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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mitchell, Sir William Henry Fancourt (1811–1884)

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Sir William Henry Fancourt Mitchell (1811-1884), public servant, was born at Leicester, England, second son of George Barkley Mitchell, vicar of St Mary's Church, and his wife Penelope, daughter of William Fancourt. He was appointed writer in the Van Diemen's Land Executive Council's Office and arrived in the Sir Thomas Munro at Hobart Town in January 1833. Under Lieutenant-Governor Franklin he acted in several other offices. In May 1841 his visit to Flinders Island to inquire into costs of maintaining the Aboriginals induced Franklin to write to the Colonial Office recommending an increase of salary for Mitchell because of his responsible duties and faithful service. On 21 August at St John's Church of England, New Town, he married Christina, daughter of Andrew Templeton of Glasgow. On 21 March 1842 he resigned his appointment and in April they sailed for Port Phillip where he acquired Barfold station near Kyneton.

Mitchell was the first territorial magistrate sworn in by Judge William Jeffcott; in 1848 he was asked to choose the site for the town of Kyneton. Lieutenant-Governor Charles La Trobe appointed him chief commissioner of police with orders to stamp out bushranging. When Mitchell began duty on 1 January 1853, the police force was disrupted by defections to the goldfields but he organized the amalgamation of the various police groups in the colony and within a year built up the force from 700 to over 2000. In a few months bushranging had been almost eradicated, and with help from Captain Charles MacMahon, whom he had nominated as superintendent of city police, Mitchell reorganized the force in Melbourne, dividing it into sections each with its own beats and patrols. From August to November 1853 he was an official nominee in the Legislative Council.

After a visit to England in 1854-55 Mitchell resigned from the police and was succeeded by MacMahon. In the transition to the new Constitution in November 1855, he joined Haines's first ministry as an honorary minister, though not a member of the Legislative Council, and was sworn in as a member of the Executive Council. In November 1856 he was elected as one of the five original members for the North-Western Province in the council. From April 1857 to March 1858 he was postmaster-general in Haines's second ministry. Defeated at the council election in November 1858, he was returned at a by-election in August 1859 and from December 1861 to June 1863 was minister for railways and roads. In 1869 he was elected chairman of committees and in 1870 president of the Legislative Council, holding that office until 1884. For a quarter of a century he had been one of the staunchest conservatives and active defenders of the council. In 1875 he was appointed K.B. He was chairman of the Australasian Agency and Banking Corporation and in 1881, on its formation as a company, became chairman of directors of R. Goldsbrough & Co. He died suddenly at Barfold on 24 November 1884 and was given a public funeral. Of his nine children, the younger son Edward was knighted and for years was a leader of the Victorian Bar.

Select Bibliography

  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1853-54, 3 (D18)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1857-58, 1 (D27), 1861-62, 2 (D57)
  • Australasian, 29 Nov 1884.

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Mitchell, Sir William Henry Fancourt (1811–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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