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McNess, Sir Charles (1852–1938)

by Wendy Brady

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

Sir Charles McNess (1852-1938), ironmonger and philanthropist, was born on 26 March 1852 at Saint Benedicts, Huntingdon, England, son of James Mackness, shoemaker, and his wife Mary, née Moss. He began work as a child, was apprenticed to a tinsmith, and in 1875 moved to London where he traded in scrap metals; there he married Maude Metherall. Hard work and frugal living enabled him to save and invest in property. In 1876 he migrated to Western Australia under a colonial scheme which encouraged 'small capitalists'. He built a warehouse for rental on the outskirts of Perth, and leased a corner of Hay and Barracks streets, where he built five shops of galvanized iron and opened business as a tinsmith and ironmonger under the name of Charles McNess. The firm prospered, and in a letter of 1881 he said he was 'coining money'.

In the late 1880s he made the first of four visits to England. In London he was again married, to Mrs Annie Elsie Poncy. They returned to Perth where their only child, a son, was born in 1893. McNess made the most of the gold rush of the 1890s, moving his ironmongering business to Wellington Street and expanding into mortgage brokerage. He continued to invest in property, buying the Royal Arcade Building in 1896.

A sober and retiring man, McNess and his wife lived simply and quietly. He retired in 1915 to enjoy travel and philanthropy, distributing much of his fortune to public and charitable institutions. During World War I he supported war loans and patriotic funds. He assisted the Presbyterian Church, donating funds for McNess Hall, other Protestant denominations, and hospitals, charities and institutions that cared for young people.

The Depression elicited further benefactions. In June 1930 he gave £6200 to the State government: £1200 was for the upkeep of the State War Memorial while the remaining £5000 formed the basis of the McNess Housing Trust. This provided low-cost housing—four-roomed wood and iron cottages costing about £250—for impoverished families. Later gifts to this trust amounted to £90,000. He also gave £1365 to the mayor for an emergency clothing fund, £4000 to the State Gardens Board to provide work for the unemployed, and £3000 to the Perth Public Hospital. These benefactions, made unobtrusively, were generally directed through Louis Shapcott, under-secretary to the premier.

McNess was knighted in 1931 while in London; his visits to the Dominions Office there resulted in queries to Western Australia, the suburb of Holloway being considered an unlikely address for a future knight. His appearance also excited comment; with snowy hair and moustache, 'he looked like a down and out swaggie'. On returning home McNess gave the State a further £20,000, which provided employment in developing a national park at Yanchep. In 1932-37 gifts totalling £16,500 were made to the Young Men's Christian Association, Legacy Club of Perth, the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, the Blind Institution, the St John Ambulance Association and the Presbyterian, Wesleyan and Congregational churches.

Lady McNess, a partner in this philanthropy, died in 1937 and Sir Charles donated £11,500 to construct the Lady McNess Memorial Drive in the Darling Ranges. Next year, on 22 June, McNess died at his son's Mount Lawley home. He was buried in the Anglican section of Karrakatta cemetery, leaving an estate of at least £200,000. Aside from relatives and friends, provision was made in his will for bequests totalling £32,000 to charities, institutions and Churches and for three further public memorials to himself and his wife. It was estimated in 1938 that between £150,000 and £200,000 had been distributed by this benefactor during his life, in New South Wales and Queensland as well as his home State.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In (Perth, 1972)
  • West Australian Times, 29 Sept 1876
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 June 1931
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 13 June 1931
  • West Australian, 21 Mar 1936, 4 Feb 1937, 23 June, 27 Sept 1938, 15 June 1940, 30 May 1941
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 14 Mar 1937
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 June 1938
  • Daily News (Perth), 28 June 1938
  • McNess family papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Premier's Dept, acc 1496, file 809/1932, file 169/32, file 162/36, file 74/37
  • Dept of Lands and Surveys file, acc 553 (State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Wendy Brady, 'McNess, Sir Charles (1852–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcness-sir-charles-7435/text12943, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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