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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Farthing, William Armstrong (1818–1886)

by J. W. Turner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

William Armstrong Farthing (1818-1886), colliery proprietor, was born in Filey, Yorkshire, England, son of William Farthing, farmer, and his wife Jane, née Armstrong. In 1839 he migrated to New South Wales where he became a bootmaker and leather merchant at Maitland. In 1851 he tried gold mining but in 1853 went into coal mining probably because of his marriage in 1843 to Lillias, sister of James and Alexander Brown. Farthing seems to have managed for the Browns their small mines at Four Mile Creek near East Maitland and was probably still there when he tried to bring Four Mile Creek miners to work in the Browns's Minmi collieries during the strike of 1860.

The extension of the railway towards Singleton made it possible to bring new coal lands into production and Farthing began to mine a seam which he had discovered in the bed of Anvil Creek, near Greta and the new railway. This was an outcrop of the Greta coal measures which were to become the chief source of gas coal for Australia and which were to provide much coal for export to countries in the Pacific region before 1914. Between 1862 and 1871 an average of 10,000 tons a year was produced from the Anvil Creek colliery where from twenty to forty miners were employed and steam power was used to raise the coal and keep the mine clear of water. In 1864 Farthing won a contract for steam coal from the Australasian Steam Navigation Co. and his Anvil Creek coal, when tested in a gas works, yielded twice as much gas as other colonial coals. In 1871 he suffered a financial set-back when the mine caught fire, not spontaneously as Professor Edgeworth David later surmised, but because of the inexperience of a new miner who lit a fire to clear the pit of foul air. Farthing bypassed the fire and reopened the colliery but in 1872 it produced only half as much coal as in 1870. Hampered by low prices and lack of capital, he sold the property in 1873 to the Anvil Creek Colliery Co. Ltd, established with a capital of £30,000.

Farthing retired to his small property near Greta and continued to act as a magistrate and 'acquitted himself on the bench with credit and discretion'. 'Kindly, warm-hearted and generous', he was described in 1871 by the Maitland Mercury as 'a most energetic and pushing man whose perseverance and industry have merited greater success than he has met with'; he possibly lacked the ruthlessness that would have carried him into the first line of northern colliery proprietors. He did not establish a major mine, his annual outputs were relatively insignificant and he cannot be said to have discovered the Greta coal measures, for others had preceded him in exploiting them. Yet he was the most important of these pioneers and his work at Anvil Creek demonstrated the rich properties of this coal. Aged 67 he died on 6 August 1886 and was survived by his wife, only son and at least two daughters. He was buried with Presbyterian rites in East Maitland.

Select Bibliography

  • Newcastle Chronicle, 5 Mar 1864, 1 Feb 1865, 2 Mar 1871, 28 Feb 1874
  • Maitland Mercury, 2 Mar 1871
  • Town and Country Journal, 1 Oct 1887
  • Purves papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

J. W. Turner, 'Farthing, William Armstrong (1818–1886)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

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