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McLean, George Thomas (Tom) (1901–1994)

by Hilda E. Maclean

This article was published online in 2018

George Thomas McLean (1901–1994), tourism and hospitality entrepreneur, was born on 12 December 1901 at Mount Morgan, Queensland, second of eleven children of Queensland-born parents George Weston McLean, labourer, and his wife Annie, née Redhead. Tom attended Cawarral State School, between Rockhampton and Yeppoon, for four years—his entire formal education. His father moved the family frequently, trying various rural pursuits interspersed with hotel ownership and mining. When Tom was sixteen, his father built a store at Dululu, near Mount Morgan, which the youth ran single-handedly for several years. In 1923 McLean senior bought two cane farms in the Mackay region; Tom and his brother Perce managed them. On 6 April 1932 at the Methodist Church, Netherdale, Tom married Helen (Nell) Bell Braithwaite (d. 1992), whose parents were local cane farmers. He had purchased a small cane farm of his own, near Calen, and the couple moved there.

Having selected a suitable tree for the timber, McLean built his first boat, the Dorothy, 24 feet 6 inches (7.5 m) in length. He reluctantly parted with it in 1938, when he became the proprietor and licensee of the Proserpine Hotel. Two years later he sold out and bought the lease of the nearby Metropole Hotel. Always interested in politics, he was an active member (1939–42) of the Proserpine Shire Council and in July 1940 was appointed deputy chairman. He unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Bowen for the Australian Country Party–Queensland in 1947.

By 1938 McLean had recognised the requirement for a cruise service to the Great Barrier Reef and the islands of the Whitsunday and Cumberland groups, but his plans were thwarted by the outbreak of World War II the next year. Lowering his age by three years, on 23 April 1942 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served in Papua with the 2/2nd Docks Operating Company (1942–43) and in Queensland with the 5th Advanced Reinforcement Depot (1944–45), as an acting (June 1943) and substantive (August 1944) sergeant.

Following his discharge on 17 April 1945, McLean bought a motor launch, the Shangri-la, which had been requisitioned for service with the United States Army Small Ships Section. The next year he sold the leasehold of the Metropole Hotel, shifted to Mackay, qualified as a skipper, and started offering charter cruises. In late 1948, needing a bigger vessel, he acquired an ex-naval Fairmile motor launch, which he called Roylen, from the names of two of his children, Fitzroy and Helen. With the five-day cruise format he devised gaining momentum, he went to Tasmania in 1950 to find suitable vessels to add to his fleet. He bought four steamers but decided, instead of sailing them back to Mackay, to use them in a second venture, McLean’s Derwent River Cruises. Hampered by what he perceived to be official obstruction to his setting up in competition with local operators and not enjoying the climate, he sold the ships and returned to Mackay in 1952. The original business had operated a second Fairmile from 1951; by the 1960s eight were in service.

As Roylen Cruises grew, members of the next generation of McLean’s family joined the firm. In 1962 the business purchased Brampton Island to use as a destination for day trips and as an accommodation option for passengers on five-day cruises. The McLeans undertook a major refurbishment and expansion of the island’s facilities, including a deep-water jetty, a miniature railway to service it, and an airstrip. By the early 1980s, the ageing Fairmiles could not cope with the demand, so the family commissioned four large catamarans and, for viewing coral, a semi-submersible. In 1985 they sold Brampton Island to Trans-Australia Airlines to concentrate on cruising. Although notionally retired, the founder retained a keen interest in his enterprise.

Generous and community minded, McLean donated holidays on Brampton Island as prizes to assist the fund-raising efforts of the Macgregor Lions Club, Brisbane, which honoured this Mackay man as its 1984 Citizen of the Year. He took an active interest in the welfare of ex-servicemen and, after the war, had presided over the Proserpine sub-branch of the Returned Sailors’, Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Imperial League of Australia. In 1991 he was awarded a jewel in recognition of fifty years of service to Freemasonry in North Queensland. He was appointed MBE (1970) for services to tourism. Particularly fond of lawn bowls, he continued to play after he became legally blind. The publication of his autobiography, Captain Tom (1986), fulfilled a long-held ambition. Years after he retired from the sea, he still dressed in immaculate captain’s whites.

McLean died in Mackay on 17 February 1994. His two daughters and one of his two sons survived him. After a well-attended funeral service at St Paul’s Uniting Church, he was buried in the Mount Bassett cemetery. Tourism to the reef and islands, which he had done so much to develop, became a major industry in the Whitsunday and Mackay regions. McLeans Roylen Cruises Pty Ltd traded until 2009.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Mercury (Mackay, Qld). ‘Captain Tom Saw Tourism Potential.’ 19 February 1994, 6

  • McLean, G. T. Captain Tom. Edited by Colleen Davis. Spring Hill, Qld: Boolarong Publications, 1986

  • National Archives of Australia. B883, QX31766

  • Townsville Daily Bulletin. ‘C. P. Candidate for Bowen: Mr G. T. McLean.’ 31 January 1947, 2

Additional Resources

Citation details

Hilda E. Maclean, 'McLean, George Thomas (Tom) (1901–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mclean-george-thomas-tom-19021/text30625, published online 2018, accessed online 24 August 2019.

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