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George, William James (1853–1931)

by Toby Manford

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

William James George (1853-1931), engineer and politician, was born on 26 January 1853 at West Bromwich, Staffordshire, England, son of Henry Wellington George, draper, and his wife Eleanor, née Sheldon. He studied mechanical engineering at the Birmingham and Midland Counties Institute and later worked as an iron merchant and bicycle maker. In 1884 he travelled widely and settled in Victoria where, next year, he joined Neil McNeil & Co., public works contractors. He helped build several Tasmanian and Victorian railways and sections of the Watts River aqueduct, Victoria. At Casterton, on 3 June 1891 he married Mary Ann Nelson.

George had moved to Western Australia in December 1890 to manage the firm's Jarrahdale timber station and Perth water-works. Later general manager, he built the Jarrahdale Junction to Bunbury and the Mullewa railways and Victoria reservoir. In 1894, with William Smith, he established in Perth the Black Swan Foundry, which flourished. He was elected to the Perth Municipal Council in 1894. From 1899 he was chairman of the Chamber of Manufactures; he chaired the campaign committee for the National Political League in 1900 and was secretary of the National Liberal League of Western Australia in 1910.

In 1895 George had won the seat of Murray in the Legislative Assembly and held it for three terms. He opposed Sir John Forrest's and George Leake's governments, undermining them by constant, well-publicized criticisms of railway policy. George felt that he was the only one fighting against the whole House, and that this had been 'as hot a time as any man ever had', an experience he 'would sooner die' than repeat. He had been on two royal commissions on the government railways. Retiring from parliament and the foundry in 1902, after considerable controversy he became commissioner of railways.

Energetic, able, and strong-minded, George was well suited for the post and the (Sir) W. H. James ministry believed that, as a self-confident outsider with strong local connexions, he would prove an impartial adviser at a time when the State's financial policy was in the balance. But George was harried by subordinates and the government failed to relinquish, as planned, the power to make important policy decisions, creating an uneasy position of dual control. Nor would cabinet determine whether railways should be run on commercial principles (at least meeting interest repayments) or, as in the past, as a medium for development. George was unpopular because of tactlessness and 'a disposition to autocracy' and some mistrusted him because of the allegations of fraud over the carriage of goods for the Perth Ice Co. Criticisms were constant in parliament and the press. Despite lack of power to make substantial reforms, he managed to improve railway administration: traffic grew, mileage increased from about 1356 (2182 km) to over 1800 (2900 km), working expenses fell and a start was made in reconciling the commercial and developmental role of railways.

In 1907 George retired and took up farming but two years later returned to parliament, again representing Murray. In 1916-17 he was minister for works and trading concerns under Frank Wilson and in 1917-24 held works and water supply. His experience and independent judgment were valued and, as departmental head and chairman of various committees, his contribution to the State's expansion proved invaluable. With Sir James Mitchell, he saw an active entrepreneurial role for the State—unlike their more conservative colleagues. In 1920 George organized the Prince of Wales's tour, and ensured that he received maximum political benefit in his own constituency from the royal visit. He was appointed C.M.G. next year but in 1922 the mayor of Perth complained publicly of his 'despotic attitude' and use of 'bluff, bounce and bluster'.

George left parliament in 1930. He died on 10 March 1931 and was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £17,888. He was survived by his wife, a daughter and two sons—a third had been killed at the landing at Gallipoli. There is a rose window in memory of the Georges in Christ Church Anglican church, Claremont.

Select Bibliography

  • P. W. H. Thiel and Co., Twentieth Century Impressions of Western Australia (Perth, 1901)
  • Truthful Thomas, Through the Spy-Glass (Perth, 1905)
  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • Duke of Windsor, A King's Story (NY, 1947)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1902, 2 (25)
  • Australasian Hardware and Machinery, 1 Sept 1902
  • West Australian, 11 Mar 1931
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 15 Mar 1931
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 Mar 1931
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Mar 1922
  • T. Manford, A History of Rail Transport Policy in Western Australia, 1870-1911 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Australia).

Citation details

Toby Manford, 'George, William James (1853–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/george-william-james-6297/text10859, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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