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Bolton, William Robert Fossey (Bill) (1905–1973)

by Deborah Tranter

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

William Robert Fossey (Bill) Bolton (1905-1973), transport operator and philanthropist, was born on 24 May 1905 at Taringa, Queensland, second of five children and eldest son of Henry Fossey Bolton, an Irish-born telegraphist and later postmaster, and his Queensland-born wife Flora Grace, née MacKay. Bolton's first name was registered as Willie; later he used William and was known as Bill. His primary education took place in Brisbane and at Charleville, Stanthorpe and Toowoomba as his father was regularly transferred by the Post Office. Henry committed suicide in his Toowoomba home in 1918 and was found by his 12-year-old son. The family's financial situation became difficult, but (with a scholarship) Bolton was able to commence his secondary education at Toowoomba Grammar School, becoming a boarder in 1918 when his mother returned to her family at Chinchilla. Having obtained a public service pass in the 1920 junior examination, he joined the Lands Department in Brisbane as a junior clerk and studied accountancy part time, qualifying in 1928.

He returned to Toowoomba in 1935 to establish his own accountancy practice, and on 1 June at Sandgate, with Presbyterian forms, married Marion Isabel Salisbury. With Percy Redman as partner, Bolton purchased a transport business, registered as Redmans Transport on 24 June 1943. The enterprise proved successful, largely due to lucrative contracts with Paul's Dairy Co.

A fervent nationalist who admired the values of Australia's bush pioneers, in 1948 Bolton renamed his business Cobb & Co. Redman Transport after Australia's legendary coaching firm founded by Freeman Cobb. Although the original company had gone into liquidation in 1929, Gordon Studdert, its last secretary, retained the name and threatened legal action. A settlement was reached in 1954 with Bolton acquiring the name, which was later also used on his extensive motor coach service operating throughout the eastern States.

In Queensland, the end of World War II provided unparalleled opportunities for road transport, while the railways were burdened with ageing rolling stock and strikes. Between 1948 and 1950 Bolton and Redman bought new, larger trucks and registered several subsidiary transport companies to serve southern Queensland. Conflict ensued, with the Nicklin government determined to re-establish a viable rail transport system. In 1957 Bolton purchased two transport companies in New South Wales and began border hopping to circumvent payment of new licensing fees using Section 92 of the Australian Constitution. The government reacted by cancelling the licence of Downs Transport, a Cobb & Co subsidiary. The battle between Bolton and (Sir) Gordon Chalk, minister for transport, was fierce and personal. Protracted legal and political conflict was finally resolved in the Queensland government's favour by the Privy Council in 1966. That year Bolton was appointed M.B.E. His challenge to the right of the States to collect excise in licence fees eventually made possible a successful 1997 New South Wales case against State tobacco licence fees, which added to the need to introduce a goods and services tax in 2000 to replace such revenue.

Never forgetting the charity his family received, Bolton was generous in his support of others. He provided bursaries to country children to attend private schools, funds to establish the Blue Nursing Service at Toowoomba, and an oval at Toowoomba Grammar School. He greatly admired Rev. John Flynn and was a life member of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. In 1963 he raised £26,000 for the service, organizing and funding a three-month Cobb & Co. coach journey from Port Douglas to Melbourne along original coaching routes. He lured fast bowler Ray Lindwall north to play cricket by a job with Cobb & Co.

Bolton was an associate of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries, the Australian Association of Accountants and the Institute of Transport. With his shock of pure white hair, his cardigans, his Mackay clan woollen tartan ties, nicotine-stained fingers and characteristic growl he was easily recognized. He became a foundation member of the Queensland branch of the Society of St Andrew of Scotland, and corresponded with the Scottish poet Will Ogilvie. After the poet's death in 1963 the family sent Bolton the whip and tail from the horse that Ogilvie had ridden while droving in Australia.

Possessing an encyclopaedic knowledge of Australian history, art and literature, Bolton developed extensive collections of each. With the support of the Lindsay family he established the Lionel Lindsay Art Gallery and Library in Toowoomba, opened by the prime minister (Sir) Robert Menzies in 1959. Bolton's Australiana Museum and Garden of Remembrance, including his collection of twenty-eight original, horse-drawn vehicles available for fund-raising, was opened in 1965.

The strain of the conflict with the State government and the decision to award costs against Cobb & Co. Ltd affected Bolton's health. He suffered a stroke in 1968 and was forced to retire from business. He died on 3 August 1973 at Toowoomba, survived by his wife, two of their three sons and by two daughters, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His collections were donated to public institutions and are displayed in the Cobb & Co. Museum and the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Hazlehurst, Gordon Chalk (Toowoomba, Qld, 1987)
  • D. Tranter, Cobb & Co. (Brisb, 1990)
  • The Lionel Lindsay Collection, exhibition catalogue (Brisb, 1991)
  • D. Tranter and J. Powell, Cobb & Co. Museum (Brisb, 1992)
  • B. MacAuley, Celebrating Bill Bolton’s Vision of Australia (Toowoomba, Qld, 2001)
  • M. French, Bill Bolton’s Toowoomba (Toowoomba, Qld, 2001)
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 22 Oct 1960, p 3, 17 Apr 1965, p 4, 6 Aug 1973, 6 June 1983
  • Bolton papers (Cobb & Co. Museum, Toowoomba, Queensland)
  • private information.

Citation details

Deborah Tranter, 'Bolton, William Robert Fossey (Bill) (1905–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bolton-william-robert-fossey-bill-12809/text23119, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 November 2018.

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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