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Miller, Robert William (1879–1958)

by John Atchison

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

Robert William Miller (1879-1958), mine and ship-owner, was born on 27 January 1879 at Queensferry, West Lothian, Scotland, son of Robert Miller, clerk, and his wife Christina, née Fraser. Apprenticed at 14 as a cabin boy in sailing ships he made many trips round Cape Horn and qualified as master mariner. About 1901 Captain Miller migrated to Australia and served with Huddart, Parker & Co. Pty Ltd, ship-owners, on the Australia-New Zealand and the Melbourne-Geelong runs. On 8 February 1910 he married Annie May Kieran at St Mary's Roman Catholic Cathedral, Sydney.

In 1907 Miller had left the sea and begun business on Sydney Harbour in stevedoring and lighterage, mainly coal transport. In 1919 he founded a private company, R. W. Miller & Co. Pty Ltd, and was governing director until 1958. His first ship, the 180-ton Audrey D., was put on the Newcastle-Sydney run. He soon purchased the Meeinderry and Herga and in 1923 ordered in England the William McArthur, the first collier with engines aft and equipped with grabs to unload, resulting in faster turn-around in port. After surviving the loss of the Annie M. Miller off Macquarie lighthouse (1929), cargo-handling techniques were systematically developed by his son Roderick (1912-1971) who, in 1931, became sales manager and director. The firm later developed road transport of coal in New South Wales and Victoria, but in 1952 Miller strongly opposed the proposal by the Menzies government that various private owners be offered a chance to buy the Commonwealth shipping fleet.

In 1920, on the recommendation of Professor Sir Edgeworth David, Miller had purchased Ayrfield Colliery near Branxton. With the later acquisition of Wallsend Borehole, Belmont and Preston Extended (Curlewis) mines the company became a major producer of coal in New South Wales, notably for the Sydney market through the 'Sixty Milers' fleet, and later throughout Australia.

In the 1930s Miller faced frequent confrontations with the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees' Federation, the Seamen's Union of Australasia and the Department of Mines over techniques of extraction and working conditions. The 'breast' system of mining pillars of coal designed for Ayrfield was cheaper and enabled coal to be run off, during strikes, with unskilled labour, but was opposed by inspectors on the grounds of safety, supervision, the frequent detection of 'fire-stink' and surface subsidence. The Court of Mines ruled in favour of the company in 1934, albeit with criticism of management diligence, but mining and transport unions lobbied a sympathetic government for an inquiry led by a technical expert. A raging underground fire in Ayrfield No. 1 and the reopening in 1935 of Ayrfield No. 2, closed since 1930, helped to resolve the difficulties.

Purchase of Britton's brewery in 1935 signalled capital diversification to inaugurate a major expansion of company interests in a chain of hotels. Although the development of the company into a major conglomerate was engineered principally by Roderick, R. W. Miller was actively involved until his death.

Miller belonged to the Highland Society of New South Wales, the League of Ancient Mariners, Royal Automobile Club of Australia, Australian Jockey Club, Sydney Turf Club and several golf clubs. He died on 10 February 1958 in Lewisham Hospital and was cremated after a service at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church. He was survived by his wife and three sons, all directors of R. W. Miller & Co. His estate was valued for probate at £148,794. A colourful businessman with great capacity and resourcefulness, Miller built a very efficient organization in a competitive industry and developed into one of the great executives of the Australian Coal Association.

Select Bibliography

  • R. W. Miller (Holdings) Ltd, Prospectus, 1962
  • N. L. McKellar, From Derby Round to Burketown (Brisb, 1977)
  • Australian Brewing and Wine Journal, 76, no 5, 20 Feb 1958
  • Ports of New South Wales, Mar 1979
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Feb 1929, 10 Apr 1933, 21 July 1934, 21 Nov, 13, 21 Dec 1934, 19 Apr, 8, 11 July 1935, 27, 28, 29 Aug 1935, 28 Jan 1945, 8, 9 Mar 1949, 12 Feb 1958
  • Maitland Mercury, 12 Feb 1958
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 12 Feb 1958, 25, 28 Apr 1971
  • Newcastle Sun, 27 Apr 1971
  • Australian, 11 May 1984
  • private information.

Citation details

John Atchison, 'Miller, Robert William (1879–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miller-robert-william-7588/text13251, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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

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