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McGregor, Sir James Robert (1889–1973)

by R. M. Gibbs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

This is a shared entry with Harold Waddell McGregor

Sir James Robert McGregor (1889-1973) and Harold Waddell McGregor (1898-1978), woolbrokers, were born on 1 October 1889 and 9 December 1898 at Hindmarsh, Adelaide, eldest and third sons of Scottish-born James Wigham McGregor, woollen manufacturer, and his wife Mary Twaddle, née Waddell. Trained in Scotland, James senior had arrived in Adelaide in 1882. He later established the Torrenside woollen mills at Thebarton and represented Bradford buyers, especially W. & J. Whitehead; he also owned pastoral properties and had plantation interests on Bougainville. As a member of the Federal government's advisory committee, he helped to devise a table of types and limits in 1916 to value the Australian wool clip for wartime sale to Britain. James junior and Harold were both educated at Prince Alfred College. They entered their father's firm, gained experience at Whitehead's topmaking and spinning business, and acquired an outstanding technical knowledge of wool. Like their father, they were to profit by setting up testing plants in wool-selling centres to estimate the clean value of the product.

About 1908 James established a branch of J. W. McGregor & Co. in Sydney, concentrating on the markets there and in Brisbane. His technical and trading skills, enhanced by contacts with Whitehead's and other overseas buyers, soon made him wealthy. On 22 December 1916 he was appointed wool appraiser for the New South Wales committee and buyers' representative for the Queensland committee, both of which served the Commonwealth Central Wool Committee. In the following year he became wool appraiser for the national body. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 10 August 1921 he married Alice Constance Taylor, a stenographer; they were to remain childless. With Harold, he set up companies in the Channel Islands to control the firm's substantial topmaking interests in Europe, though they held their Australian interests separately after their father's death in 1925.

James centred his business on his well-known office in Bond Street, Sydney, and travelled abroad regularly. Renowned for his expertise, he again played a leading role (including framing the table of limits) in the Central Wool Committee which was re-established in September 1939 to control wartime wool disposal. Its chairman praised him in 1945 for his 'almost super-human efforts'. In peacetime McGregor traded extensively, expanding his activities and offices during the Korean War wool boom, increasing his shareholding in the Bougainville plantations and becoming known as Australia's largest wool-buyer—at one Brisbane series he bought a third of the offering for about £1.9 million. McGregor's staff and overseas clients esteemed him highly. A small, dark-haired man of forthright opinions, he was unruffled, well organized and courageous. His ability and charm impressed others and won him the friendship of (Sir) Robert Menzies who described him as 'the great Australian wool authority' and 'one of the best men I ever knew'. In 1956 McGregor was appointed K.B.E. When entertaining at his home, Neidpath, at Darling Point, he shared his love of fine wine and food.

McGregor's wealth, good taste and knowledge of art enabled him to build an outstanding collection of sculptures and paintings, including works by Australian, English and French artists. Friendly with (Sir) William Ashton, Sir Lionel Lindsay, Sir Daryl Lindsay and Adrian Feint, he extended patronage to several artists and donated works to galleries. In 1929-58 he served as a trustee of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales. For him, appreciating art required an imaginative understanding similar to the capacity to judge what a sample of wool might yield. While travelling in the United States of America, Sir James died on 3 August 1973 at St Francis Memorial Hospital, San Francisco, and was cremated; his wife predeceased him. His estate was sworn for probate at $935,348.

Based in Adelaide and buying out another brother's holding in the family business, Harold McGregor focused on the more difficult South and Western Australian wool markets, and operated in the Victorian market jointly with James. His widespread commercial activities involved much overseas travel. At St Columba's Church, Chelsea, London, on 12 April 1934 he married Suzanne Marie Régine Scamps with the forms of the Church of Scotland. Harold's business flair and attention to detail, together with rising wool prices, enabled him to do well. His skill in judging wool led to his appointment as controlling appraiser for South Australia during World War II. For most of the Korean War he and James operated together and their extensive trading proved very successful. From 1950 Harold had developed large land holdings, the most significant being Balquhidder in South Australia, and Glenalpine and Toonambool in Victoria; he also held interests in real estate in Adelaide and other businesses. Like James, he played a leading role in the Australian Council of Woolbuyers and was a discerning collector of art, but in temperament he was more reticent and no bon vivant. Respecting the Scottish traits of quiet service and private giving, and having often needed hospital accommodation himself when beds were short, Harold took up the cause of Adelaide's St Andrew's Hospital, a private institution associated with the Presbyterian Church. He organized a family donation of £25,000 to its building fund in 1952 and gave large sums of money himself; he harried a reluctant government to help, advising it that he was 'somewhat weary of digging deep into my own pocket and pressing my family and friends to give'; and he guaranteed, personally and anonymously, the hospital's large mortgage for its new building in 1961. As board chairman (1960-71), he worked tirelessly for the expanding hospital as it assumed a large training role. For many years he was an elder of Adelaide's Scots Church, to which he and James gave an outstanding set of stained-glass windows by Lawrence Lee in memory of their parents. As a young man Harold had been a competent yachtsman. Ill health dogged his final years. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died on 26 January 1978 at St Andrew's Hospital and was cremated. His portrait by (Sir) Ivor Hele hangs in the hospital.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. Gibbs, Not for Ourselves (Adel, 1994)
  • C. Fyfe, Gentlemen's Agreements (Perth, 1996)
  • Art in Australia, 15 Nov 1934
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 Mar 1925
  • Australian Financial Review, 8 Aug 1973
  • H. W. McGregor papers (held at St Andrew's Hospital, Adelaide)
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. M. Gibbs, 'McGregor, Sir James Robert (1889–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgregor-sir-james-robert-10961/text19481, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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