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McComas, Robert Bond Wesley (1862–1938)

by Ann G. Smith

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

Robert Bond Wesley McComas (1862-1938), merchant, was born on 2 August 1862 at Collingwood, Melbourne, fourth of nine children and second son of Scots-Irish Protestant parents John Wesley McComas (1819-1906), auctioneer, merchant and inventor, and his wife Jane Isabella, née Addey.

McComas senior, born into a Dublin commercial firm, had moved from a classical education designed to fit him for the Church into medical and scientific studies at Trinity College. In 1851 ill health prompted his migration to Victoria. After working on the goldfields he dabbled in a succession of enterprises before establishing in the 1860s the Melbourne auctioneering firm which developed into McComas & Co., factors and importers. The 1864-68 drought destroyed his Riverina squatting ambitions, but his invention, patenting and manufacture of McComas's Prize Water Lifter underwrote his commercial success. His later invention, the McComas Wool Press, continued to be manufactured into the 1930s. A member of the Church of England Assembly and of the Victorian auxiliary of the British & Foreign Bible Society, McComas was over 70 when he retired. He died at his Toorak home on 1 November 1906, leaving his family a legacy of Christian faith and love of learning.

Robert, like all but the youngest of his siblings, was privately educated. He entered McComas & Co. in 1875, moving to the New Zealand Loan & Mercantile Co. in 1880 and in 1882 to William Haughton & Co., formed to take over the general merchandising side of his father's company. A quiet man, McComas engaged little in social activities but his business acumen was acute; as a partner in Haughton & Co. from 1887 and as sole proprietor from 1890 he developed the firm as wool and skin brokers and shipping agents with branches throughout Australasia and in London and Canada. He also had charge of McComas & Co. by 1893 and later became principal of Wilson, Canham & Co. On 27 December 1893, at Hawthorn with Wesleyan forms, he married Ethel Jane, daughter of Dr William Henry Cutts; she died in 1904 and he did not remarry.

In November 1916 McComas was appointed wool-buyers' representative on the Commonwealth Central Wool Committee set up to manage the wartime supply of Australian wool to Great Britain. At other times he headed the Victorian, Adelaide and Tasmanian Wool Buyers' associations. His expertise and influence were of utmost importance in the post-war expansion of the Australian woollen textile industry. McComas was also chairman of directors of the General Accident, Fire & Life Assurance Co. Ltd and in 1924-35 a director of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (acting chairman in 1927). He was appointed C.M.G. in 1936.

McComas amassed considerable wealth. As well as valuable Melbourne real estate, he owned a weekend farm near Drouin and a Queensland sheep and cattle property. His philanthropy was almost entirely private and directed towards education. Publicly, he was a conscientious member of the council of the Working Men's College from 1917 (the wool school at the Royal Melbourne Technical College was named after him) and a devotee of the Melbourne Cricket Club.

McComas died at his Hawthorn home, Gresford, on 19 August 1938 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £110,822 in England and £774,244 in four States, was left principally to his two daughters. From 1935 his nephew R. G. McComas had been assistant manager of William Haughton & Co., by then one of the largest individually directed businesses in Australia.

Jane Isabella (1864-1960), Robert's younger sister, was born on 26 September 1864 at Footscray. She had a notable career as principal of Glamorgan Preparatory School for Boys from 1893. Established in 1887 by her sister Annie Wilhelmina Wesley next door to the family home at Toorak, the school was taken over by Geelong Church of England Grammar School in 1947 when Miss McComas retired. S. M. (Viscount) Bruce was a former pupil as were the sons of Sir Robert Garran and Sir Frederick Mann. Isabel's interests reflected her father's: she was treasurer of the Toorak branch of the British & Foreign Bible Society, a parishioner of St John's Church of England, Toorak, for seventy years and a member of the Classical Association of Victoria. She died at Colac on 14 October 1960.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 1 (Melb, 1888)
  • Who's Who in the World of Women (Melb, 1934)
  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1906
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Oct 1924, 2 Jan 1936, 20 Aug 1938
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Aug 1938
  • private information.

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'McComas, Robert Bond Wesley (1862–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccomas-robert-bond-wesley-7318/text12695, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 October 2018.

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

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