Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McPherson, William Edward (1898–1950)

by Frank Strahan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

William Edward McPherson (1898-1950), industrialist, was born on 12 December 1898 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, second child of (Sir) William Murray McPherson, iron merchant and later premier, and his wife Emily, née Jackson. Educated at Scotch College, he passed the junior public examination in 1915. 'W.E.', as he became popularly known, began his working career in McPherson's Pty Ltd, his father's Melbourne hardware and machinery business, founded in 1860 by his Scottish immigrant grandfather, Thomas McPherson.

After qualifying with the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants (Australia), McPherson studied commerce at the University of Melbourne but did not graduate. On 1 September 1924 at All Souls Church, St Marylebone, London, he married Ethel Margaret McKaige with Anglican rites. When his father retired in 1929, 'W.E.' succeeded him as governing director of McPherson's. An Adelaide branch was opened in 1930. In 1929-32 the company's bolt works at Richmond, Melbourne, supplied six million rivets, some up to 6 lb. (3 kg) in weight, totalling 3000 tons in all, for construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. An additional bolt works was established at Alexandria, Sydney, in 1934.

As the 1930s progressed, McPherson feared an impending international war and looked to the development of Australian secondary industry for the manufacture of products previously imported. In 1937 his company acquired an interest in Patience & Nicholson Ltd, makers of engineers' cutting tools, and provided the base capital for production of twist drills. Next year, with 'W.E.' sponsoring the project and McPherson's supplying the capital, the Wiltshire File Co. Pty Ltd was launched in association with (Sir) Frederick Wiltshire.

In 1938 McPherson travelled to Europe and the United States of America to discuss the manufacture in Australia of grinding wheels, files, lathes, small tools, bolts and hacksaw blades. His report announced a redirection of his firm's policy: 'more emphasis on manufacturing and less on merchandising'. Despite initial resistance, agreement was reached for a joint venture with American and British companies which led to the establishment of Australian Abrasives Pty Ltd. That year McPherson's acquired the Tool Equipment Co. Pty Ltd; a new company, Associated Machine Tools Australia Pty Ltd, was formed to separate McPherson's machine-tool manufacturing interests from its merchandising activities. In 1939 a foundry and pump manufacturing plant was established at Tottenham, Melbourne, and the Ajax Bolt & Rivet Co. Pty Ltd commenced manufacture in New Zealand.

While sponsoring these developments, McPherson was associated with an informal committee of industrial leaders, including Sir Colin Fraser, Essington Lewis, W. S. Robinson, (Sir) Lindesay Clark and (Sir) Laurence Hartnett. He would see to the production of basic hand and machine tools, they to the provision of raw materials and large-scale component manufacturing. Owing to their foresight, isolated Australia was able to produce during World War II most of the country's munitions needs, small arms, artillery, landing craft, pontoons, trucks, bren-gun carriers, larger assault tanks and aircraft, to the benefit of herself and her allies. The firm made its designs, plant, and personnel of the lathe-manufacturing works available to the Department of Munitions for the war effort. On 5 December 1944 McPherson's converted to a public company, McPherson's Ltd, with 'W.E.' chairman of directors. In 1948 the Ajax pump foundry opened at Kyneton, Victoria. The company's overall sales increased from £2,813,000 in 1945 to £5,884,000 in 1950.

Described as a 'shy, modest man who enjoyed his books, his private workshop and the company of a friend', McPherson was respected as a philanthropist and humanist. He lived at Kingussie, a house with a two-acre (0.8 ha) garden in Mont Albert Road, Canterbury. On inheriting (1932) his father's home, Invergowrie, at Hawthorn, he donated it to the Headmistresses' Association of Australia, which used it as a homecraft hostel. At McPherson's, a pension fund was established in 1929 and 'W.E.' extended profit sharing (introduced by his father) to hundreds of employees in four States. In 1939 he introduced a works council scheme, giving each employee the right to have a grievance or problem discussed by an elected representative and the management. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 18 January 1950 at the Alfred Hospital, Melbourne, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £405,540.

Select Bibliography

  • Modern Engineer, Feb 1950
  • McPherson's Ltd records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Frank Strahan, 'McPherson, William Edward (1898–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcpherson-william-edward-11024/text19611, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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