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Zeal, Sir William Austin (1830–1912)
by Geoff Browne
This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990
Sir William Austin Zeal (1830-1912), engineer, businessman and politician, was born on 5 December 1830 at Westbury, Wiltshire, England, son of Thomas Zeal, wine merchant, and his wife Ann, née Greenland. Educated at private schools at Westbury and at Windsor, William obtained a diploma as surveyor and engineer in 1851. He arrived in Melbourne late in 1852 and spent two years on the Forest Creek (Castlemaine) goldfields. After his importing venture failed, he moved to Melbourne where he worked briefly for an architectural firm before joining the Melbourne, Mount Alexander and Murray River Railway Co. When the company was bought out by the Victorian government in 1856, Zeal remained as a government surveyor and railway engineer, supervising construction between Footscray and Sunbury. He then became general manager and attorney (1859-64) for Cornish & Bruce, contractors for the Melbourne-Sandhurst (Bendigo) line.
In 1864-65 Zeal represented Castlemaine in the Legislative Assembly. During his 1864 election campaign he attacked the competence of the Victorian railways engineer-in-chief Thomas Higinbotham. The following year Zeal was exonerated by a select committee which investigated Higinbotham's implied allegation that Zeal had acted dishonestly while employed by the railways department. From 1866 Zeal partnered (Sir) William Mitchell in Riverina pastoral ventures which were ruined by drought. Returning to Melbourne in 1869, Zeal subsequently designed the Moama-Deniliquin railway.
He again represented Castlemaine in 1871-74. Having unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Council seat of South Western Province in 1876, he won North Western Province (North Central from November 1882) in May 1882.
A 'diehard' conservative, Zeal believed that the 'thrifty' classes with 'a stake in the colony' should be protected by the maintenance of Upper House powers. Rightly critical of the 1880s railway construction follies, he used the word 'circumbendibus' to describe the worst examples. He had some liberal instincts and supported divorce law reform in 1889. Postmaster-general in the Shiels ministry in 1892, he served on ten inquiries and was a member (1890-92) of the standing committee on railways.
Zeal's parliamentary career was crowned by presidency of the council in 1892-1901. Relishing the role of 'genial autocrat' and 'stern disciplinarian', he gave no ground in a clash with the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly (Sir) Thomas Bent over control of a committee-room.
Zeal was respected for his 'exquisite courtesy' and his bachelor status in no way impeded his social performance: his 'little dinners' were acknowledged as 'the most charming of feasts'. Appointed K.C.M.G. in 1895, he was a delegate to the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897-98. Sir William resigned his presidency in 1901 after successfully standing for the Senate, but was never at home in Federal parliament. Expecting to be chosen as president of the Senate, he was disappointed when Sir Richard Baker was appointed.
Zeal's complaints of government extravagance were given rough treatment by Labor senators and in 1906 he retired from politics. In 1908 he published a pamphlet attacking the board of works.
Tenacity and business sense had served him well: 'no Melburnian had a finger in more financial pies'. By the 1880s he was a 'considerable' mining investor and, at the turn of the century, held several directorships: he was chairman (1897-1912) of Goldsbrough, Mort & Co. Ltd, the Australian Mutual Provident Society's Victorian branch (1899-1912), the Perpetual Executors & Trustee Association (1895-1912) and the London Guarantee & Accident Co. Ltd. As one of the auditors of the National Bank, in 1870 Zeal had resisted pressure to temper criticism of management; later, as a director (1883-1912), he helped to devise a reconstruction scheme which kept the bank from going under in the crash of 1893. He was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, London, and a Prahran city councillor (1879-82).
A dapper little figure with sandy hair and beard, Zeal delivered peppery speeches, sprinkled with 'sharp, staccato rebukes', in a 'pleasant and musical tenor'. Although known for acts of private generosity, he was intensely self-contained and had few intimates. His recreations were solitary: walking and collecting art. Melbourne Punch characterized him in 1905 as living 'in a shell detached from the rest of mankind'.
Zeal died at his Toorak home on 11 March 1912 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £74,804. He left his art collection to the Bendigo Art Gallery and made provision for a charitable trust.