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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McIlwraith, Andrew (1844–1932)

by D. B. Waterson

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

Andrew McIlwraith (1844-1932), shipowner and frozen meat trade pioneer, was born on 11 July 1844 at Ayr, Scotland, fourth son of John McIlwraith, plumber and shipowner, and his wife Janet Hamilton, née Howat. Educated at Ayr Academy, he joined his father's business in 1868; he supervised the family's Scottish Line and established close commercial relationships with his brothers, John and (Sir) Thomas, in Melbourne and Brisbane. On 30 November 1871 at Staveley, Derbyshire, England, he married Mabel Eliza Stephenson, daughter of an engineer James Campbell. In 1875, with (Sir) Malcolm McEacharn, he established the London-based shipping and mercantile firm McIlwraith, McEacharn & Co. When he visited Queensland on business in 1875-76, his connexion with Thomas, then premier, resulted in a royal commission. This followed allegations (finally deemed unfounded) that the McIlwraiths had conspired to obtain lucrative government contracts and, through speculating in steel rails, had unduly profited at the expense of the colony.

In 1879 Andrew, capitalizing on his own business acumen and his father-in-law's mechanical aptitude, organized the chartering and fitting out with a freezing plant of the steamer Strathleven, the first ship to successfully land a cargo of frozen meat in London from Australia (on 1 February 1880). Earlier Andrew had met T. S. Mort, inspected his vessel Northam at Sydney and instigated extensive trials at Glasgow of Bell & Coleman's freezing plant.

In 1887 a branch of McIlwraith, McEacharn was established in Melbourne; by 1895 the firm, in which Andrew had a quarter-interest, was returning a regular profit of 8 per cent on capital of over £500,000. Following a bitter family struggle—'Andrew', said John, 'would never make a gentleman although he tries it hard'—McIlwraith purchased his brothers' interest in the business next year. He also had shares in the Australasian United Steam Navigation Co. and associated British lines. The last of McIlwraith's several trips to Australia was in 1912-13 following his successful reorganization of the Tokyo tramways. A progressive Liberal, he was a close friend of Andrew Fisher, an important relationship in view of Labor's attempts to regulate the coastal shipping business and to control both foreign and British intrusions.

Andrew McIlwraith was large, handsome and red bearded, with an outwardly affectionate nature. Friendly with Brunel and Paxton, he was made an associate of the Institute of Naval Architects in 1887. Abstemious, but never refusing large draughts of medicinal brandy and scrumpy, he retired, after residing at St Albans, Hertfordshire, to Salcombe, Devon; he died there on 19 October 1932 and was buried with Church of England rites, although originally a Presbyterian. His family life had been unhappy. His first marriage ended in separation and his second, to an American, Holte Leichenburgh, in 1895, also failed. Two sons died in the South African War and a third also predeceased him. Survived by two daughters from his first marriage and another from his second, he left an estate valued for probate at £107,200. A portrait is in the possession of his granddaughter Jean Scott of New Zealand, and another hangs in Salcombe House.

Select Bibliography

  • N. L. McKellar, From Derby Round to Burketown (Brisb, 1977)
  • D. B. Waterson, ‘An Ayrshire family, 1526-1900, the McIlwraiths of Auchenflower, Ayr and Australia’, Ayrshire Collections, 12 (1978), no 3
  • Australasian Pastoralists' Review, 15 Nov 1894
  • Argus (Melbourne), 3, 4, 6, 8 Dec 1879
  • Brisbane Courier, 30 Mar 1880
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1932
  • Ayrshire Post, 21 Oct 1932
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 24 Oct 1932, p 9
  • John McIlwraith & Co records (Australian National University Archives)
  • Palmer-McIlwraith papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'McIlwraith, Andrew (1844–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

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