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Clarke, William John (1805–1874)

from Argus (Melbourne)

Mr. William John Turner Clarke, whose name has been almost a household word with Victorian colonists for many years past, as the richest man in Australia, died at his residence, Rosemeath, Essendon, yesterday afternoon, at 20 minutes to 2 o'clock, in the 73rd year of his age. For the last four years Mr. Clarke's health has been in a very critical condition. Slowly but surely he lost the use of his limbs, till at last he was unable to move in the slightest degree without assistance, and it was found necessary to keep relays of attendants to wait upon him day and night. In spite of the loss of the use of his limbs, Mr. Clarke's intellect still retained a great portion of its original power, and he attended to the details of his vast business up to within a short period of his death. For some months changes for the worse had been observed, these changes recurring at shorter intervals as time wore on. About a month ago his condition became so critical that his death was looked for daily. He gradually sank, and died yesterday afternoon, having been speechless for some time before he died. Mr. Clarke was attended throughout his long illness by Dr. Motherwell, who has for many years been his medical attendant. Mr. Clarke can hardly be said to have died from any particular disease, but rather from general break-up of the system.

William John Turner Clarke was born at Bridgewater, in Somersetshire, England; and at the age of 29 emigrated to Tasmania, where he arrived about the year 1830. He went out to that colony with the intention of following farming pursuits, and took with him, amongst other property, some valuable live stock, including several well-bred cattle and horses. Land in Tasmania was then obtained from the state upon favourable conditions. Any immigrant who was able to show that he possessed capital to the extent of £1,000 could take up 1,000 acres of land wherever he chose, with a free grant from the Crown. Mr. Clarke having the necessary means, made his selection, and obtained a grant of 1,000 acres, the property being known as The Windfalls. After a time he sold this land and rented another place at Merton Vale, near Campbelltown, in the northern portion of the island. He went extensively into farming, and at first prospered, but his wheat crops having been destroyed by the smut, he was induced to give up agriculture and enter into pastoral pursuits. He rented the Lovely Banks Station, situated about 35 miles from Hobart Town, and some time afterwards went to Sydney, and purchased a station on the Munmurra. This he made temporarily his home, taking with him his wife and two sons, A severe drought was experienced, and the extreme heat affected his health. He was therefore glad at the end of two years to return to Tasmania, leaving the portion of his stock which had survived the drought to the tender mercies of the blacks. He next made his first venture in Victoria, and about 34 years ago he took up the Station Peak run in the Werribee district, in partnership with the late Mr. W. H. Pettett and a Mr. Francis, who was shortly afterwards killed by an insane shepherd. In a few years the settlers began to crowd about him, and as there was not room on the run for the proper increase of his stock, he deserted the station, and removed his sheep to the neighbourhood of Dowling Forest. The conditions of squatting occupation in those days was that any one could take up land wherever he found it, according to the amount of his stock, to the extent of 30,000 acres. Mr. Clarke was able to take up the maximum amount of land, but not finding sufficient scope for his operations, he purchased the Woodlands Station, in the Wimmera district, now the property of Wilson Brothers. There the blacks were very numerous, and such a large number of men had to be employed for the protection of the flocks that the expenses completely absorbed the returns. It was only by the strictest economy, and with the aid of the revenues he received from his Tasmanian property that Mr. Clarke was able to hold his own while others went to the wall.

At this time, and for some years afterwards, Mr. Clarke lived principally in Tasmania, only coming over to Victoria at shearing time. For the last dozen years or so, however, this colony has been his home, though he has been in the habit of paying numerous and prolonged visits to Tasmania. Subsequently to his purchase of the Woodlands Station, he obtained under a special survey some 30,000 acres of land at Bulla Bulla, near Sunbury. The conditions laid down with respect to the land comprised in this survey were, that any one could take up as much as he pleased by paying £1 per acre, the minimum area to be applied for being 20,000 acres. The object was to allow the settlers jointly to purchase a large section of land for mutual advantage and convenience, but Mr. Clarke was first with an application for the whole area. The Sydney Government—for Victoria had not yet been separated from New South Wales—tried hard to prevent him from obtaining the land, and it was only after a prolonged correspondence that he was placed in possession. Most of Mr. Clarke's Victorian ventures prospered, and gradually he grew to be a very wealthy man. Several of the best business stands in Melbourne belonged to him, and he owned property in every direction. He held land in almost every one of the Australian colonies. He bought the property of the Messrs. Fisher at Mount Schanck, in the Mount Gambier district, South Australia, where he carried on a fine grazing business, and he was also the possessor of the Chalmers' Moa Flat Station and other properties in New Zealand. He continued all through to hold considerable property in Tasmania, and had a permanent establishment about four miles from Hobart Town. His freehold property in Victoria alone, in addition to that obtained under the special survey, amounted to over 100,000 acres, which he had purchased from time to time. Amongst his other Victorian possessions, Mr. Clarke held the property in the neighbourhood of Sunbury upon which the operations of the famous Bolinda Goldmining Company were for a time conducted, with such profitless results to the shareholders. Upon the collapse of the company, Mr. Clarke, who had been allotted shares as an equivalent for the claim, resumed possession of the land.

In his pastoral operations Mr. Clarke's thorough knowledge of stock stood him in good stead, and it was often said of him that there was not a better judge of sheep or cattle in the colony. He was the first to introduce the Leicester sheep, which he imported originally into Tasmania, and his own account is that he made all his money by the breeding of these valuable animals. He also imported some fine draught horse stock.

Mr. Clarke was for a number of years a member of the Victorian Legislature. On the inauguration of responsible government, he was returned to the Legislative Council as one of the representatives of the South Province. This seat he retained until 1860, when, business calling him to England, he tendered his resignation. In September, 1862, a vacancy occurred in the representation of the same constituency. The candidates were Mr. Clarke and Dr. Embling, and the former was elected by a majority of 639 to 202. For many years Mr. Clarke's health had not been good, and he was consequently unable to attend very regularly to his Parliamentary duties. Continued indisposition obliged him in October, 1865, to ask for leave of absence from the Legislative Council for the remainder of the session, which was granted. In March, 1867, his medical advisers having recommended change of climate, he again applied for and obtained leave of absence for the rest of the session, and in June, 1868, he found it necessary to ask for a similar indulgence. In the following year, though he did not apply for leave of absence, he was seldom able to make his appearance in the House, and at an early period of the session of 1870 leave of absence was once more granted the hon. member on account of ill-health. His indisposition continuing, he finally, on the 7th November, 1870, resigned his seat, and a fresh election took place, resulting in the return of Dr. Dobson.

Mr. Clarke never took a leading part, in political or commercial affairs, but he was for several years vice-chairman of the Australasian Insurance Company, and recently governor of the Colonial Bank of Australasia. His family consists of three sons, William John Clarke, of Sunbury; Thomas B. Clarke, of Quorn-hall, Tasmania; and Joseph Clarke, also of Tasmania.

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'Clarke, William John (1805–1874)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/clarke-william-john-1902/text26202, accessed 20 September 2017.

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