Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McIntosh, Hugh Donald (1876–1942)

by Chris Cunneen

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

Hugh Donald McIntosh (1876-1942), by unknown photographer

Hugh Donald McIntosh (1876-1942), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3060842

Hugh Donald McIntosh (1876-1942), sporting and theatrical entrepreneur and newspaper proprietor, was born on 10 September 1876 in Sydney, son of Hugh McIntosh, Scottish-born policeman, and his Irish-born wife Margaret, née Benson. His father died in 1880, leaving his family in poverty. Hughie later claimed he attended the Marist Brothers' St Mary's Cathedral School and ran away, aged about 7, as assistant to an itinerant jeweller. He became an ore-picker at Broken Hill, returning after two years to Sydney, where he worked for a doctor and is said to have attended night school.

In the early 1890s McIntosh moved about the colony and Victoria working as farm labourer, engine driver, baker's boy, tarboy, stage-hand, chorus-boy, pie-seller and waiter. On 10 November 1897, at Newtown, giving his occupation as barman, he married with Independent Baptist forms Marion Catherine Elizabeth Backhouse, teacher of painting. In 1899 he took over Thomas Helmore's catering company, supplying pies to race-tracks and prizefights from the Masonic Hall, North Sydney, where he lived; here he also ran a physical-culture club and managed a few boxers.

An erratic racing cyclist in 1900-01, in 1903-07 McIntosh was secretary of the League of Wheelmen of New South Wales. In November 1903 he had become a justice of the peace. He sold the catering business to Charlotte Sargent's company in 1906 and invested in hotels at National Park and other resorts, including The Creel, near Jindabyne. Now living in Park Street, Sydney, in December he ran unsuccessfully for the municipal council.

The prospective visit of the American fleet in 1908 stirred McIntosh's commercial instincts. In an audacious coup, he brought out world heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Burns to fight Australian Bill Squires at an open-air stadium hastily erected in a leased Rushcutters Bay paddock. The fleet stayed away from the fight, but McIntosh had tapped into Sydney's new-found passion for mass spectator sport. He persuaded Burns to defend his title against American Negro Jack Johnson on Boxing Day 1908 at the Sydney Stadium. McIntosh refereed the bout and 20,000 people saw Johnson crush Burns. McIntosh made a huge profit. Even more lucrative was his film of the fight, which in January 1909 he took to Europe and the United States of America. He returned in November and had success with boxer Bob Fitzsimmons's tour and a sortie into John Wren's patch, Melbourne.

Again leaving for America in June 1910, McIntosh was for a time based in London, staging boxing contests at the Olympia annexe and in Paris. He returned to Sydney in September 1911 keen to finalize a deal he had been pursuing for three years—the purchase of Harry Rickards's Australasia-wide Tivoli circuit. In August 1912 he bought it for £100,000 and embarked upon a new career as a vaudeville producer. He sold his stadium interest for £30,000 to a syndicate headed by R. L. Baker in December. That month McIntosh was trounced in a Sydney municipal election.

Very short, slightly stooped but thickset and muscular, McIntosh had a tanned face, blue eyes, short, black hair and for much of his life a close-clipped moustache. To Melbourne Punch he was a 'hustler', positively bristling with 'energy and nervous force'. Not averse to a 'stoush', he had a reputation for coarse language and unscrupulousness; but his open, attractive personality aided a vaunting ambition to force his way into respectable society. His generosity and extravagance quickly became legendary. He contributed liberally to hospitals and other charities. With a fleet of three Pierce-Arrow motor cars, his coat of arms emblazoned on the sides, by 1913 he lived at Darling Point. He collected fine books; his friend Norman Lindsay designed his book-plates.

McIntosh also befriended Labor politicians W. M. Hughes and especially William Holman, whose trip to England in 1912 he financed. Holman described him at this time as 'flamboyant and unreliable … an adventurer'. As early as 1911 McIntosh, who never joined the party but probably contributed to its election fund, was promised by Holman a seat in the Legislative Council. This was blocked within the party. From August 1915 (until 1920) McIntosh was local president of the British Empire League—his predecessor Sir William McMillan accused him of 'jumping' the position and 'packing' the league.

In May 1916 McIntosh bought the controlling interest in the Sunday Times company, which also published the Referee and other papers. Elected president of the local Returned Soldiers' Association in August, he soon resigned after criticism that the position belonged to a returned soldier. When Holman was expelled from the Labor Party over conscription in October, McIntosh and P. T. Taylor negotiated on his behalf for the ensuing Nationalist coalition; he was probably a member of the party's consultative committee. In May 1917 McIntosh was finally nominated to the Legislative Council; but he attended infrequently and spoke rarely. His connexion with railway contractor Henry Teesdale Smith embarrassed the government and contributed to Holman's defeat in the 1920 election.

McIntosh was president of the Weekly Newspapers' Association of New South Wales, executive member of the Empire Parliamentary Association, and life member of the Royal Australian Historical Society. As theatrical producer he had most success with revues (the Tivoli Follies) and built a new theatre in Brisbane, opened in May 1915. In 1919 he had success with The Lilac Domino and with Chu Chin Chow, a lavish musical comedy which opened in Melbourne in December 1920. Claiming ill health and a desire to concentrate on his newspaper interests, he withdrew from theatrical production in March 1921.

In 1919 McIntosh had bought Bellhaven, a mansion at Bellevue Hill which he extensively renovated. But he craved a still rarer atmosphere. In August 1923 he leased Lord Kitchener's Broome Park, near Canterbury, England, re-laying its cricket pitch with soil from Bulli, New South Wales. He now divided his time between England and Australia. In April his wife had been invited to the wedding of the Duke of York. In 1928 he attended a private party at Buckingham Palace. Contesting a Scottish seat in the House of Commons for Labour in May 1929, he lost. In England he continued to entertain lavishly. Having sold Bellhaven, when in Sydney McIntosh now lived at the Astor, Macquarie Street.

Always one to cultivate leading politicians, he drew increasingly closer to Labor leader J. T. Lang, whom he persuaded to fund the cenotaph in Martin Place (1927). McIntosh voted with Labor for abolition of the Legislative Council. He even claimed to have helped Lang to defeat a leadership challenge from Peter Loughlin in 1926.

By the mid-1920s McIntosh's luck was running out and his finances sliding into disorder. The Sunday Times was losing money and when he sold it in 1927 he was heavily indebted to the company. Plunging back into vaudeville production, in 1928 he bought the Tivoli Theatre, Sydney, but in 1930 debts forced the company into liquidation. A scheme to sell Angora rabbits from Broome Park and a Derby sweep project run by T. J. Ley also failed. In December 1930 bankruptcy proceedings commenced. Though he fought hard his estate was sequestrated in 1932 and consequently in May he lost his Legislative Council seat. Attempts to recapture luck at formerly successful ventures—a cake shop, boxing promotion for Sydney Stadium, managing a guest house—came to nothing.

In August 1935 'Huge Deal' McIntosh again justified his nickname: he opened the Black and White Milk Bar in Fleet Street, London. Soon its success led to an over-ambitious scheme for a chain, which foundered in November 1938. Reputedly he then began a timber business. But he was once again penniless when he died in London on 2 February 1942; he was cremated. He was survived by his wife (d.1959) of whom John Hetherington wrote: 'Their life was chequered by his insatiable appetite for both commercial and concupiscent adventures, but her loyalty to him never wavered'. She had been president of the New South Wales Ladies' Amateur Swimming Association in 1915-16. The marriage had been childless but throughout his life McIntosh had supported several nephews and nieces.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1940)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • J. A. Hetherington, Australians (Melb, 1960)
  • R. Cashman and M. McKernan (eds), Sport in History (Brisb, 1979)
  • R. B. Walker, Yesterday's News (Syd, 1980)
  • Triad (Sydney), 2 Feb 1925
  • People (Sydney), 27 Aug 1951
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 13 June, 9 July 1903, 3 Dec 1906, 7 Sept 1915, 24 Oct 1919, 26 Mar 1932
  • Sydney Sportsman, 3 Feb 1904
  • Arrow (Sydney), 30 Sept 1905
  • Truth (Sydney), 7 Apr 1907, 14 Dec 1930
  • Referee (Sydney), 24 Mar, 21 Apr, 10 Nov 1909, 6 Sept 1911, 24 May 1916
  • Sun (Sydney), 30 Aug 1912, 8 Sept 1916, 24 Oct 1919, 3 Feb 1942
  • Argus (Melbourne), 31 Aug 1912, 2 Mar 1921
  • Punch (Melbourne), 12 Sept 1912
  • Sunday Times (Sydney), 6 Aug, 22 Oct 1916
  • Daily Guardian (Sydney), 19 Apr, 15 Sept 1926
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 27 June 1931, 19 Jan, 3 Aug 1935, 25 July 1936, 27 Aug 1938
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 3 Feb 1942
  • Ada Holman papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • bankruptcy files 149/1931, 100/32 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'McIntosh, Hugh Donald (1876–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcintosh-hugh-donald-7373/text12811, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 April 2017.

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

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