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Gillespie, Sir Robert Winton (1865–1945)

by Keith Amos

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sir Robert Winton Gillespie (1865-1945), flour-miller, was born on 3 July 1865 at St Kilda, Melbourne, fourth son of Scottish parents, George Gillespie, produce and grain merchant, and his wife Margaret, née Thompson. Educated privately he then worked for Gibbs, Bright & Co., merchants, later becoming a flour-miller. At Brighton on 11 November 1903 he married Jessie Jean Binnie. He moved to Sydney to join his brothers John and George in Gillespie Bros & Co. (later Gillespie Bros Ltd), proprietors of the Anchor Flour Mills.

For over thirty years Gillespie's main business interest was in flour-milling: he was chairman of the N.S.W. Flour Millers Produce Co. Ltd in 1909-19, and a director of Pardey & Co. Ltd, Temora, and M. McLeod Ltd, Wellington, and in the 1920s, chairman of the National Export Committee. Chairman of the Flour Millowner's Association of New South Wales in 1939-45, he was a founder and chairman of the N.S.W. Flour Millers' Trade Council in 1942-45. He told the 1919 royal commission into the George Georgeson wheat contract that he had advised the minister William Grahame to get rid of the inferior wheat (sold to Georgeson) as it was rapidly deteriorating. In 1923 he became a director of the Bank of New South Wales and influenced its expansion into the wheat-growing areas of Western Australia. He was also a director of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. (1929-40), and the Queensland Insurance Co. Ltd, as well as chairman of Ball & Welch Ltd, Melbourne softgoods merchants.

A staunch Presbyterian, Gillespie was influenced by the Scottish tradition of support for kirk and school, inculcated by his parents. He was an elder of Wahroonga Presbyterian Church, a director of the Scottish Hospital, chairman of the council and benefactor of the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Pymble, and in 1924 a founder, benefactor and first chairman of the council of Knox Grammar School. He also founded a Presbyterian Church educational trust with an initial gift of £9000, gave generously to St Andrew's College, University of Sydney, and donated the Deissmann collection of ostraca to the university's Nicholson Museum of Antiquities. An active board-member of the Burnside Presbyterian Orphan Homes, he was also a founder of the Fairbridge Farm Schools in New South Wales. He was a founder and president of the Avondale Golf Club, Pymble—golf was his main leisure interest.

Alarmed by the Depression and the election of Jack Lang's government, in November 1930 Gillespie became chairman of the central committee of 'the Movement' or Old Guard, founded by a vigilante group of businessmen, ex-officers and graziers, including (Sir) Philip Goldfinch, Lieutenant-Colonel George Somerville and Brigadier General James Heane. Although prepared to act forcibly to maintain essential services and defend property rights in crisis involving disorder, it melted quietly away after Lang's dismissal by the governor Sir Philip Game.

In 1937 Gillespie attended the ninth congress of the International Chamber of Commerce in Berlin and later expressed pro-Fascist sympathies. In November he succeeded Sir Thomas Buckland as president of the Bank of New South Wales. For ten years he had worked closely with its general manager (Sir) Alfred Davidson, but now tried to exercise more control over him, particularly in staff appointments, and there was increasing friction between them. Gillespie was knighted in 1941 and retired as president of the bank in 1945.

Gillespie died at his Wahroonga home on 2 August 1945 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by his wife and an adopted daughter. His estate was valued for probate at £232,601 in New South Wales and £33,173 in Victoria, a figure not accepted by the commissioner of taxation. An appeal by his executors to have the death duties reduced by the amount levied on the R. W. Gillespie Trust was upheld in 1951 by the Privy Council.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Campbell, The Rallying Point (Melb, 1965)
  • R. F. Holder, Bank of New South Wales: A History, vol 2 (Syd, 1970)
  • K. Amos, The New Guard Movement 1931-1935 (Melb, 1976)
  • P. J. Cochrane, Industrialization and Dependence (Brisb, 1980)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Aug, 27 Nov 1937, 12 June 1941, 26 Mar, 3 Aug 1945, 19 Aug, 17 Dec 1949, 12 Dec 1951
  • Chief General Manager, correspondence file GM/302/361 (Bank of New South Wales Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

Keith Amos, 'Gillespie, Sir Robert Winton (1865–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gillespie-sir-robert-winton-6385/text10911, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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