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McWhae, Sir John (1858–1927)

by E. M. Finlay and H. A. Finlay

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

Sir John McWhae (1858-1927), stockbroker, businessman and politician, was born on 22 June 1858 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of Scottish parents Peter McWhae, goldminer, and his wife Grace, née Wilson. He attended Dumfries Academy when the family visited Scotland after his father's mining success and, on their return in 1871, Ballarat Grammar School. He was a clerk in the Union Bank of Australia for eight years before starting the business of John McWhae & Co. on the Ballarat Stock Exchange, and establishing it by investment in Broken Hill, New South Wales, in 1886-87. An active Ballarat citizen he was a captain in the militia, captain of the rowing club and secretary of St Andrew's Presbyterian kirk.

Transferring his firm to Melbourne in the late 1880s, he guided it sagaciously through the near-panic speculation over the new West Australian goldfields, enhancing his growing reputation for imperturbability and the 'Midas touch'. In March 1893 he persuaded the Victorian treasurer to negotiate what proved to be a short-lived and limited agreement among the banks for mutual assistance in an attempt to avert financial disaster. McWhae was a leading member of the Stock Exchange of Melbourne for twenty years, including a record six as chairman (1893-94, 1898-1901).

After unsuccessfully contesting the Legislative Assembly seat of Melbourne in 1894 he was elected to the Legislative Council for Melbourne Province in 1910. McWhae was appointed by the Defence Department as complaints officer for the forces, and was then commissioner of public works in the Bowser ministry (November 1917–March 1918) and honorary minister in the Lawson government from March 1918. As acting minister for health he dealt with the influenza epidemic of 1919 when the Exhibition Building was transformed into an emergency hospital and volunteer helpers recruited. He resigned in November 1921.

In 1912 he had relinquished his exchange seat to his son John (who died at Ypres) to concentrate on his expanding interests in Philippines gold-mining, Gippsland forestry and pastoral properties in Queensland and the Western District of Victoria. He was a director of fifteen companies including the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance, Duke and Orr's Amalgamated Dry Docks, Jumbunna Coal Mining and George Stirling & Sons.

Genial and popular but not given to wasting words, McWhae was agent-general for Victoria in London from February 1922 to September 1924. He vigorously promoted Victorian manufactures and produce through exhibitions and displays, and wooed British migrants, attracting publicity by statements about Australia's empty spaces and the dangers of an influx of aliens and a polyglot population. He was knighted in 1924.

Widely travelled, McWhae died suddenly on 17 September 1927 at Yokohama, Japan, on a holiday cruise and was buried with Masonic honours on 27 October in Boroondara cemetery, Melbourne. He was survived by his wife Elizabeth Henderson, née Douch, whom he had married on 19 April 1883 at Williamstown, and by two sons and two daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £69,737.

Select Bibliography

  • A. R. Hall, The Stock Exchange of Melbourne and the Victorian Economy 1852-1900 (Canb, 1968)
  • A. T. Stirling, Gang Forward (Melb, 1972)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, Victoria), 1927, p 1484
  • Australasian Pastoralists' Review, 15 Oct 1927
  • Punch (Melbourne), 20 Dec 1917, 8 May 1919, 21 July 1921
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 Sept, 27 Oct 1927
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Sept, 27 Oct 1927.

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Citation details

E. M. Finlay and H. A. Finlay, 'McWhae, Sir John (1858–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcwhae-sir-john-1431/text12973, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 March 2019.

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

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