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Miles, William John (1871–1942)

by Chris Cunneen

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

William John Miles (1871-1942), rationalist and businessman, was born on 27 August 1871 at Woolloomooloo, Sydney, only child of John Balfour Clement Miles (d.1907), wealthy Tahitian-born public accountant, and his English-born wife Ellen, née Munton, widow of W. J. Cordner. Entering his father's firm, Miles, Vane & Miles (from 1908 Yarwood, Vane & Miles), he became a fellow of the Australasian Corporation of Public Accountants; from 1912 he practised as an independent consulting accountant. He was a director of Sydney Meat Preserving Co. Ltd (in 1909), British General Electric Co. Ltd and the fashionable mercers, Peapes & Co. Ltd (in 1912-42), of which he had a 70 per cent shareholding. At St Philip's Anglican Church on 23 April 1897 he had married Maria Louisa Binnington, a Queensland fishmonger's daughter.

About 1912 Miles helped to found and became first secretary of the local branch of the Rationalist Press Association, London (later Rationalist Association of New South Wales), publishing in 1914 its Sydney Rationalist Annual. He regarded war as 'biologically inevitable', but opposed conscription for overseas service and was active in the referenda campaigns of 1916 and 1917. In October 1917 he established the Advance Australia League, which, under his slogan 'Australia first', opposed Imperial Federation. Now associating with R. S. Ross and contributing to Ross's Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress and the Socialist, he left the rationalist association in 1920. From about 1923 he concentrated on business. He made five visits overseas, the last about 1929.

Miles retired in 1935 and, with an annual income of about £6000, devoted himself to secularist and chauvinist propaganda. In July he began a monthly magazine, the Independent Sydney Secularist. Impressed by Percy Stephensen, whom he now employed as 'literary adviser' at £5 per week, from July 1936 Miles funded and edited the Publicist, a pro-monarchical, pro-fascist, pro-Aboriginal, anti-British, anti-communist and anti-Semitic monthly. He published Stephensen's The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) and Xavier Herbert's Capricornia (1938). In 1937-38 he financed the Aborigines' Progressive Association, formed by William Ferguson and Jack Patten. The outbreak of World War II curtailed Miles's pro-Axis editorials and the Independent Sydney Secularist ceased in April 1940.

From his late twenties Miles had suffered angina pectoris. Late in life one foot became gangrenous, but he hobbled daily to the Publicist bookshop-cum-office in Elizabeth Street. Eventually confined to bed, he ran a sweep on when he would die. He took no part in Stephensen's Australia First Movement, founded in October 1941, but from 1 January 1942 transferred the Publicist to Stephensen and two others. Miles died at his home at Gordon on 10 January, survived by his two sons and three of his four daughters, including Beatrice. He was cremated after a rationalist service. In March the Publicist ceased when Stephensen and others were interned.

'A peppery, authoritative little man with a strong nose, heavy moustache and booming voice', Miles was an athlete, cricketer and Rugby footballer in his youth, had a good bass voice and played the piano. He represented New South Wales at chess, was honorary treasurer of the Shakespeare Society of New South Wales, and a systematic but unsuccessful punter who rarely missed a Randwick race meeting. With dangerous obsessions and money to spend, Miles represented an unstable element in Australian society.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots (Melb, 1968)
  • C. Munro, Wild Man of Letters (Melb, 1984)
  • Ross's Monthly, 14 Feb 1920
  • Publicist, 1 Feb 1942
  • Nation, 14 Feb 1959.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Miles, William John (1871–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miles-william-john-7576/text13225, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 July 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 10

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