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Coote, William (1822–1898)

by A. A. Morrison

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

William Coote (1822-1898), engineer, architect, journalist, pamphleteer, political organizer and sericulturist, was born in London, son of William Coote and his wife Sarah Frances, née Hanran. Apparently the family was comfortably situated, for Coote trained as an architect under C. R. Cockerell and as a civil engineer under C. B. Vignolles, both leaders in their professions. Under Vignolles who became the first professor of civil engineering at Jeremy Bentham's University College, London, Coote gained some experience in railway engineering and was probably introduced to Utilitarian ideas which appear to have formed some foundation for his later radicalism. In 1849 he married Louisa Dewsbury Ford at St John the Baptist Anglican Church, South Hackney, London. By 1852 he was in Van Diemen's Land, apparently as a free man; in a letter to the colonial secretary he supported a petition by a woman on behalf of her convict husband. However, on 16 November 1854 he was declared bankrupt and was imprisoned for twelve months. By 1856 he had recovered his position and was a partner in an engineering firm which sought government contracts for bridges in various parts of the colony. Apparently he also engaged in some radical agitation.

In 1857 Coote was in Ballarat, where he laid out the streets and roads for the new municipality of Ballarat East, and also surveyed the ninety-mile (145 km) route for a tramway from Ballarat to Maryborough. When in 1860 the Moreton Bay Tramway Co. was seeking to establish a line from Brisbane to the Darling Downs, Coote was brought to Queensland to carry out the surveys and was later made general manager of the company, which included some of the leading Queensland Liberals of the day. In 1862 he decided to settle in Queensland and brought his family north. The company failed and Coote fought a long and unsuccessful battle to secure compensation from the government which used much of his survey work when constructing its own railway. Coote practised as an architect and designed some important buildings, including the old Brisbane Town Hall. He was active in the cultural life of Brisbane, especially in meetings of the Philosophical Society and the more radical activities associated with the School of Arts.

Coote sought election to the Legislative Assembly, but after two defeats concentrated on political organization. Both in the Brisbane Water Works agitation in 1864 and the financial crisis two years later Coote drew up the petitions for the protesting groups, including one in 1866 for the recall of Governor Sir George Bowen. His activities displeased the government which inquired into his past in Tasmania. He became a most prolific correspondent of the Queensland press which then offered considerable opportunity for the expression of grievances.

While continuing to practise engineering and architecture he also took up sericulture. Encouraged by the Native Industries and the Manufacturing Industries Acts, he experimented with silk culture so successfully on his property at the Rocky Waterholes (Rocklea) near Brisbane that select committees of both the council and the assembly recommended a special grant to him for further development. Unfortunately a new strain of silk worms imported from Italy proved to be diseased and decimated his stock; he never received the full grant and had to abandon his experiment. His wife died in 1870, and he also lost two of his five children; the other three outlived him.

He wrote often to the press during the tramway issue, and in the financial crisis of 1866 he consistently attacked, through the columns of the Guardian, the proposed issue of a species of fiduciary notes, 'Bell's Greenbacks'. In that year he began his history of Queensland, publishing the first two instalments in 1867. In 1870, in the Warwick Examiner and Times, he published two lengthy series, 'The Financial History of Queensland, 1862-1870', and 'The Railway History of Queensland, 1862-1870'. In 1871 he submitted to the Courier a detailed plan for the redistribution of electoral representation in the colony. In 1876 appeared, also in the Courier, a study of the land system in relation to immigration, and next year a critical account of the Anglican Church in Queensland. Also in 1877 the Week ran an interesting series of studies 'Our Leading Public Men'. By this time he had become less radical, but hardly less of an individualist.

Meanwhile Coote had carried on his two professions but he was still restless. In 1873 he had sought to be admitted to read for the Bar, but had been rejected by the Board of Examiners, though no full reason was ever publicly given. In 1881 he became editor of the Observer on condition that he could write as he pleased, but after a year the paper changed hands and he lost his post. In the Week he had published in 1876 the first volume of his 'History of Queensland' and part of the second volume, but it was never completed. In 1882 the first volume appeared in book form; the second was promised but no copy has been found; according to one report the entire edition was destroyed by fire.

Frustrated in Brisbane, Coote accepted an invitation to take up journalism in Townsville. Separatist agitation was then very strong and he soon became an organizing secretary to the movement. He was reputedly greeted by spontaneous demonstrations whenever he appeared, and popular doggerel paid tribute to his work. However, when he died on 1 October 1898 in the Townsville Hospital he received a mere four lines, referring only to his work for northern separation, in the Week, to which he had contributed so much.

Select Bibliography

  • A. A. Morrison, ‘William Coote’, Journal (Historical Society of Queensland), vol 5, no 4, 1956, pp 1218-32.

Citation details

A. A. Morrison, 'Coote, William (1822–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/coote-william-3257/text4891, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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