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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wallis, Alexander Robert (1848–1928)

by R. Wright

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

Alexander Robert Wallis (1848-1928), agricultural expert, was born in 1848 in Ghazipur, India, second son of Rev. Alexander Wellington Wallis, in the service of the East India Co., and his wife Eliza, née Wootton. From 1856 young Alexander attended Lancing College, Sussex, England, the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and Stuttgart Polytechnic, Würrtemberg (Germany), with the ambition of becoming an 'agricultural professional' rather than a farmer or land agent. He reputedly rejected the offer of the foundation chair of agriculture at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York; instead, he reached Melbourne in the Anglesey on 21 June 1871 to become the agricultural journalist for the Australasian.

Under the byline 'Ackermann', Wallis established himself as an agricultural authority. In June 1872 he served on a royal commission on Victoria's first outbreak of foot and mouth disease. On 9 November that year he won an essay competition to become secretary of a newly formed department of agriculture. Located within, but supposedly separate from, the chaotic Department of Crown Lands and Survey, the new department lacked resources and professional respect; disputes with lands department officials, in part a product of Wallis's acerbic personality, proved especially vexing. He was dapper, moustached, hardworking and assertive.

Shortages of funds, staff and support was countered by his unrelenting quest for professional, scientific agriculture. Informed by a blend of certitude and impatience, Wallis rode around the colony—judging shows, encouraging innovation, mounting exhibitions, gathering data and hectoring farmers. He rationalized the colony's many agricultural societies by manipulating the distribution of grants-in-aid, created an agricultural library and published annual reports (1873-75) replete with technical papers. Successive governments increased his responsibilities. He was associated with James Harrison's demonstrations in pioneering the frozen meat industry. Agricultural chemistry, industries and education and forestry management were added to his duties, and in 1877 Wallis was instructed to establish and oversee a model farm at Dookie. He could not meet such excessive expectations, and in the late 1870s there was press and parliamentary criticism of the department, comprising just himself and the chemist W. E. Ivey.

On 15 December 1874 at Holy Trinity Church, East Melbourne, Wallis had married with Anglican rites Harriet Stephen Walsh, née Hughes, a widow with five children; she, too, had been born in India. From 1877 Wallis was asked to eradicate Phylloxera from vineyards in the Geelong district. While his methods proved successful, compensation levels awarded to vignerons whose vines had to be destroyed were questioned. In February 1882 minister Charles Young appointed a board of inquiry to investigate matters in dispute between himself and Wallis, the most notable being that Wallis had interfered in compensation judgements, an accusation that he vehemently denied. Although the board exonerated him, on 25 March 1882 his position was 'dispensed with'.

After dabbling in pastoral investment in Western Australia and Victoria, and in importing, in 1887 Wallis migrated with Harriet to New Zealand. She died in Melbourne in 1889. At St John's Church, Invercargill, on 4 January 1893 he married 24-year-old, Irish-born Frederica Theresa Stronge. Wallis managed the Morton Mains estate near Edendale, Southland, until 1894 when he purchased the Woodstock estate. In 1900 he founded the sawmilling firm A. R. Wallis Ltd at Invercargill. He was a justice of the peace. Wallis died on 15 May 1928 at Dunedin and was buried at Andersons Bay cemetery. Frederica and their two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • The Cyclopedia of New Zealand, vol 4 (Christchurch, NZ, 1905)
  • R. Wright, ''Dispensed With”: A. R. Wallis, First Secretary for Agriculture in Victoria 1872-1882 (Melb, 1982), and for bibliography
  • Reports of the Secretary for Agriculture (Victoria), 1873-75
  • Otago Daily Times, 17 May 1928
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Aug 1928, p 810.

Citation details

R. Wright, 'Wallis, Alexander Robert (1848–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 2 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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