Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Anderson, Sir William Hewson (1897–1968)

by Robert Murray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

William Anderson, n.d.

William Anderson, n.d.

photo supplied by Jenni Wright

Sir William Hewson Anderson (1897-1968), businessman and political organizer, was born on 13 March 1897 at Petersham, Sydney, son of native-born parents William Addison Smyth Anderson, student, and his wife Jane, née Thompson, late Corbett. Robert Henry was his brother. Young William grew up in New South Wales at Cooma, Bowenfels, Liverpool and Arncliffe while his father (who had been ordained a Presbyterian minister) moved from parish to parish and was for a time a gaol chaplain. Educated at Fort Street Boys' High School, Anderson enrolled at the University of Sydney in 1914, but gave up his studies to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force in August 1916. He served as a gunner in the 4th Divisional Ammunition Column and then with the 10th Field Artillery Brigade on the Western Front where he was twice wounded in action. The war left him with a slight but permanent deafness, and was a traumatic experience which influenced the rest of his life.

Having been discharged in May 1919, Anderson worked briefly for Queensland Insurance Co. in Sydney and in 1920 joined the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd as an audit clerk. He resumed studies part time at the University of Sydney and graduated with honours (B.Ec., 1920). On 22 April 1922 he married Elizabeth Catherine Shea in the Arncliffe Presbyterian Church; they were to have three children. Sent as chief accountant to Shell's New Zealand company in 1925, he became assistant manager in 1930. Anderson transferred to the Australian head office in 1933 and Melbourne became his permanent home. In 1935 he was promoted chief accountant and in 1950 became assistant general manager. When Shell established an Australian board in 1951, he was appointed a director. In addition to being the chief accounting and financial executive of Shell Australia from 1935 until he retired in 1957, he was a director of several subsidiary companies of the Shell group.

Anderson was one of the most prominent of thousands of people, often ex-servicemen, who became active in public life in the early years of World War II because of dissatisfaction with both the Australian Labor Party and the United Australia Party. He disliked Labor not only for its socialism and pacifist streak, but also because in the years of the Hitler-Stalin pact he judged Labor to be subject to communist influence through the left-wing unions. Yet, he also despaired of the U.A.P. which was internally divided and at odds with the Country Party; furthermore, he thought that the U.A.P. was excessively influenced by big business and almost non-existent at the local branch level.

With some friends, Anderson formed a protest conservative group called the Services and Citizens' Party, one of several 'splinter' bodies of the right which appeared in the early 1940s. It demanded a greater role for ordinary non-Labor citizens, as well as relief for ex-servicemen who had been unemployed or who were economically tied to depressed farms. After the splinter parties won almost 20 per cent of the vote in Victoria at the 1943 Federal elections, Anderson and other representatives of these groups met the U.A.P. leader (Sir) Robert Menzies at Albury in 1944 and agreed to form the Liberal Party.

The Victorian branch of the Liberal Party chose Anderson as its first president (1945-48). He was federal president in 1951-56. In both positions he sought to represent the rank and file of the branches against the parliamentarians. Although he employed occasional bombast against Menzies and other politicians, he formed a friendship with the prime minister with whom he shared much in aspirations and background. Anderson saw his own role as being in the organizational wing and never aspired to a parliamentary career.

A prolific pamphleteer, he articulated a view that was strongly anti-radical and scourged socialists, pacifists, left-leaning churchmen and 'class warfare'. Anderson advocated patriotism, equality of opportunity, social welfare, free enterprise and what would later be known as economic nationalism. He abhorred speculation and sharp business practices, and hoped that manual workers, among whom he grew up, would vote Liberal. Tending to see things in sharp black and white, he had a flair for torrid phrases, as when he attacked the 'red ants' who remained in the public service from the 1941-49 Labor governments.

He also disliked and distrusted the Country Party, and opposed its 1948 proposal to ban the Communist Party of Australia. When the 40-hour week was being discussed, he recommended shorter working hours allied to greater productivity. As a supporter of the move by Premier John Cain and Opposition leader Thomas Hollway to break the power of the Country Party (derived from the unequal electoral distribution of the 1930s and 1940s), Anderson was propelled in 1952 into a liaison with the State Labor Party. He supported the Catholic-oriented A.L.P. industrial groups and deplored sectarianism during the excitement in 1954 of the Labor Party split. From 1955 the government of (Sir) Henry Bolte fulfilled many of Anderson's hopes.

While the extreme left portrayed him as a sinister figure—a representative of international big business behind Menzies—Anderson usually took pains to keep his business and political activities separate. Clashes of interest, however, did arise, such as over petrol price control. Some colleagues regarded his outspoken political role as an embarrassment to the company, but his seniors in Shell accepted it. As the Shell executive in charge of personnel after World War II, Anderson put his views favouring the 'plain man' and equal opportunity for all into practice through a staff welfare programme and by ensuring that the company recruited from a wider field than tended to happen at head office before 1939.

When the events required it, Anderson devoted about forty-five minutes in the morning to political affairs; he then cleared his desk and worked for the company for the rest of the day; he generally came home for dinner. His wife and children did not feel that his public life impinged unduly on his time with them. Anderson's highly ordered approach, intense nervous energy, clarity of mind and sheer ability enabled this dense packing of each working day. A staunch Christian conviction, unwavering since his childhood in country manses, was one of his great motivating forces. He was for years an elder of Ewing Memorial Presbyterian Church, East Malvern, and a delegate to the State assembly. Anderson was of a generation which still found no contradiction between a fervent Australian patriotism and a strong sense of Scottishness, including a love of Robert Burns's poetry (his grandfather, a police inspector, had insisted on his grandchildren reading it to him each week).

Wiry and of middle height, bespectacled and plainly dressed, to his critics Anderson appeared moralistic, strict, uncomfortably blunt and a tough political opponent. Others found him a loyal and thoughtful friend, with an attractive, dry sense of humour. Following his retirement, he was a member of the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia from 1959 until his death, federal treasurer (1956-68) of the Liberal Party and president (1960-67) of the (Royal) Dental Hospital of Melbourne which named its new auditorium after him. He belonged to the Athenaeum, the Savage and the Metropolitan Golf clubs. Anderson had been appointed C.B.E. in 1950 and knighted in 1965. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, Sir William died on 25 March 1968 in Wellington, while holidaying in New Zealand, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1966)
  • P. Aimer, Politics, Power and Persuasion (Syd, 1974)
  • Shell Times, 7, no 2, 1968
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20, 21 Nov 1951, 26 June 1965, 26 Mar 1968
  • K. B. White, A Political Biography of Thomas Tuke Hollway (M.A. thesis, La Trobe University, 1975)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'Anderson, Sir William Hewson (1897–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anderson-sir-william-hewson-9360/text16437, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 May 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018