William Overton, the son of Thomas Overton and his wife Mary, nee Lawrence, was baptised at the Wrangle Parish Church, Lincolnshire, England on 15 December 1812. He arrived at Hobart, Van Diemen's Land in 1832 as an ordinary seaman. Five years later he crossed Bass Strait on the 142 ton steamer "James Watt" and arrived at Melbourne in late September 1837. His fellow passengers on the voyage included William Buckley making a return trip to Port Phillip.
On the 1st November 1837 he and John Gunn bought a half-acre allotment from the Government. This cost £ 22 and was located in Collins Street, between Swanston and Elizabeth Streets. On this site he built a wattle-and-daub hut in which he opened a bakery business. Shortly afterwards he entered into partnership with a confectioner named David Hill as Overton & Hill. According to Garryowen their advertising stated "Overton and Hill, Bakers, Confectioners, Rusk and Fancy Biscuit Makers, Ready to Receive Orders for Wedding, Dinner, and Supper Cakes, Dressed Dishes, Pasties, Patties, Supplies, &c."
It was not long before William found a wife, for on 28 August 1838 the local Congregational Minister, Rev. William Waterfield, wrote in his journal "This morning I repaired to church and united in the bands of wedlock two parties, Edward Mawney Sayers to Anna Tyrrell and William Overton to Elizabeth James Rule. It went off very quiet, saying it was the first time our denomination had celebrated marriage in Port Phillip. The parties spent the day together. We had 12 to breakfast and 20 to dinner. Had an excursion by water up the river to Mr. Gardiner's station. At night I dismissed the party as they were getting too noisy and began to sing songs." The following year their first child was born. The Wesleyan registers state "Elizabeth, daughter of William and Elizabeth Overton, Baker, born 25 June 1839 and baptised 7th September 1839 by the Rev. Francis Tuckfield."
It was claimed that Overton and Hill was the first wholesale and retail confectionery business in Melbourne, and that many of the early settlers got their first buns and lollies there. The business appears to have flourished until the untimely death of David Hill one Saturday evening in January 1840. He had been on his way to his station when the horse drawing his cart bolted and he was thrown out onto the ground with great force and broke his neck. Thereafter William Overton continued the business on his own and in time moved into larger premises in Swanston Street.
In Swanston Street, Overton eventually had two adjoining shops, one being a bakery and the other a confectionery. It was at these premises that great excitement was aroused on the evening of 23 July 1849 when gas was used to light the shops. He had a complete gasworks built on his premises, designed and built by Collingwood blacksmith, George South, who had been experimenting for some years with the idea of perfecting a system of gas lighting. For a while Overton's two gas-lit shops were one of the sights of Melbourne, and, needless to say, he profited greatly.
Claims that these were the first gas-lit premises in Melbourne were met with a counter-claim that some years earlier a watchmaker named William Patterson had installed a gasometer at the rear of his shop in Collins Street. He used this to fuel a revolving light in the shop window, consisting of five gas burners. However, after a few weeks it became apparent that there was a small leakage of gas so it was turned off. As he was planning to retire from business he decided not to go to the expense of finding and repairing the leak.
Overton's successful experiment was followed by a general desire on the part of the leading shop-keepers to have a new gas light installed, and in order to realise this he invited a number of gentlemen to his house to discuss a scheme for supplying the city with gas, instructing Francis Dawe Wickham, solicitor, to prepare the necessary prospectus. This resulted in the formation of the first Melbourne Gas Company, of which Rev. John Allen was appointed Secretary and William Overton one of the preliminary directors. Some of the proposed rules not being to his liking, he soon withdrew from office. Despite the interest, it was not until the mid 1850's that Melbourne's streets were lit by gas. Prior to this oil was used for the street lights.
Following the arrival of the ship "Lysander" at Melbourne on 11 November 1850 with news that the Port Phillip District had been granted separation from New South Wales, celebrations included having all the shops in Melbourne illuminate their premises on the evening of Wednesday, 13 November 1850, from 8.00 pm. Overton's premises responded with a display in gas lights depicting "V.R." with a crown in the centre, throwing out a brilliant flame and having a beautiful effect.
In later life William and Elizabeth Overton spent many years at Clifton Hill, which was where they were in 1888 when they celebrated their golden wedding anniversary, having been married in 1838 in the early days of the Port Phillip settlement.
William Overton died on 3 November 1898 at Northcote, aged 86 years, survived by several of his children who resided in and around Melbourne. His obituary claimed that he had also built the first glass-works in the colony at Rokeby-street, Collingwood. Little is known about this but Garryowen says that Mr. W. Overton of Collingwood exhibited a very pretty glass bottle at the Second Exhibition of the Victorian Agricultural Society in the Botanical Gardens on 30 October 1850.
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