the Adelaide hills district of Onkaparinga in the colony's first election, he won the seat in a by-election on 23 December 1857 and held it until elected in 1870 for Sturt, which he represented until his death. Appointed commissioner of public works in the eleven-day F. S. Dutton ministry in 1863, he was commissioner of crown lands and immigration in the sixteen-day J. Hart ministry in 1868. That year he was called to form a government in a period of marked ministerial instability, but was unable to secure sufficient supporters. In 1870 he attend the Intercolonial Conference in Melbourne. Again holding the crown lands portfolio in the A. Blyth ministry of 1871-72, he initiated a survey of the Northern Territory. He was chairman of committees and acting Speaker in the assembly from 1872 until his death. A 'spirited … advocate of Chartism in its milder form', he fought for many years for payment for members of parliament.

Townsend was a lay preacher in the Congregational Church. In 1869-71 he was a member of the board of management of Adelaide Hospital. He proposed an institution for the blind, deaf and dumb, worked for many years for its establishment in the suburb of Brighton and was chairman of its committee in 1875-82. Contemporary descriptions of him were epitomized by the view that 'he rose from humble rank to be one of the most influential and well-known men of the day'. Aged 61, he died of phthisis on 25 October 1882 at Mitcham, survived by his second wife, four daughters and three sons; his estate was valued for probate at £200. His portrait is held by the Adelaide City Council.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Hodder, The History of South Australia (Lond, 1893)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1882
  • Observer (Adelaide), 28 Oct, 4 Nov 1882.

Citation details

Dean Jaensch, 'Townsend, William (1821–1882)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 29 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

William Townsend (1821-1882), by John Hood, 1882

William Townsend (1821-1882), by John Hood, 1882

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 11117

Life Summary [details]


London, Middlesex, England


25 October, 1882 (aged ~ 61)
Mitcham, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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