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William Henry Wilks (1863–1940)

by W. G. McMinn

This article was published:

William Henry Wilks (1863-1940), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

William Henry Wilks (1863-1940), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23515825

William Henry Wilks (1863-1940), fuel merchant, politician and public servant, was born on 21 June 1863 at Sydney, son of Joseph Henry Wilks, a sea-captain from Bristol, England, and his native-born wife Susannah (d.1863), née Harris. After attending Balmain Public School, he was associated with Billy Hughes in various odd-job enterprises before setting up a wood and coal yard at Balmain. President of the New South Wales Literary and Debating Societies' Union for two years, Wilks joined the Free Trade Association of New South Wales and in 1887 was elected to its council.

A Freemason from an early age, in 1888 he was grand master of the Grand Lodge of Scotland. Having entered politics, he became associated with the Loyal Orange Institution of New South Wales. His 'strong democratic views' led him to support Labor's entry into parliament in 1891, but the split in the party next year disillusioned him. He became active in the Free Trade, Land and Reform League, the more radical wing of the Free Trade Party then being consolidated by (Sir) George Reid. On 19 July 1894 Wilks married Florence Matilda Vincent (d.1926) at St Barnabas's Anglican Church, Sydney, and in August was elected to the Legislative Assembly for North Balmain as a free trader at the general election which brought Reid to office.

In the House, Bill Wilks became something of a licensed joker, but held off Labor challenges in his working-class constituency. His speeches, although infrequent, were long and rambling, yet occasionally effective. Believing that the ostensible cause of the censure motion against Reid in 1899 hid a conspiracy to prevent the premier from obtaining the first Federal prime ministership, Wilks strongly defended his leader: he attempted to defuse the motion with an amendment to separate the issue of the payment to John Neild (which was most likely to win Labor Party support) from the main Opposition case—a shrewd but unsuccessful move.

A 'rollicking looking man', Wilks had a 'strong moustache, continually bitten at the ends'. He was member for Dalley in the House of Representatives from 1901 to 1910 and whip in the Reid-McLean government in 1904-05. His Orange connexions made him useful to Reid when the latter found himself embroiled with Cardinal Patrick Moran in the sectarian controversies which muddied early Federal politics, but the journalist who described Wilks in 1906 as 'one of the great political directors who, working behind the scenes, determine who shall strut the public stage' greatly exaggerated both his influence and that of the L.O.I. Chairman of committees in 1905-07, Wilks chaired the royal commission on postal services in 1908.

Losing his seat to Labor in 1910, he was appointed to the public service as a land valuer in Melbourne and remained in that post until he retired in 1928. He married Edna Eunice Hinchcliffe in St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, on 6 August 1927. Survived by his wife, and by two sons and three daughters of his first marriage, he died at his Camberwell home on 5 February 1940 and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 27 June 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 25 Jan 1906
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Feb 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7, 9 Feb 1940
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

W. G. McMinn, 'Wilks, William Henry (1863–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Henry Wilks (1863-1940), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

William Henry Wilks (1863-1940), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23515825

Life Summary [details]


21 June, 1863
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


5 February, 1940 (aged 76)
Camberwell, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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