WESTGARTH, William (1815-1889)

WESTGARTH, William (1815-1889)
early Victorian merchant and historian
son of John Westgarth, surveyor-general of customs for Scotland, was born at Edinburgh, in June 1815. He was educated at the high schools at Leith and Edinburgh, and at Dr Bruce's school at Newcastle-on-Tyne. He then entered the office of G. Young and Company of Leith, who were engaged in the Australian trade, and realizing the possibilities of the new land, decided to emigrate to Australia. He arrived in Melbourne, then a town of three or four thousand inhabitants, in December 1840. How close it still was to primitive conditions may be realized from the fact, that about four years later Westgarth saw an aboriginal corroboree in which 700 natives took part, on a spot little more than a mile to the north of the present general post office. He went into business as a merchant and general importer, and the firm was later in Market-street under the name of Westgarth, Ross and Spowers. Westgarth was in every movement for the advancement of Melbourne and the Port Phillip district. He became a member of the national board of education, in 1850 was elected to represent Melbourne in the legislative council of New South Wales, and he took an important part in the separation movement. It was he who originated the idea that the hoofs of the bullocks should settle the boundary question. If they showed that the droves were heading north, that country should remain in New South Wales, if south it should become part of the new colony.
When the new colony was constituted Westgarth headed the poll for Melbourne at the election for the legislative council. He had had many activities during the previous 10 years. In 1842 he was one of the founders of the Melbourne Mechanics' Institute, afterwards the Athenaeum; he had done much writing, beginning in 1845 with a half-yearly Report Commercial Statistical and General on the District of Port Phillip, followed in 1846 by a pamphlet, A Report on the Condition, Capabilities and Prospects of the Australian Aborigines, and in 1848 by Australia Felix, A Historical and Descriptive Account of the Settlement of Port Phillip. In 1851 he founded the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce and was elected its first president. He visited England in 1853 and brought out another version of his last book under the title Victoria; late Australia Felix. Soon after his return to Australia in 1854 he was appointed a member of the commission of inquiry to go into the circumstances of the Eureka rebellion. Westgarth was elected chairman and showed much tact in his conduct of the inquiry. The commission recommended a general amnesty to the prisoners, who, however, were tried and acquitted.
In 1857 Westgarth went to England, settled in London, and as William Westgarth and Company began business as colonial agents and brokers. He established a great reputation as the adviser of various colonial governments floating loans in London, and was continually consulted during the next 30 years. The finding of gold in Victoria having entirely altered the conditions, Westgarth published a fresh book on the colony, Victoria and the Australian Gold Mines in 1857. In 1861 he published Australia its Rise, Progress and Present Conditions, largely based on articles written by him for the Encyclopedia Britannica, and in 1864 he brought out his fourth book on Victoria, The Colony of Victoria; its Social and Political Institutions. In the preface to this he stated that though he had written four times on this subject, each volume had been a fresh work, written without even opening the pages of the previous volumes. He also wrote some pamphlets on economic and social subjects, and edited in 1863, Tracks of McKinlay and Party across Australia. Another piece of editing was a volume of Essays, dealing with the reconstruction of London and the housing of the poor which appeared in 1886. For many years he endeavoured to form a chamber of commerce in London, and at last succeeded in getting sufficient support in 1881. He revisited Australia in 1888 and was everywhere welcomed. When the Melbourne international exhibition was opened he walked in the procession through the avenue of nations alongside Mr Francis Henty, then the sole survivor of the brotherhood who founded Victoria. As a result of his visit two volumes appeared Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne and Victoria, in 1888, and Half a Century of Australasian Progress, in 1889. Returning to Great Britain Westgarth died suddenly at Edinburgh on 28 October 1889. He married in 1853 and left a widow and two daughters.
Good-looking, quiet and genial, Westgarth was a man of much energy and sagacity, who inspired complete confidence. He did remarkably able work as a Victorian pioneer, as an historian of his period, and as a financial adviser in London.
The Argus, Melbourne, 30 October 1889; The Times, 31 October 1889; W. Westgarth, Personal Records (sic) [should be 'Recollections'—Ed.] of Early Melbourne and prefaces to other volumes; H. G. Turner, A History of the Colony of Victoria.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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