Who Was W.W. Hughes? Part Two
Born to a working class family in 1803, Hughes was by all accounts ambitious, adventurous, and entrepreneurial. Before moving to the new colony of South Australia in 1840 he had been involved in whaling in the Arctic and later in the Chinese opium trade. The latter was a lucrative if ethically questionable business, although one both sanctioned and at times militarily enforced by a British government facing a trade deficit with China.
Once in South Australia, Hughes became a prominent pastoralist with large properties on northern York Peninsula. His real fortune, however, was made when copper was discovered on his Wallaroo and Moonta properties. According to Dirk Van Dissel’s Australian Dictionary of Biography entry on Hughes:
” In 1860 a shepherd, James Boor, made the first discovery of copper on the Wallaroo property. Hughes became the largest shareholder in the Wallaroo Mine Co. when it was founded. Soon afterwards another shepherd, Patrick Ryan, found copper on Hughes’s Moonta property. After an amazing race to Adelaide, his horsemen managed to forestall rival claimants. The dubious acquisition of the mineral lease led to inquiry by a select committee which reported against Hughes but the Supreme Court and the appeal of rivals to the Privy Council failed to dislodge him. The matter was finally settled out of court by Hughes paying other claimants several thousand pounds and in 1868-69 an Act validated his lease. Several companies had been formed to work the discoveries. The Moonta mine had phenomenal success and was the first in Australia to pay over £1,000,000 in dividends.”
A more detailed account of the complex political, economic and legal wrangling surrounding Hughes’ mineral claims, including his business relationship with fellow future University benefactors Robert Barr Smith and Thomas Elder is provided by historian Patricia Sumerling. Based on her 2001 MA thesis, a conference paper titled ‘Fraud – Walter Watson Hughes and the Moonta and Wallaroo Mines’ can be found on the PHA’s SA 175 website. It’s quite a tale, and begs the question as to whether Hughes’ role in providing the financial underpinnings of higher education in the colony was not, at least to some degree, a kind of atonement for the financial ruthlessness of the previous decade. The fact that Hughes initially discussed his desire to donate money toward education with his minister, the Reverend James Lyall of Flinders Street Presbyterian Church, and that his original intention was that it be a contribution towards the funding of the newly established Union College, a theological school, suggests that this may have been the case.
As it turned out Hughes was persuaded by clergymen of various denominations of the merits, given the size of the intended contribution, of the more ambitious goal of starting a University. This led in September 1872 to the formation of a University Association, the aim of which was to secure further members and financial support, appoint professors and lecturers, arrange classes and to establish the university formally by Act of Parliament. Members included Hughes himself and other prominent figures such as Lord Bishop of Adelaide, Dr Augustus Short. (The letter inviting Governor Fergusson to join the University Association can be found here, as can other records including the University Association publication, ‘Estimate of Expenses for the Adelaide University’. These form part of the digitised Series 169, Registrar’s Department Correspondence [1872-1923]).
Following the formation of the University Association, Hughes made good on his pledge, having his solicitors on Christmas Eve of 1872 draw up a Deed of Gift in which he undertook to donate ₤20,000 to the future University. The scale of this sum should not be underestimated. In today’s terms, based on the relative value of average earnings, it would be equivalent to over $AU 21 million.
Hughes’ support for the University, however, was not unconditional. The Deed made clear that the money was only to be directed towards the funding chairs of ‘Classics and Comparative Philology and Literature’ and ‘English Language and Literature and Mental and Moral Philosophy’, and that these be filled by the Reverends Henry Read and John Davidson respectively. It’s likely that Hughes was so insistent on this particular allocation of funds for two reasons. Firstly, Hughes felt that if the University was to succeed it would do so on the basis of support from a variety of sources, not just him. Secondly, it’s possible that in Hughes’ mind the Reverends Read and Davidson represented a link to the Union College, the body that Hughes had originally envisaged supporting. If at some level Hughes’ desire to give back to the colony that had made him so wealthy had a penitential quality, it’s not surprising that that he wanted his money and name to retain a connection with the church. In the 19th century, moreover, the disciplines named were partly designed to cultivate character and virtue in the (mostly) young men who studied them within a Christian framework.
Hughes left South Australia for good in early 1873 but remained in touch with the University Association. Over the following months there was some question as to whether anything would come of the proposed university as members of the University Association struggled to raise the additional funds required to cover the purchase of land, buildings and the teaching of a range of subjects. During this period an absent Hughes expressed a reluctance to acquiesce to the desire of many members of the Association that he allow his endowment to be spent in areas other than the teaching of humanities. Indeed, Hughes at times seemed unsure as to whether the university project should proceed at all. In one devastating letter, reprinted in The Register newspaper and collected in the minutes of the University Association, he branded the push for a University a ‘dead failure’. There was even talk during mid-1873 of returning the money to Hughes with the implied admission the colony lacked the political will and philanthropic capacity to establish a university proper. Some of the relevant correspondence can be seen here.
Nevertheless the University Association pushed on, feeling that an offer of ₤20,000 too good a one to refuse, regardless of Hughes’ rigid stipulations. Finally, in mid-October 1874, after over two years of deliberation, fund raising, and negotiation with the Government over the location of and level of public financing to be provided to the proposed university, “a Bill for an Act to incorporate and endow the University of Adelaide” was introduced to the South Australian House of Assembly. The Bill was debated for the remainder of October – points of contention included whether the Colony was sufficiently mature to support a university of any distinction and proposed limitations on the number of ministers of religion that can sit on its Council – and the Act received the Governor’s assent on the 6th November 1874. On the same day Thomas Elder signed an indenture matching Hughes’ ₤20,000 endowment, granting the young University a far surer economic base from which to develop.
In the end Hughes’ determination that his gift and name be linked to the Reverends Read and Davidson and their respective Chairs may have worked in favour of the long term interests of the University, in the sense that it forced the Association to seek out a broader base of support – from the Government and Thomas Elder in particular – before it went ahead with the establishment of the University proper. At the time, however, and especially during the difficult year of 1873, Hughes struck some as obstinate to the point of jeopardizing the whole project.
As for his motives in offering the gift in the first place, and later his firm directions as to how the money was to be allocated, it’s likely that there was at least to some degree a desire by Hughes to be remembered in terms other than those that emerged from the controversy and rancour of the 1860s. In this he certainly succeeded: in 1880 he was knighted, and posthumously Hughes, who had no children of his own, became known as the ‘Father of the University of Adelaide’, with memorials in both his home town and within the grounds of the University he helped found.
We can also guess that Hughes, like many of his contemporaries, experienced a tension between a desire to take advantage of the tremendous commercial opportunities open to capable and ambitious men across the British Empire, and an equally strong attachment to Christian ideals in which he’d been schooled. ‘I’ve been a sinner all my life’, he intimated to a nephew towards the end of his life. (Sumerling, 1999, p. 1). His wish to contribute to education in the colony – education that had a strong emphasis on moral development if not an overtly religious character – might be seen as his way of resolving this tension.
– Duncan, W. G. K. and Leonard, Roger Ashley. The University of Adelaide. 1874-1974. (Adelaide, Wakefield Press, 1973)
– Linn, Rob. The Spirit of Knowledge: A Social History of the University of Adelaide, North Terrace Campus. (Adelaide: Barr Smith Press, 2011).
– Measuring Worth.com http://www.measuringworth.com/ukcompare/#
– Sumerling, Patricia. ‘Fraud – Walter Watson Hughes and the Moonta and Wallaroo Mines’. http://www.sahistorians.org.au/175/documents/fraud—walter-watson-hughes-the-moonta-and-wallar.shtml
– Van Dissel, Dirk. Hughes, Sir Walter Watson (1803–1887)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hughes-sir-walter-watson-3813