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McWilliam, John James (1868–1951)

by Lloyd Evans

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

John James McWilliam (1868-1951), vigneron and wine and spirit merchant, was born on 17 June 1868 at Denison, near Sale, Victoria, fourth of ten children of Samuel McWilliam (1830-1902), Irish-born farmer, and his wife Martha (d.1889), née Steele, a native of Geelong. Samuel purchased 480 acres (194 ha) near Corowa, New South Wales, in 1877 and established Sunnyside vineyard of 80 acres (32 ha). J. J. McWilliam was educated at Denison State and Corowa Public schools, leaving at 13 to work in various outback occupations. He returned in 1891 to manage Sunnyside and the wine-shop. On 20 July 1892 he married at Beechworth, Victoria, a Scottish migrant, Elizabeth Aitken Dewar (1868-1943).

Moving to Junee late in 1895, McWilliam obtained a colonial wine licence and opened a wine-saloon near the railway junction, before establishing his Markview vineyard and winery nearby. A model farmer and vigneron, he ambitiously took up colonial wine licences at Goulburn (1907) and Sydney (1910) and bought a dwelling at Manly; but in a district of low rainfall he was unable to stimulate the growing of wine-grapes sufficiently to support the expansion of his business.

On 2 August 1913 McWilliam successfully applied for two fifty-acre (20 ha) farms for his son Jack and himself on the Mirrool No.1 Area, Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. He planted a cash crop and about 35,000 vine-cuttings from Junee as a nursery from which he planted a vineyard in 1914 and offered cuttings to other settlers; he began constructing a winery in 1917. His son Douglas joined the partnership in 1922 when construction began on a second winery at Yenda to process the grapes of soldier settlers. McWilliam's example, his market for wine-grapes and his demonstration that the M.I.A. could produce both fortified and light wines from the classic European varieties tilted the balance of plantings in the area towards wine-grape vines.

Despite competition from other companies in the 1920s McWilliam became the principal purchaser of local wine-grapes but, insisting that their long-term prosperity depended on the success of his firm in the market-place, he refused to give contracts to grape-growers and negotiated prices annually. He obtained the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission's permission to defer payments (1925) and eschewed the Commonwealth schedule prices and the wine export bounty, giving his business a competitive edge.

In a period threatening over-supply J. J. McWilliam & Sons marketed aggressively from their Sydney cellars (managed from 1928 by the third son Keith), established branches at Goulburn, Orange, Brookvale, Melbourne, Brisbane and in New Zealand, and acquired colonial wine licences and premises for direct sales. On 6 July 1931 McWilliam's Wines Ltd was registered with nominal capital of £200,000. Next year McWilliam's Wines Ltd established, with the trustee of the O'Shea estate, Mount Pleasant Wines Ltd at Pokolbin in the Hunter valley and at Newcastle. When he sold his shares in 1945 to his four sons, McWilliam had presided over an expansion of production to more than 1.5 million gallons (6.8m litres) a year; assets including subsidiary distributing companies were valued at £665,215 and combined annual turnover exceeded £1 million.

The rise of McWilliam's Wines to one of Australia's top five wine-companies was due to sound technology, to which the founder contributed outstanding viticultural practice and expertise in ferro-concrete construction for small vat fermentation and extensive storage; to his vision of a nation-wide enterprise and his example of self-denial as a first principle of capital accumulation; and to his marketing skills. He also bequeathed to his sons remarkable force of character which they presented in their own areas of responsibility.

McWilliam was a large-framed, good-humoured man with a booming voice. A native son, he had the energy and vision of a pioneer and a deep affection for the bush. He despised sloth and his travel letters (1934) reveal the pride and prejudices of Australians of his time. Survived by his four sons and four daughters, he died at Manly on 25 May 1951 and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. He left his personal estate, valued for probate at £36,679, to his daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Irrigation Record, 1913-17
  • J. J. McWilliam, travel letters, 1934 (privately held)
  • L. Evans, The House of McWilliam (manuscript, privately held)
  • McWilliams Wines Pty Ltd, company records, 1912-45
  • Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission records, 1912-45 (State Records New South Wales).

Citation details

Lloyd Evans, 'McWilliam, John James (1868–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcwilliam-john-james-7450/text12975, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 August 2019.

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

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