William Westgarth

There are a lot of people synonymous with the foundations of Melbourne and Victoria as a European settlement. For better or for worse, these include John Batman, John Pascoe Fawkner, and Charles La Trobe. However, overlooked amongst the figures who turned Melbourne from a small village to a thriving city is William Westgarth, who lived on and off in the colony between 1840 and 1857.

William was born in 1815 in Edinburgh[1]. His father John was notably the Surveyor-General of Customs in Scotland[2]. William was educated at Dr Bruce’s Academy at Newcastle upon Tyne, before starting his career at the mercantile firm known as G. Young and Co. of Leith[3]. The company happened to have interests in the relatively new colony of Australia, prompting William to travel to Victoria (or Port Phillip as it was then known), arriving at Melbourne on 13th December 1840[4]. By William’s own estimate, the city population at the time was around 3000-4000 people (out of an overall District population of around 9000)[5].

One of his letters (currently kept by the State Library), dated December 24th 1840, reflects his optimism for the future. In it he states that Melburnians would “give good prices for wine”, and that “I do think some (money) is to be made here”[6]. The letters also give some insight to a city still in its infancy, as apparent in his account of his first expedition across the city and its outer suburbs. Mere days after William’s arrival, he and some associates were visiting a hut owned by his friend Richard Alexander, who lived “three miles up the country” (or as the La Trobe Journal points out, near Richmond[7]). By today’s standards the trip would probably be an hour’s walk (if not shorter), but according to William’s estimate, after setting off at 11pm, they wouldn’t arrive until around 4am. This may be because on top of William’s unfamiliarity with the region, they were travelling in pitch black darkness, with virtually no light sources to guide them. What also has to be considered is that they were crossing ground work for buildings, and lots filled with logs and uncleared tree stumps, whilst torrential rain pounded down upon them. They even had to turn back to the city for a more “certain route” and on the way took a rest break under a tree. When they did get to Richard’s hut, they hunted “parroquets and other birds”, and fished for black trout in the Yarra.

But even in William’s time, some things never change, as another letter written on Christmas Day notes that “all the shops are shut”[8].

In spite of his initial optimism, the economic crisis of 1842 forced William to make a settlement with his creditors[9]. However he would soon rebound to become a general import merchant, partnering with Alfred Ross in 1845. With the addition of James Spowers in 1858, the business became Westgarth, Ross, and Spowers, and a firm would be established in Market Street[10].

Along with his financial success, Westgarth would also be behind several influential institutions in Melbourne. His support for education of the citizens is obvious from his involvement with the fledgling Melbourne Mechanics Institute (now the Athenaeum), acting as one of their first treasurers from 1842 to 1846[11]. In 1851, he not only co-found the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, but also became its first president[12]. The organisation, formed of financers, merchants and brokers, faced a slow start due to the gold rush unsettling all commercial activities[13], but would become influential in deciding the state’s mercantile interests[14]. He was also a deputy chairman in the Bank of Victoria, a member of the National Board of Education[15], and was amongst the trustees of the city’s first gas company, the Melbourne Coke and Gas Co., which was established 1850[16] (but due to construction delays, did not officially start business until 1856[17]).

William soon became so respected amongst the colony, that in 1850 he was elected unopposed to the New South Wales Legislative Council[18]. Described by historian Geoffery Serle as a “Liberal Free Trader” (one who believes in tariff-free trade) and a “complete democrat”[19], one of the issues Westgarth was especially supportive of was the separation of Victoria from New South Wales. From its inception in 1835, the Port Phillip District had been governed from Sydney, which made it hard for any Council representatives to contest decisions, especially as most the city’s revenue was spent on projects outside of Melbourne[20]. As the movement picked up steam in the 1840’s, Westgarth was one of several men tasked in advising separatist delegate Archibald Cunninghame[21]. According to Serle, Westgarth also had suggested a way to determine the boundaries of Victoria, based on the direction of tracks made by bullock teams[22]. When the two colonies did separate in 1851, Westgarth was one of three representatives for the seat of Melbourne selected for the Legislative Council[23]. Whilst he only kept the position until 1853, he spent the time supporting issues such as manhood suffrage, the abolition of property qualifications, the ballot, state education, the abolition of state aid to religion and the direct taxation of wealth[24].

Another issue he was passionate about was the banning of convict transportation. Whilst transportation to New South Wales (or at least the Sydney region) was halted in 1840[25], convicts would still be sent to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania)[26]. However, there was a concern amongst the populace that when those convicts served their time, Victoria would be vulnerable from (in Westgarth’s own words) “the contaminating vices of a large mass of criminal population.”[27] In response to this issue, Westgarth supported the Victorian branch of the Anti-transportation League[28], and helped passed a bill (The Convicts Influx Prevention Bill) to stop “convicted felons” from immigrating to Victoria[29]. This bill would have flaws as it was hard to identify who was a convict on sight[30], but an 1853 amendment would see the law confine it to escaped convicts[31].

Another one of William’s notable achievements was the role he played in organised German immigration to Victoria. Whilst German immigrants had trickled into Victoria as early as the 1830’s[32], Westgarth was particularly impressed by the German vine-growers of South Australia, admitting that the Germans’ “industry, frugality, sobriety, and general good conduct had made them excellent colonists”[33]. Whilst in England in 1847, he wrote to the “Commissioners of Emigration” to support his idea[34]. When approved, he spent his time in Germany and surrounding regions promoting Port Phillip[35], with the first party of immigrants arriving at Melbourne on the Godeffroy in February 1849[36]. Even when doubts on the immigrants value and morals emerged in Port Phillip (especially as few of the required vine-dressers initially arrived), it was William who would campaign on the German’s behalf, insisting to any doubters that the immigrants were of benefit[37].

Reportedly, the German immigrants took up land 12 miles north of Melbourne, and within a decade had formed what Westgarth called a:

“scattered village, with a little Lutheran church, and some show of gardening and cultivation. They seemed delighted to stick to their German speaking, and would not even try to speak English.”[38]

The town being referred to here is likely what would become Westgarthtown (now Thomastown)[39], where William and his friend Captain John Stanley Carr bought 640 acres of land on behalf of the German immigrants in 1850[40].

After William quit the Legislative Council in 1853, he took an 18-month sabbatical back in England and married Ellison Macfie (with whom he had three daughters)[41]. When he came back to Victoria he would again become involved in major developments in the colony. After the Eureka Stockade of 1854, he was assigned the role of Chairman of a Commission to enquire on the conditions on the goldfields. The Commission was important in not only replacing the miners licence with the cheaper miner’s right[42], but also pleading the amnesty of the miners involved in the Stockade (which was ignored as they were still trialled and acquitted)[43]. Whilst there is no credited author to the report, it was suspected by The Argus that it was William’s doing, recognising his “honest and manly” style, and “over-disposition to confine within the bounds of weak official language censure passed upon official persons and proceedings.”[44]

As well as these achievements, William was also a hard working writer and one of Australia’s earliest historians. One of his first books was in 1844 when he wrote Observations on the Present Commercial, Agricultural and Civil Condition of the Australian Colonies, a half-yearly report on the Port Phillip region. He later would write multiple books that documented the history and progress of Victoria and Australia, including Australia Felix; or a Historical and Descriptive Account of the Settlement of Port Phillip (1848), and Victoria and the Australian Gold Mines in 1857 (1857). His 1864 edition of The Colony of Victoria…Down to the End of 1863, whilst being his fourth history on the subject, states that “I have never found myself restricted in repetition and sameness”, citing there was always a new stand-point to write from[45]. This book was also notable in that he had not been in Australia for close to six years, but was still able to keep up-to-date based on what knowledge he had heard in the intervening time[46]. This is evident in how he used census results from 1861 (4 years after his departure)[47] and citing events such as the 1863 Elizabeth Street flood[48]. In-between all of his writings, he also provided statistical reports for one of the colony’s earliest magazines, the Illustrated Australian Magazine[49], and even dabbled in short fictional stories and novelettes for the Launceston Examiner[50].

William’s books tended to take a statistical approach, covering increases and changes in population, commerce, and social life (such as imprisonments). It wasn’t always to everyone’s tastes. An issue of the Port Phillip Gazette and Settler’s Journal in 1848 found his Australia Felix to have a “plain” narrative, and with its statistics, found the material of “a dry disquisition”[51]. However, another review praised Westgarth for his “workmanlike” approach to the book and his (for the time) up-to-date information[52]. Serle credits William’s work was notable in trying to explain the course of historical events and seek the reasons for this change[53].

(William Westgarth’s books, Australia Felix, and Personal Recollections of Victoria. Source: Author)

Regardless of what anyone thought, William’s books also reflected on the wild colonial days of Melbourne and its surrounding districts and colonies during the time. This is especially apparent in one of his last books, Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria (1888). The book gives insight to the sort of frontier Melbourne was in its first decades. Most famously, he recalls witnessing a corroboree of about 700 Indigenous Australians, held about a mile from the current Post Office site in the 1840’s[54]. He also gives personal accounts of pioneers he’d known (such as John Pascoe Fawkner[55]), which today would be valuable information for biographers. He even shares his personal opinion that Williamstown (with its “healthful level”) and Geelong (because of its Port and soil quality) were better choices for a capital city[56].

What also is significant about William’s written pieces is that they also provided insight to the lifestyle of the Indigenous population. The information in his books can be seen as outdated and insensitive to today’s reader (especially the beliefs that the Indigenous population was in decline, which is described by William as an “immutable law of nature”[57]). However, they are still essential in giving us a colonial perspective to Indigenous lives at the time, along with providing evidence of Indigenous lifestyles and customs of the era (some of which may have shocked general readers back in the day). What is also notable of his writing is that he at least shows sympathy for their plight. In 1846 he published A Report On The Condition, Capabilities, and Prospects Of The Australian Aborigines, which was written to “consider the condition of the Aborigines and the best means of promoting their welfare”[58]. Along with its insight on Indigenous customs and living conditions, the report also points out issues that were affecting them at the time. In particular, it points out the legislation surrounding them to be “anomalous and oppressive”[59], such as being disqualified to provide evidence in a court of justice[60]. Ominously, the report also covers the colonists misguided views to educate the Indigenous youth in Colonial values, at one point suggesting:

 “There is undoubtedly more hope of success with the children than the grown-up blacks; but it appears to be absolutely necessary to withdraw the former from association with their parents and the tribe. Little can be otherwise accomplished toward the improvement of their condition”[61].

In the 19th century, the British Empire were obsessed in bringing all aspects of their culture, religion and civilisation to all their colonies[62]. When early efforts to introduce this to the Indigenous Australians failed, the colonists reasoned (incorrectly) that a forced approach was to be used instead[63]. This included the idea to civilise the children by separating them from their traditional ways of life (and the families that taught them) and educating them under colonial ways[64]. Whether or not Westgarth knew of the damaging consequences such practice would produce (especially as the idea had some opposition at the time[65]), the report does foreshadow the direction the treatment of Indigenous Australians would go for the next century or so.

For reasons only known to himself, William decided to return to England (this time, for good) in 1857. However, he refused to slow down. He ran a broker business in William Westgarth and Co.[66], and fought for the establishment of a British version of the Chamber of Commerce, finally getting his wish in 1881[67]. He also wrote many papers to the British Association and the Social Science Congress, and wrote many essays relating to financial matters[68]. He even authored a scheme (which he unfortunately never saw come to fruition) to improve the housing and conditions of the poorer classes of London[69]. Eventually he was brought back in 1888 for one last visit, to a “hearty reception” which included a tour across Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales, and Queensland, delivering a speech for the Bankers Institute of Melbourne, and receiving a banquet at the Chamber of Commerce in Melbourne[70]. Most notably, he was able to present a 7-tonne granite fountain for the Centennial Exhibition, which featured a plaque declaring “To Victoria, from one of her earliest colonists in pleasant remembrance, 1840-1888”[71]. The fountain would soon disappear to the sands of time, until the 1970’s, when the plaque was found by some students at Merri Creek[72], which was near where he once lived[73]. Shortly afterwards, the fountain’s kangaroo statues were discovered to have been sold to a masonry in Fitzroy, and later would be presented for the 1988 Expo in Brisbane[74]. The fountain was finally restored to its former glory at the Carlton Gardens in 1994[75], where it remains a lasting tribute to Westgarth’s legacy.

(Left: Sketch of the Fountain. Source: State Library Of Victoria A/S14/06/88/89,  Right: Fountain at Exhibition Building as it is today. Source: Author.)

Alas, when William went home to England, he would not live much longer. A bout of pleurisy forced him to resign from his business in July 1889[76]. Then, on October 28th, he was found dead from a fall at his South Kensington home. An inquest into his death concluded that the incident was accidental as he had been opening an attic window to ventilate his house[77].

Over a hundred years later, William is not often referred to in the same breath as some of his contemporaries, but his influence is a significant part of Melbourne’s history. He was in the middle of the formation of some of Victoria’s most important institutions, including its first government, and some of the big issues of the day whether it was anti-transportation, German immigration, or the fallout of Eureka. More importantly, his books give us some insight to the man’s busy nature, and his passion for history.


[1] Serle, Geoffery, ‘Westgarth, William (1815-1889)’, Australian Dictionary Of Biography, Volume 6, MUP, 1976.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Westgarth, William, Personal Recollections of Victoria, George Robertson & Company, 1888, p. 21.

[6] ‘Manuscript: Three Westgarth Letters”, La Trobe Journal, No. 8, October 1971, p. 102.

[7] Ibid., p. 101.

[8] Ibid., p. 102.

[9] Serle, Geoffery, 1976.

[10] ‘Westgruth (Westgarth) [sic], Ross and Spowers Market St [picture]’, Trove, https://trove.nla.gov.au/work/167600277?q=Westgarth%2C+Ross+and+Spowers&c=picture&versionId=182668143

[11] Wilcott, R.W.E., The Melbourne Athenaeum 1839-1939: History and Records of the Institution, Stillwell and Stephens Pty. Ltd, Melbourne, 1939, p. 61.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Cowderoy, B., Melbourne’s Commercial Jubilee Notes from the records fifty years work of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, Mason, Firth and McCutcheon General Printers, Melbourne, 1901, p. 4.

[14] Andrew Brown may and Shurlee Swain (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2005, p. 455.

[15] ‘Death of Mr. William Westgarth (By Cable from our correspondent)’, The Argus, 30th October 1889, p. 7.

[16] Garryowen, The Chronicles of Early Melbourne, 1835 to 1852. Historical, Anecdotal and Personal, Vol. 2, Ferguson and Mitchell, Melbourne, 1888, p. 558.

[17] E-Melbourne, ‘Light and Power’, http://www.emelbourne.net.au/biogs/EM00854b.htm.

[18] Serle, 1976.

[19] Ibid., The Golden Age: A history of the colony of Victoria 1851-1861, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1963, p. 15.

[20] Andrew Brown May and Shurlee Swain (eds), p. 652.

[21] Garryowen, Vol. 2, p. 558.

[22] Serle, 1976.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Crowley, Frank, A Documentary History Of Australia 1788-1840, Vol. 1, Thomas Nelson Australia Pty. Ltd, West Melbourne, 1980, p. 589.

[26] Fraser, Bryce (eds), The Macquarie Book Of Events, Macquarie Library, New South Wales, 1983, p. 59.

[27] Westgarth, William, Australia Felix, or, a historical and descriptive account of the settlement of Port Phillip, New South Wales: including full particulars and customs of the Aboriginal Natives, Oliver and Boyd, 1848, p. 316.

[28] Serle, 1976.

[29] The Argus, October 30th 1889, p. 7.

[30] Serle, 1963, p. 127.

[31] Ibid., p. 128

[32] Brown May and Swain (eds), p. 304.

[33] Westgarth, 1888, p. 119.

[34] Ibid., p. 119.

[35] Ibid., p. 120.

[36] Wuchatsch, Robert, Westgarthtown: The German Settlement at Thomastown, Melbourne, 1985, p. 1.

[37] Ibid., p. 11.

[38] Westgarth, 1888, p. 122-123.

[39] Wuchatsch, p. 30.

[40] Ibid., p. 16.

[41] Serle, 1976.

[42] The Goldfields Commission Report, Red Rooster Press, Melbourne, 1978, p. 19.

[43] The Argus, October 30th 1889, p. 7.

[44] Ibid., March 24th 1855, P. 4, cited in Anderson, Hugh, “The Victorian Goldfields Commission 1855”, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 48, Issue 189, p. 233.

[45] William Westgarth, The Colony of Victoria: its history, commerce and gold mining; its social and political institutions; down to the end of 1863. With remarks, incidental and comparative, upon the other Australian colonies, Sampson Low, Son, and Marston, London, 1864, p.3.

[46] Ibid., p. 8.

[47] Ibid., p. 13.

[48] Ibid., p. 84.

[49] Ham’s Illustrated Australian Magazine, Vol. 1, July 1850, p.65.

[50] Argus, 1889, p. 8.

[51] Port Phillip Gazette and Settler’s Journal, “Westgarth’s Australia Felix And Other Recent Works On Port Phillip”, 24th May 1848, p. 2.

[52] Geelong Advertiser, ‘Mr Westgarth’s Australia Felix’, June 3rd 1848, p. 4.

[53] Serle, 1976.

[54] Westgarth, 1888, p. 15.

[55] Ibid., p.66.

[56] Ibid., p.20.

[57] Westgarth, 1864, p. 226.

[58] Ibid., A Report on the Condition, Capabilities, and Prospects of the Australian Aborigines, 1846, p.2.

[59] Ibid., p. 32.

[60] Ibid., p. 33.

[61] Ibid., p. 31.

[62] Christie, M.F., Aborigines in Colonial Victoria 1835-1886, Sydney University Press, 1979, p. 119.

[63] Ibid., p. 132.

[64] Ibid., p. 133.

[65] Ibid.

[66] The Argus, October 30th 1889, p.7.

[67] Ibid.

[68] Serle, 1976.

[69] Mennell, Phillip, The Dictionary Of Australian Biography, Hutchinson and Co., London, 1892, p. 503.

[70] The Argus, October 30th 1889, p.7.

[71] The Adelaide Observer, “Death of Mr William Westgarth: A Distinguished Financier”, 9th November 1889, p. 35.

[72] The Sentinel, ‘Tribute from a pioneer…but, who?’, 15th December 1976, p. 20.

[73] Westgarth, 1888, p. 33.

[74] Neales, Sue, ‘Fountain plays after an absence of more than 40 years’, The Age, June 1st 1994, p. 9.

[75] Ibid.

[76] Serle, 1976.

[77] Ibid.


Anderson, Hugh, “The Victorian Goldfields Commission 1855”, Victorian Historical Journal, Vol. 48, Issue 189, 1977, p. 227-234.

Brown May, Andrew and Swain, Shurlee (eds), The Encyclopaedia of Melbourne, Cambridge University Press, Port Melbourne, 2005.