Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Drysdale, William (1838–1902)

by R. C. Sharman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

This is a shared entry with:

DRYSDALE BROTHERS: William (1838-1902), businessman, George Russell (1854?-1909), pastoralist and planter, and John (1847-1928), engineer and planter were born in Scotland, sons of John Drysdale of Kilrie, town clerk of Kirkcaldy, Fife, and his wife Mary, née Carstairs. The brothers were educated at Merchiston Castle School, Edinburgh. William entered a lawyer's office but soon left to replace his father as deputy-sheriff of Lanarkshire and for some years farmed the family estate at Kilrie. In 1868 he married Georgina Begbie; they had three sons and one daughter. John graduated as a civil engineer from the University of Edinburgh; he supervised the building of a railway in Devonshire and later another for the King of Siam. George arrived in Victoria in 1875. He joined his uncle George Russell who made him manager of South Thononga station on the Lachlan River. Another brother, Alexander Leslie, migrated to Victoria in 1877 and with George managed South Thononga until it was sold in 1883 for £175,000.

William arrived in Melbourne in 1883 as resident director of the New Zealand and Australian Land Co. He had gained a large holding in it after the failure of the City of Glasgow Bank in 1878 when he was appointed a director of the company formed to liquidate the bank's assets and of the reconstructed N.Z. & A.L. Co. which owed the bank some £2,200,000. In Australia William soon extended the Drysdale family interests. With his brother George and Edmond Young in 1883 he bought Bynya station in the Riverina and in May negotiated the purchase of Pioneer, a freehold sugar plantation on the Burdekin River, Queensland. A partnership was formed including William, George, Alexander and Arthur Drysdale, Young and John Bell, while shares were held in trust for members of the Russell and Tullis families; the venture was partly financed by the Australian Mortgage Land and Finance Co.

William visited Pioneer in August and then left for England. Appointed inspector for the A.M.L. & F. Co. in 1884, he returned to Melbourne in the Khedive in March 1885 with his wife and children. Young, now general manager of the A.M.L. & F. Co. in London, had hoped to strengthen it by the addition of the Drysdale interests, but William could not agree with the Melbourne manager, and Young soon decided that William's popularity in the card-rooms of Melbourne's leading clubs militated against proper management. His appointment was not renewed and he returned to Scotland in 1889. In 1891 he went to Melbourne as superintendent of the Union Mortgage and Agency Co.; four years later he left to join its London board. In 1898 he returned to Melbourne where he joined the board of the Union Mortgage and its affiliated company, the Australian Estates and Mortgage Co. Through his influence the Kalamia, Airdmillan and Seaforth sugar properties were bought by Australian Estates from the Australian and New Zealand Mortgage Co. Ltd. He died on 17 December 1902 at Prahran.

George, as the resident managing partner at Pioneer, supervised the building of the mill and began to irrigate the plantation; the mill's first sugar was crushed on 5 August 1884. He remained on the property until 1891 when he became pastoral inspector for the A.M.L. & F. Co. In 1902 he went to England where he lived at Walton-on-Thames, Surrey. He died on 5 August 1909 at Dunfermline. He was survived by his wife Mary, George Russell's daughter, whom he had married on 22 March 1888; they had two sons and a daughter; the artist, Sir George Russell Drysdale, is a grandson.

John arrived in Queensland in 1886 and, although not a member of the company, decided to join George in managing Pioneer. Despite the plantation's precarious finances he introduced many innovations. He extended the irrigation system, developing his own method of multiple spear pumping. He persuaded the company to adopt several machine inventions patented by Pioneer's consulting engineer, Henry Braby. To transport cane from the fields to the mill he built tramways which were later linked with the railway to Townsville. In 1895 he lit the mill with electricity and began to sell most of the production as raw sugar to the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. By 1899 he was virtually in sole control of Pioneer. In 1910 he bought 1280 acres (518 ha) on the Burdekin River, a shrewd buy which enabled him to bargain for government concessions to build a mill for the subdivided Inkerman sugar estates. He completed the mill in 1913. On 25 September 1914 Pioneer Sugar Mills Ltd took over the Pioneer and Inkerman mills, with John as a director. Drysdale Brothers retained ownership of the surrounding tenant farms and unsold freehold land.

Purposeful and able, blunt in speech and reticent in his own and the company's affairs, John ran his mill with a certain ruthless paternalism. To ensure an increasing supply of cane he bound farmers to him by long-term agreements and high payments. To obstruct attempts to build a rival co-operative mill in the district, he gave generous and often unfettered credit to farmers who supplied him regularly. By 1920 his direct assistance to local farmers totalled some £108,000; by 1927 over £300,000 was owed to him, though it limited the company's annual divided to 5 per cent. Intolerant of government interference in the sugar milling business, he opposed trade union action, arbitration courts and price regulations and at first even suspected the Australian Sugar Producers' Association. At 57 he had married Georgina Selina Rose in England. She was living there when he died on 12 May 1928 at the Scottish Private Hospital, Paddington, Sydney. His remains were interred in Glasgow. He left an estate worth £81,700. A memorial is at Ayr, Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • M. J. Fox (ed), The History of Queensland, vol 3 (Brisb, 1923)
  • R. Connolly, John Drysdale and the Burdekin (Syd, 1964)
  • J. D. Bailey, A Hundred Years of Pastoral Banking (Oxford, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1889, vol 4, 242
  • Royal Commission into the Sugar Industry of Australia, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1912, vol 3
  • 1035
  • G. R. Drysdale, Will file 45/1911 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

R. C. Sharman, 'Drysdale, William (1838–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/drysdale-william-3446/text5255, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (MUP), 1972

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