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Crooke, William George (1846–1920)

by Peter MacFie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

William George Crooke (1846-1920), schoolteacher, conservationist, journalist and social reformer, was born on 13 October 1846 at Saltwater River probation station, Tasman Peninsula, Van Diemen's Land, son of Rev. Robert Crook[e], a station catechist from Dublin, and his wife Caroline Jane, née Drew. The family moved to Franklin, in the Huon district, in 1853. Following a scandal when Robert sued for libel but lost the case, the Crookes left for Melbourne in 1858.

William worked as a monitor in his parents' Emerald Hill school, South Melbourne, then taught in Victorian suburban and rural schools. On 20 December 1872 at the Independent Church, Maryborough, he married London-born Ellen Alston. Soon the couple went to Costerfield, a mining town near Heathcote. When Crooke expressed concern in a local newspaper at the effect of smelting fumes on his pupils he was reprimanded. He opposed corporal punishment. A school inspector criticized him for being disorganized, but another observed his 'considerable intelligence'.

Transferred to Wodonga in 1885, Crooke became secretary of the Athenaeum and Free Library Society, and developed a strong interest in fisheries, wildlife and the environment. After moving to the coastal town of Portland, he indulged his passion for angling. On 13 July 1894, suffering poor health, he was superannuated but began the most productive period of his life. He was an outspoken advocate for the Victorian Fish Protection and Anglers' Society and drew attention to diminishing fish numbers caused by industrial pollution and over-fishing. Dismayed by the lack of policing powers of the Victorian Fisheries Act of 1890, Crooke became the society's delegate on the Fisheries Board, drafting recommendations for an 1893 select committee.

In 1892 and 1894 Crooke visited Tasmania as a delegate of the Australian Natives' Association, discussing Federation issues. A democrat, he supported the proposal for a convention, urged that it be 'BIG—6 or 700' strong and criticized the lack of full male and female suffrage for the election of delegates. In 1894 he returned to Tasmania to live in Hobart, briefly operating a small, private school at Battery Point. He joined organizations, attended meetings and wrote innumerable letters to newspapers on a range of issues. Through the Southern Tasmanian Railway League he urged the line's extension into timbered rural areas. In 1903 he was a founding member of the Southern Tasmanian Licensed Anglers' Association, whose members included the urban intellectuals who were to make early conservation moves successful.

Crooke was initially drawn to the Workers' Political League, writing in the pro-labour newspaper, the Clipper, ridiculing the National Association and members such as G. P. Fitzgerald. He argued for the right to strike and the arbitration system and praised industrial legislation that guaranteed wages. Attracted to the Citizens' Moral and Reform League and the politics of Bishop J. E. Mercer, he challenged the Church's support of workers. By March 1906 he had rejected unionism and lost to W. A. Woods in an election to the House of Assembly. In May 1915 he unsuccessfully contested Legislative Council elections as a Liberal.

From 1904 Crooke was fishing correspondent for the Hobart Mercury under the pseudonym 'Jollytail', using the column to air environmental issues. He was influenced by park models in Africa and the United States of America, declared that 'rivers should be national property' and argued for control over all forms of fishing. Quoting the philosophies of Henry Thoreau, Walt Whitman and the poetry of Henry Kendall , Crooke applied an international vision to local issues. In 1906 he promoted the concept of land reservation for the Mount Wellington and Queen's Domain parks, Hobart, and of wildlife reserves including bird sanctuaries. In 1916 he gave evidence to the royal commission conducted by T. T. Flynn on Tasmanian fisheries. Critical of Flynn's refusal to publish the evidence, he printed extracts in his newspaper column.

Crooke died after a long illness on 27 August 1920 in hospital in Hobart. Survived by his wife and a son, he was buried in Queenborough cemetery. He was remembered by the Mercury for his 'flashes of witty merriment which set many a table in a roar', although he was a teetotaller. At the dedication of an obelisk to him at Mount Field National Park in 1924, he was described as 'years ahead of current thought' and 'intensely patriotic, wonderfully progressive, courageous & tenacious'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Crooke, The Convict (Hob, 1958)
  • Report From the Select Committee upon the Fisheries’ Act Together with the Proceedings of the Committee and Minutes of Evidence (Melb, 1862)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 29 Aug 1903, p 8, 4 Jan 1906, p 6, 26 Mar 1906, p 4, 28 Aug 1920, p 6, 18 Feb 1995, p 4
  • Tasmanian Mail, 2 Sept 1920, p 22
  • Weekly Courier (Launceston), 2 Sept 1920, p 33
  • Weekly Courier (Launceston), 2 Sept 1920, p 33
  • P. H. MacFie, ‘One Spot Secure From Change’--William Crooke the ‘Father’ of Mt Field (typescript, 1994, privately held)
  • VPS 795/3295, item 19/1/1873, VPS 40/41, item 22/9/1885 (Public Record Office Victoria)
  • W. Crooke, Victorian Department of School Education, personal file (privately held).

Citation details

Peter MacFie, 'Crooke, William George (1846–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/crooke-william-george-12869/text23241, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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