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Gray, George Wilkie (1844–1924)

by Betty Crouchley

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

George Gray, n.d.

George Gray, n.d.

private collection, courtesy, family of Alice O’Donnell

George Wilkie Gray (1844-1924), businessman, was born on 3 August 1844 in Sydney, son of Alexander Gray, licensed victualler, and his wife Margaret, née Hall. Leaving school early he studied accountancy at night and went in 1863 to Queensland where he was a clerk at Ipswich until made manager of the Brisbane branch of Clarke, Hodgson & Co., merchants, in 1867. Becoming friendly with Michael Quinlan, a mercantile shipping agent, he joined Quinlan Donnelly & Co. shortly before marrying on 11 February 1871 Mrs Quinlan's niece Maria Emma Boulderson, with his cousin C. S. Mein as witness.

After Quinlan died in 1878 Mrs Quinlan made Gray managing partner in the renamed Quinlan Gray & Co. They ratified an agreement made before Quinlan's death, with E. and N. Fitzgerald of Victoria, to establish a brewery at Milton. The two businesses amalgamated in 1887 into a public company, Castlemaine Brewery and Quinlan Gray & Co. Brisbane Ltd, Gray being managing director until 1924. The Fourex brew was introduced in 1916 and the company restricted its interests to the liquor trade. E. G. Theodore appointed Gray, who was regarded as a good employer, to the Brewing Malting and Distilling Industry Board in 1916.

Gray the entrepreneur had 'coined money' with his schooner Monarch and other vessels on the Ipswich-Moreton Bay run from 1866 to 1872. Other investments included Barron River cedar, coastal shipping, the Bendigo pottery, land in Melbourne and Brisbane, hotel properties, mining, cotton growing and, in 1867-1907, the sugar industry. He was managing director of the Queensland Sugar Company Ltd and advocated 'Kanaka' labour. Innovative and receptive to new ideas, he installed the first telephone in Queensland in 1880, and pioneered the use of artesian bores. Chairman of directors of the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd (Queensland) and the Daily Mail, he held directorships in the Queensland National Bank, Millaquin Sugar Co., Queensland Insurance Co. Ltd, and Queensland Trustees Ltd. Many of the politicians and commercial leaders whom he entertained at his Hamilton home, Eldernell, were his business partners: a member of the Queensland Club from 1871, he had a talent for friendship as well as business.

A convert to Roman Catholicism, Gray was trustee and adviser to the Sisters of Mercy on their sugar lands and Brisbane properties and also a trustee of the Hospital for Sick Children, Brisbane. The Sisters found him a man of 'large hearted generosity' especially towards causes concerned with children; for many years at Christmas he gave a present to every child in the Nudgee orphanage. The controversy over the extension of scholarship benefits to Catholic schools led to his joining a private deputation to the premier in 1899.

While Gray's primary concerns were not with politics, he was a member of the Legislative Council from August 1894 until its abolition in 1921. When Dickson appointed him minister without portfolio in October 1898 a storm of protest resulted, mainly from opponents of over-representation of business interests; to J. T. Bell Gray was 'a mere sprat thrown out to catch the Roman Catholic vote'. In the subsequent Philp ministry until 1903 as an adviser on commercial matters, he was a proponent of States' rights and blamed the Commonwealth for the government's financial troubles. Too conservative for the 'Lib-Lab' coalition, Gray led council opposition to Kidston, became disillusioned with Denham because his handling of the Liquor Bill 'injured our vested interests and favoured the Labour party', and made his last speech in November 1917 opposing Ryan's Sugar Prices Act amendment bill.

A slightly built energetic man, Gray was a liberal patron of sport, particularly athletics, bicycling, sailing and cricket. He played in the first two intercolonial cricket matches between Queensland and New South Wales in 1864-65 and in the first match at the Brisbane Cricket Ground, of which he was honorary treasurer and later a trustee.

Gray died on 24 September 1924 at Eldernell and was buried in Nudgee cemetery. His first wife had died in 1916 and he married in Sydney in 1919 a widow, Lilian Eleanor MacDonnell, daughter of Patrick Perkins. She and two sons of his first marriage survived him. Having assigned his life insurance policies to the Sisters of Mercy, enabling them to build the Mater Children's Hospital, he left to relatives his estate valued for probate in Queensland at £37,268.

Select Bibliography

  • Fifty Years in Retrospect: the Story of Castlemaine Perkins Ltd (1887-1937) (Brisb, 1937)
  • D. Jones, Hurricane Lamps and Blue Umbrellas (Cairns, 1973)
  • H. J. Summers, They Crossed the River (Brisb, 1979)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Queensland), 1889, 4, p 184, 352
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, Queensland), 1898, p 758
  • Commercial Publishing Co. of Sydney, Ltd, Annual Review of Queensland, vol 1 (1902), no 1
  • Fourex News, Mar, Aug 1976
  • Queenslander, 22 Oct 1898, 27 Sept 1924
  • SCT/T259, 1035/1888 (Queensland State Archives)
  • family papers.

Citation details

Betty Crouchley, 'Gray, George Wilkie (1844–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gray-george-wilkie-6463/text11067, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 September 2017.

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

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