Westgarth, William (DNB00)


WESTGARTH, WILLIAM (1815–1889), Australian colonist and politician, eldest son of John Westgarth, surveyor-general of customs for Scotland, Was born at Edinburgh on 15 June 1815; the family came from Weardale, Durham, where they had been well known for some generations. He was educated by Dr. Bruce at Newcastle-on-Tyne, and at the high schools at Leith and Edinburgh, leaving school early to enter the office of George Young & Co., Leith, Australian merchants.

In July 1840, attracted by glowing accounts of the new colony, Westgarth decided to emigrate to Port Phillip, afterwards Victoria, where he arrived on 13 Dec. 1840. At the time of his arrival at Melbourne the city was scarcely out of the bush, and was also at the time passing through a period of depression. He commenced business as a general merchant and importer, and at the same time threw himself with such heartiness into the general life of the settlement that he soon acquired a special position among his contemporaries. For some years he issued a half-yearly circular on the commerce and progress of the settlement. In 1843 he made a visit to England. In 1845 he was joined by Alfred Ross as partner, and in 1847 paid another visit to Great Britain, writing his earliest book on the colony during the voyage.

Westgarth first took part in public affairs as an active member of the 'Australasian Anti-transportation League,' which was formed to oppose the immigration of criminals; he was secretary to the Melbourne branch of the league. In 1850 he became member for Melbourne in the legislature of New South Wales, and he took a prominent part in the agitation which led to the separation of Victoria from New South Wales in the following year. In the first Legislative Council for Victoria he was one of the members for Melbourne. He also was at this time elected first president of the Melbourne chamber of commerce. As a member of the board of education he promoted the founding of the Mechanics' Institute, the forerunner of the Melbourne Athenæum. In the legislature he was recognised as the leader of the popular party. In 1852 he obtained the appointment of a committee on prison discipline, and, in pursuance of the policy to which he had already committed himself, carried a resolution against the further transportation of convicts to Victoria; in September of that year he brought in a bill which caused much sensation, and was popularly termed the 'Convict Influx Prevention Bill.' Possibly the most noteworthy of his proposals was that for a uniform tariff of import duties for all Australasian colonies, in which he was far in advance of his day. In May 1853 he resigned his seat on the council and left the colony on a visit to England; he returned in October 1854 to find the colonists in the middle of their conflict with the gold-diggers at Ballarat. He was placed on the commission to inquire into the outbreak, was chosen its chairman, and was acknowledged to have conducted a difficult inquiry with much tact and success.

In 1857 Westgarth was again summoned to England on business. On this occasion he decided to remain in London, and founded the firm of Westgarth & Co., colonial brokers, agents, and financiers, rapidly absorbing a large proportion of the business which arose in connection with the demand of the Australian colonies for loans on the London market, and becoming a leading authority in all matters connected with these securities, as well as a considerable factor in their progressive improvement. In 1881 he represented the Melbourne chamber of commerce on the tariff congress of the colonies held in London. He was instrumental in establishing the present London chamber of commerce, and saw his efforts successful in July 1881. He also interested himself in the housing of the poor and in the ‘sanitation and reconstruction of central London,’ on which he wrote an essay in 1884. Through the Society of Arts he offered a series of prizes for the best practical essays on these two subjects.

In 1888, having retired from business, Westgarth revisited Melbourne to be present at the Centennial Exhibition, and was very warmly received both there and in the other colonies. He returned in November 1888, and died suddenly in London on 28 Oct. 1889. Westgarth was quiet and unostentatious in his mode of life, and very methodical in his work and habits. He had been in every way a leader in work for the social and political advancement of the colony of Victoria. He married in 1854. Westgarth's most important works were:

  1. ‘Report on the Position, Capabilities and Prospects of the Australian Aborigines,’ 1846.
  2. ‘Australia Felix: an Account of the Settlements of Port Phillip,’ 1848.
  3. ‘Victoria, late Australia Felix,’ 1853.
  4. ‘Victoria and the Australian Gold Mines,’ London, 1857.
  5. ‘Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria,’ Melbourne, 1888.
  6. ‘Half a Century of Australian Progress: a personal Retrospect,’ London, 1889

He also edited from the manuscript of John DavisTracks of McKinlay and Party across Australia,’ 1863, and contributed several articles on Australian subjects to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ and papers for the British Association on financial questions, besides writing novelettes in the Tasmanian ‘Launceston Examiner.’

[Melbourne Argus, 30 Oct. 1889; Mennell's Dict. of Austral. Biography.]

C. A. H.