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Larnach was born in the Hunter Region, north of Sydney, Australia, the son of John Larnach, a station owner and Emily (née Mudie). His early work was in farming and gold-digging, but he later gained employment with the Bank of New South Wales, and eventually became a branch manager. He married Eliza Jane Guise in 1859.
In 1866, he took a position as general manager of the Bank of Otago, based in Dunedin, New Zealand. He soon became quite prosperous, gathering large amounts of money through land speculation, farming investments, and a timber business. Between 1873 and 1887, Larnach constructed a large mansion, on the ridge of Otago Peninsula. Originally named "The Camp" by Larnach, it is now known as "Larnach Castle". Larnach himself took up residence in 1874. He was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in the 1879 Birthday Honours.
Although Larnach's property investments performed well, he was less successful in his banking career. The Bank of Otago's decline, which Larnach had been employed to reverse, continued unabated, and the Bank was eventually bought by the National Bank of New Zealand. The new owners were critical of Larnach's management, and accused him of dishonourable dealings — in 1884, this broke out into a public feud.
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Larnach entered politics in 1875, standing in a by-election in the electorate of Caversham. On this occasion, he was defeated by his opponent, Robert Stout. Several months later, however, he was elected to the City of Dunedin electorate. In 1877, at the behest of his South Island colleagues, he introduced a successful no-confidence motion against Harry Atkinson, the Premier of the day. Under the new Premier, George Grey, Larnach was appointed Treasurer (now Minister of Finance). He later undertook a long trip to England to arrange a government loan, although he also took advantage of the opportunity to launch a new business venture, the New Zealand Agricultural Company. Larnach's farming investments were turning sour due to the rabbit problems, and Larnach sought to sell his lands to British investors—this prompted considerable condemnation in New Zealand, as Larnach was seen as trying to deceive the British as to the quality of the investments. The New Zealand Agricultural Company was not a success, and the affair cost Larnach many friends and allies in New Zealand.
With land prices falling and his timber company also suffering, Larnach's financial position was declining. Larnach became depressed, and withdrew from society. He is reported to have begun drinking heavily. He eventually became insolvent, although Larnach Castle and various other assets had been transferred to the ownership of his wife, Eliza, and were therefore spared. In 1880, his wife died, and Larnach married Mary Cockburn Alleyne, her half-sister, in 1882. She died in 1887, and in 1891, he married his third wife, Constance de Bathe Brandon. In 1888, he briefly attempted to restart his career in Melbourne, but returned to Dunedin within a year.
In 1882, Larnach returned to politics, winning the Peninsula electorate in 1883. He devoted considerable effort to seeking government assistance for the New Zealand Agricultural Company. In 1885, he became Minister of Mines in the second Stout–Vogel Ministry. Larnach lost the 1890 election, but became a Member of Parliament again through the Tuapeka electorate in a 1894 by-election. He affiliated himself with the Liberal Party, which was a somewhat surprising decision, given his associations with the business elite that the Liberals opposed.
Larnach's own business dealings, however, were in dire straits. In 1894, he became a director of the Colonial Bank of New Zealand, having previously become a shareholder, but the Bank collapsed the following year. Larnach was on the brink of financial ruin.
Lanarch made an explanation to Parliament on 25 October 1895; saying that being an interested party he refrained from voting on banking legislation. But on that day he mistakenly voted for a third reading of the Banking Act Amendment Bill (which involved the Colonial Bank), thinking he was voting on the following bill, the Horowhenua Block Bill.
In 1898, Larnach locked himself in a committee room at Parliament and shot himself with a revolver. His surviving family fought a battle over his will.
Owen Marshall wrote a novel The Larnarchs (2011), based on the possibility that the tragedy resulted from an affair between Larnarch’s third wife Constance and his youngest son Douglas (Dougie).
- Sinclair, F.R.J. "Larnach, William James Mudie". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 13 April 2015.
- "No. 24726". The London Gazette. 24 May 1879. pp. 3597–3598.
- "Advertisements Column 2". Southland Times (2171). 23 August 1875. p. 2. Retrieved 10 March 2012.
- Scholefield 1950, p. 119.
- Scholefield 1950, p. 37.
- Scholefield 1950, p. 39.
- Hansard, 25 October 1895 page 683
Works by Larnach
- Larnach, William J. M. (1886), Report on the mining industry of New Zealand: being papers laid before Parliament during the session of 1886, Wellington, [N.Z.]: Government Printer
- Larnach, William J. M. (1888), Privilege: Mr. Larnach, M.H.R. and the "New Zealand herald": debate in the House of Representatives on Tuesday 14th August 1888, Wellington, [N.Z.]: n.p.
- Larnach, William J. M. (1896), The Colonial Bank of New Zealand in liquidation, Dunedin, [N.Z.]: Coulls, Culling & Co.
Works about Larnach
- Larnach: the man and his castle: [f]rom a display prepared by the Otago Early Settlers Museum, Dunedin. Curators: Text, Sean G. Brosnahan ; design, John Timmins, Dunedin, [N.Z.]: Otago Early Settlers Museum, 1991
- Dunmore, John (2006), Wild cards: eccentric characters from New Zealand’s past, Auckland, [N.Z.]: New Holland, ISBN 1-86966-132-X
- Foster, Bernard J. (1966), "LARNACH, William James Mudie, C.M.G.", An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock, retrieved 2008-06-01
- Knight, Hardwicke (n.d.), The ordeal of William Larnach, n.p.: n.p.
- Reed, A. H. (1950), Larnach and his castle, Wellington, [N.Z.]: A.H. & A.W. Reed
- Scholefield, Guy (1950) [First ed. published 1913]. New Zealand Parliamentary Record, 1840–1949 (3rd ed.). Wellington: Govt. Printer.
- Sinclair, F. R. J. "Larnach, William James Mudie 1833–1898". Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Retrieved 5 April 2011.
- Snedden, Fleur (1997), King of the castle: a biography of William Larnach, Auckland, [N.Z.]: David Bateman, ISBN 1-86953-353-4
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| Member of Parliament for Peninsula