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McPherson, Sir William Murray (1865–1932)

by Barbara Hamer and Alison Patrick

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

Sir William Murray McPherson (1865-1932), businessman, premier and philanthropist, was born on 17 September 1865 in West Melbourne, ninth child and third surviving son of Thomas McPherson, iron merchant, and his wife Jessie, née Fulton, both Scottish born. He was educated at West Melbourne State School. After an apprenticeship with James McEwan, he entered his father's firm. Thomas's death in 1888 left William and his brother Edward in charge; after Edward's death (1896) William became sole proprietor. When McPherson entered politics in 1913, he established a private company, McPherson's Pty Ltd. On 19 April 1892 he had married Emily, daughter of the Sydney merchant W. M. Jackson, at St Andrew's Cathedral.

McPherson was a shrewd, successful and sometimes enterprising businessman. His inherited concern with engineering supplies and imported machinery broadened in 1900 when he and others set up the Acme Bolt Co. to protect local manufacturers from exploitation by overseas bolt producers. The other backers lost confidence; McPherson bought them out in 1905 and made the company profitable. During World War I he produced machine tools, previously imported, but he was no war profiteer: it was 1917 before his profits, as a percentage on capital (and without allowing for inflation), matched those of 1911. At the end of the short post-war boom the machinery side of the business was being carried by the bolt works, which ultimately profited greatly from a Sydney Harbour bridge contract. After a visit to the United States of America in 1924 McPherson decided to convert his under-utilized machine capacity to manufacturing pumps.

McPherson always saw arbitration courts and wages boards as unnecessary and their operations as uninformed, claiming that judges and politicians knew nothing of industrial needs. He himself could be a peremptory employer who could sack a difficult employee out of hand, or stump through the office after hours emptying to the floor the contents of untidy desk-drawers. But the Boss's presence on the annual works picnic at Port Phillip Bay symbolized a highly intelligent goodwill. No one seeking work was ever refused an interview; McPherson would not add humiliation to the pain of unemployment. Bonuses instituted in 1896 were paid every year except 1931 when there was no dividend. In 1901-21 they represented 8 per cent of profits and were sometimes much higher, in days when expansion was largely financed from profit.

In 1923 employee shares, paid for from dividends, were introduced for managerial staff, then for all employees. A works canteen (with washable calico covers on the chairs) was a novelty in 1927, for which the board was told that the chairman would personally pay if the company could not afford it. McPherson even surrendered a lifelong conviction that retirement was a personal responsibility, and introduced a company superannuation scheme. In 1927 a Labor opponent reluctantly described him as 'the best private employer in Australia'. His will left, as well as separate legacies for directors, £5000 for division among his employees, strikers alone excluded. But he never faced a strike.

Even in the 1920s, all this was somewhat old fashioned, as were the business principles unvaried from 1898: tell the truth, always meet a contract, never denigrate a competitor. McPherson had something to give to public life, but he was not a natural politician, and only partially a successful one.

In 1902-13 McPherson represented importers on the Melbourne Harbor Trust, and in 1909 was elected president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce. When in 1913 George Swinburne resigned the Legislative Assembly seat of Hawthorn, his friend McPherson succeeded him, holding it effortlessly thereafter. He tried to bring to politics the 'business commonsense' which had served him as merchant-manufacturer. In 1917 an 'anti-extravagance' campaign, spearheaded by the Age, brought down the Peacock government. McPherson became treasurer (1917-23), briefly under (Sir) John Bowser and then (Sir) Harry Lawson. He became National Party leader in 1927 and, with the fall of the Hogan government (November 1928), premier and treasurer. Defeated at the 1929 general election, and in failing health, he retired in August 1930.

In the turbulent faction-ridden Victorian politics of the 1920s, with growing imbalance between city and country, a weak Labor Party, an ambitious Country Party, division on the right and a conservative Upper House, McPherson's qualities were valuable, if limited. He had little charisma and no talent for political in-fighting, nor for long-term strategy. He did have unchallengeable integrity, a zest for careful management and a personal gift for conciliation. He inspired affection. His own beliefs that soldier settlement and railway expansion needed subsidy and could not show quick profits, that economic progress required low taxes, that good government was thrifty, and that thinly populated rural electorates deserved special electoral consideration attracted considerable, if rather motley, support.

Six successive budget surpluses had him labelled as 'the threepenny Treasurer', but he did have flashes of imagination: he backed both the State Electricity Commission and (Sir) Harold Clapp's railways appointment. His resignation of Treasury office on 20 November 1923, because (he said) the government could not honour its promises without tax increases it was pledged to avoid, showed his principle and his inflexibility. (Sir) Frederic Eggleston, whose political career he had encouraged but who became paranoiacally estranged from him, later attacked him bitterly, alleging that he knew nothing of public finance, balanced his budgets accidentally through inflation, and financed soldier settlement by irresponsible borrowing. In fact, McPherson valued Victoria's good overseas credit, which kept loan interest low, and disapproved of heavy debt. His penny-pinching did not preclude a few liberal concepts like town planning, and he could even, if pushed, unexpectedly squeeze out a badly needed university grant. But in 1928-29, he still thought the State should 'pay its way' within a minimal budget, avoiding increased taxation that might discourage the private enterprise essential for prosperity. He did not grasp the increasing need for public expenditure to meet the needs of an increasingly complex and urbanized community. He became premier by default, rather than by ambition, with an outlook which prohibited a search for new policies.

McPherson used his own wealth as he believed wealth should be used, to help fill the gaps necessarily left by economical government. In 1909 he became a foundation councillor and permanent benefactor of Swinburne's new technical college. His Treasury resignation was followed by a gift of £25,000 for the domestic science college which the government could not afford, and career opportunities for girls became wider: the Emily McPherson College of Domestic Economy produced dietitians as well as efficient housewives. He gave freely to the Congregational Church, and his unpublicized generosities were innumerable. After a friend's wife, a Queen Victoria Hospital committee-member, persuaded him of the need for a community hospital for women unable to afford private hospital fees, he quietly handed her an envelope—'Well, Nan, there's your hospital!' Inside was a personal cheque for £25,000 but its donor insisted on remaining anonymous until after the 1929 election. At the opening of the Jessie McPherson Community Hospital in December 1931, he was delighted that its fittings had supplied employment by being Australian made.

McPherson had been appointed K.B.E. in 1923. He died suddenly on 26 July 1932 of a heart attack and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. A son and two daughters survived him. His estate, valued for probate at £466,628, provoked argument with the Federal tax commissioners; it was a bad time for a private company to face death duties (it became a public company in 1944). Nevertheless, one unprofitable section of his company's operations still escaped a Depression cutback, because its female staff were family breadwinners. Such a humane policy was McPherson's legacy.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Henderson (ed), Australian Families, vol 1 (Melb, 1941)
  • G. Serle, John Monash (Melb, 1982)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 June 1928
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 July 1932
  • Argus (Melbourne), 27 July 1932
  • Herald (Melbourne), 27 July 1932
  • M. Vines, The Instability of Governments and Parties in Victoria in the 1920s (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1975)
  • Eggleston papers (National Library of Australia)
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential Notes: The Victorian Parliament as I Knew It (Australian National University Library)
  • McPherson papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • press cuttings in possession of McPherson Ltd, Melbourne
  • private information.

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Citation details

Barbara Hamer and Alison Patrick, 'McPherson, Sir William Murray (1865–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcpherson-sir-william-murray-7440/text12953, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 September 2017.

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

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