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McBeath, Sir William George (1865–1931)

by Margaret Vines

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir William George McBeath (1865-1931), merchant, was born on 17 April 1865 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, son of David Francis McBeath, a Protestant draper from Belfast, and his Melbourne-born wife Elizabeth, née Blay. He was educated at Nelson College, New Zealand, returning to Melbourne to become a commercial traveller. On 10 January 1889 he married Annie McHutchison at St Kilda. Next year he became Melbourne agent for the London silk firm of M. Makower & Co. When they opened a Melbourne branch he became manager, then partner, and finally managing director of Makower, McBeath & Co. Pty Ltd. A constant traveller, McBeath built the firm into a leading wholesale warehouse with branches in Sydney, Adelaide, Brisbane and New Zealand. In 1925 he resigned in favour of his son George to become chairman of directors.

McBeath was involved in local government as a councillor of Boroondara Shire and Camberwell City in 1890-1917, being four times president or mayor. Appointed in 1911 to the board of commissioners of the State Savings Bank of Victoria, he became its chairman from 1918 until his death. Under his leadership the bank made housing loans widely available and established its own building department to design and supervise the erection of low-cost housing, including forty-five acres (18 ha) as a 'garden city' at Fishermen's Bend, Port Melbourne. In 1927 a 'bank where you work scheme' was introduced.

During World War I McBeath was a principal business adviser to the Commonwealth Department of Defence. Public pressure after some spectacular pay-embezzlement scandals, as well as obvious overspending on defence equipment, forced the Hughes government to appoint a royal commission on navy and defence administration in July 1917. McBeath was chairman, with Sydney retailer J. Chalmers and Adelaide merchant F. A. Verco the other members. Their report was presented in four parts between December 1917 and March 1918. Though recognizing the extreme stress under which the Defence Department had been operating, the report found 'muddle, waste and fraud' and 'chaos in pay offices', and drew attention to a lack of accountancy and business training. Its main recommendations, adopted by the government, involved a complete restructure of defence supply and support, removing them from military control and establishing a three-member central board of business administration. During the reorganization McBeath acted as an honorary member of this board.

Financial adviser to the Commonwealth during the demobilization of the Australian Imperial Force in 1919 and chairman of the A.I.F. Disposals Board in London in 1919-20, McBeath was appointed C.B.E. in 1918 and K.B.E. in 1920. In 1924 the Bruce-Page government sent him as delegate to the League of Nations in Geneva, and he advised the government in 1925 on revision of income tax.

Behind the scenes, McBeath became a powerful figure in the National Party during the 1920s as a member of the National Union, the financing body. He had probably been a member of the Constitutional Union, a predecessor from 1910, and was one of the select inner group of fund-raisers listed by the National Union's founder Herbert Brookes. By 1925 McBeath was chairman of the union and a highly respected figure in the party. Reverses in the 1924 Victorian elections caused him to launch a 'revival' under the slogan 'Insurance against Bolshevism', seeking members, funds and new branches to secure the re-election of Prime Minister Bruce.

This successful campaign encouraged McBeath to apply pressure on Bruce for the deportation of Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson of the Australian Seamen's Union. When the High Court ruled against deportation, McBeath is said to have cut short his Hawaiian holiday to press Bruce to draft amending legislation. Bruce, however, refused even to let him see the draft bill, withstanding McBeath's threats of reprisals. This tendency of the National Union and its leaders to play a more conspicuously dominating role was manifested in Victorian politics in the same period. According to a rare article on this secretive body, in Smith's Weekly in 1926, McBeath was the leading member of the four-man executive of the National Union, whose policies and personnel came to dominate the supposedly independent National Federation between 1925 and 1928. In 1928 the National Union favourite Sir William McPherson became premier of Victoria; the Age asserted that the 'Big Four' in the National Union were running Victorian politics.

McBeath's business success was reflected in his large houses at Canterbury and later at Toorak and Mount Macedon; his membership of the Melbourne, Australian, Yorick, Royal Melbourne Golf and Victoria Racing clubs; and his frequent travel overseas. He was an honorary consul for Japan, director of some minor firms and chairman of directors of the Bankers and Traders' Insurance Co. of Victoria. He made occasional benefactions and was credited with 'surreptitious generosity'.

McBeath died on 2 April 1931 of empyema and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His funeral was impressively attended by Nationalist and business associates headed by Bruce. McBeath's wife, son and two daughters survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £54,304 and he also held substantial property in New Zealand.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Craddock and M. Cavanough, 125 Years (Melb, 1967)
  • Royal Commission on Navy Defence Administration, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1917-19, 4 (105)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5, 16, 22 Feb 1918, 4 Apr 1931
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 20 Feb, 6 Mar 1926
  • Age (Melbourne), 18 Apr 1927, 10 Nov 1928
  • M. Vines, The Instability of Governments and Parties in Victoria in the 1920s (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1975).

Citation details

Margaret Vines, 'McBeath, Sir William George (1865–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcbeath-sir-william-george-7294/text12651, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 10 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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