04 May 2012

W L Baillieu

The current issue of Quadrant magazine has a review by Trevor Sykes of Peter Yule's new book, William Lawrence Baillieu: Founder of Australia's Greatest Business Empire*.  The title is based on the fact that the numerous Collins House enterprises (including the zinc plant at Risdon and the lead smelter at Port Pirie) were built on profits from Broken Hill, and WLB had interests in many of them.

The book is apparently the first published biography of WLB (although there are apparently two unpublished biographies).  I must try and get hold of a copy of it.

Of course, WLB is important in the context of the history of mining in Australia.  For example, he's mentioned in  W. S. Robinson's fascinating memoirs (which WSR himself wrote but which were edited by Geoffrey Blainey after his death), entitled If I Remember Rightly  (published in 1967), as well as in Geoffrey Blainey's important work, The Rush that Never Ended. Both of these works refer to WLB's involvement in the development of the floatation process which was a significant metallurgical break-through in the early 1900s, enabling the  great dumps of tailings at Broken Hill to be treated.    These were rich in zinc but defied the traditional treatment processes.  As well as being involved with mines, WLB was involved in syndicates that bought up tailings dumps cheaply and then processed them, which enabled him to make a fortune.

WLB entered Victorian state politics and rose to become Minister of Public Works and Health. He continued to foster his business and media interests throughout his life, and by the time he retired, WLB was director of the Herald and Weekly Times, the Electrolytic Zinc Company, the Dunlop Rubber Company, and Carlton and United Breweries.  He was also involved in banking and in the early formation of Victoria's electricity industry.  He died in 1936.

Although he was a philanthropist, he was not always noble-hearted.   Apparently he withheld substantial assets from his creditors when he had to settle with them following the land bust in the 1890s, and was in a position to buy properties at distressed prices when the market bottomed.   His broking firm E L & C Baillieu was a market maker in shares of the Collins House companies, supporting the prices when they were low and unloading them when they were high.   Such action today would give rise to suggestions of insider trading.   And it is said that his shares in the Outtrim coal mine in New South Wales benefited from glowing reports in the Melbourne Herald, where he was a director.  Standards were different in those days!

Nevertheless, the mines with which he was involved and the downstream industries that they spawned under WLB's leadership contributed greatly to Australia's economic well-being.   Comparisons (if any) with Gina Rinehart had best wait for another day.

* - this is the title given in Quadrant.  I notice that a slightly different title is mentioned on the internet.


  1. "While still in his teens, WL had become friendly with Edward Latham, the wealthy proprietor of the Carlton Brewery, and in 1887 married Latham’s daughter Bertha. Latham joined WL in many boom-time land ventures, borrowing large sums from the Federal Bank, the Real Estate Bank and other land-boom financial institutions, to finance ever more extravagant subdivisional schemes on Melbourne’s outskirts. -
    With the crash, WL’s fortune disappeared as quickly as it had grown. In July 1892 he was forced to make a composition with his creditors, declaring debts of nearly £50,000 on which he paid sixpence in the pound.
    The 1890s was a decade of gloom and depression in Melbourne. Some ruined land boomers committed suicide, others fled to the goldfields of Western Australia or South Africa; most of the remainder lived quiet lives of genteel poverty. Baillieu was a rarity in fighting back from insolvency to build a new and lasting fortune. By 1900 he was again a wealthy man. How he achieved this so quickly and in such adverse circumstances has always been a mystery. The cash flow came from his new “variety business‟ of W.L. Baillieu & Co., which was involved in real estate, auctioneering, debt collection, winding up insolvent estates and agency work of many types, and the share-broking business of E.L. & C. Baillieu. These businesses provided the cash to invest in the real money-making ventures, of which the most important was gold mining, with the greatest part of the family’s new fortune coming from the Duke mines at Maryborough and the Jubilee mine at Scarsdale."

    From “The Baillieu Family in Camberwell 1890 -1915” by Dr Peter Yule and Rachel Goldlust on the Camberwell Historic Society Newsletter Dec 2011 edn

  2. Fascinating! Shows how many things Baillieu was into. Gina and Clive, hope you've ordered your copies of Peter Yule's book, as it seems you've both got some way to go yet!