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Miller, Sir Roderick William (1911–1971)

by John Atchison

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

Roderick William Miller (1911-1971), by unknown photographer

Roderick William Miller (1911-1971), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria

Sir Roderick William Miller (1911-1971), company director, was born on 12 November 1911 at Balmain, Sydney, second of three sons of Robert William Miller, a lighterman from Scotland, and his native-born wife Annie May, née Kieran. Educated at Scots College, Roderick represented the school at Rugby, rowing and athletics, and later played Rugby Union for New South Wales. He joined R. W. Miller & Co. Pty Ltd at the age of 17 and, in 1931, became sales manager and a director. At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 27 October 1934 he married Enid Marie Stevenson; their son and daughter were to predecease him, and the marriage ended in divorce on 17 January 1957. Miller enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 30 May 1941. He served in the Middle East with the 2nd/1st Anti-Aircraft Regiment from July 1941 to January 1942. Returning to Australia, he was commissioned lieutenant in June 1942 and seconded to Docks Control duties. From February to May 1944 he carried out this work in Papua and New Guinea. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Australia on 10 October 1944.

Miller worked closely with his father, sharing a capacity for hard work, toughness and enterprise. He was prominent in building up the company's collieries, hotels and 'sixty-miler' colliers. On 15 February 1957 at the Fullerton Memorial Church, Sydney, he married Elizabeth Shaw, née Barberie, a 28-year-old divorcee. He succeeded his father as managing director in 1958; R. W. Miller (Holdings) Ltd was registered as a public company in 1962.

Vice-chairman (from 1958) of the Northern Collieries and Independent Steamship Owners' Association, Miller deliberately set out to reduce the influence of overseas monopolies. In June 1963, as owner of the Australian-registered and totally Australian-crewed tanker, Millers Canopus, he asked the British Petroleum Co. to load petroleum and kerosene at Kwinana, Western Australia. This experiment, he claimed, would lead to cheaper petrol for motorists. In addition, Miller submitted a plan to order four tankers from Australian shipyards, provided that the Federal government, in the meantime, allowed him to import four tankers. He hoped that these moves would force the government to develop a national fuel policy.

His move into the tanker business involved a political struggle with oil companies, and, surprisingly, with (Sir) Robert Menzies' government. Following a year of overseas visits, international deals and complex negotiations, in July 1964 Miller won approval to import the tankers, Björdholm (Millers McArthur) and Storheim (R. W. Miller), on condition that he contract for two tankers with Australian shipyards within a year and for a third tanker within two years, and that he place a written undertaking with the collector of customs. Miller saw this concession not only as a victory over Australian and world oil interests, but also as an effort to save the coal trade (fuel oil carried in foreign tankers with foreign crews had an unfair freight advantage over coal). In his efforts to force the full manning by Australian seamen of ships flying the Australian flag, he resorted to section 288 of the Navigation Act (1913) which specified that such vessels receive priority. Although he thought that this manoeuvre would be welcomed by the government, cabinet subsequently rejected his requests to import a fourth tanker.

The eventual establishment of the fleet followed disputes between the Seamen's Union of Australia and the departments of Labour and National Service and of Shipping and Transport. Miller's strong support from the union earned him the description, 'the working man's folk hero tycoon'. His success stimulated other shipowners and the shipbuilding industry, but it also raised costs significantly and enabled Miller to determine whose cargo was carried, and when.

An influential member of the New South Wales Combined Colliery Proprietors' Association and of the Australia-Japan Business Co-Operation Committee, Miller helped to stabilize the State's coal industry by gaining markets in Victoria and South Australia. By 1968 he had bought the vessel Karoon, renamed her Elisa Miller, and converted her into a modern bulk-carrier. He pioneered the coal trade with Japan (and later with Europe) and in 1969 won the then largest New South Wales contract with Japanese steel-mills for coal worth $65 million. In that year he accepted a tender from Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd to build a 62,000-ton tanker, the Amanda Miller, at Whyalla, South Australia.

Although R. W. Miller had disposed of its brewery to Tooheys Ltd in 1967, it retained its forty hotels and by 1971 had added road transport, insurance and engineering to its collieries and ships. Miller had revolutionized the coastal shipping trade by bulk-handling coal in chartered ships and by establishing an Australian tanker fleet to carry oil. He had emerged as one of Australia's most flamboyant businessmen, a 'thrusting, energetic individualist' with a strong, if unpredictable, personality. In 1962 he was appointed C.B.E. In 1970 he was knighted. A florid, thickset man, 'gravel-voiced and tough faced', he remained keen on boating, fishing and swimming, and was patron of Eastern Suburbs Leagues Club. He was a Freemason, and belonged to the Royal Automobile Club of Australia, Tattersall's, the Royal Motor Yacht, Manly Golf, Sydney Turf and the Victorian clubs.

Suffering from emphysema, Sir Roderick died of coronary thrombosis on 26 April 1971 at his Vaucluse home and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, and by their two sons and two daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at about $646,000. In tribute, Justice F. H. Gallagher of the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission said that Miller had always been ready to assist others 'without any fuss or ostentation' and had 'endeavoured to maintain cordial relations with the unions'. Walter Smart, of the Miners' Federation, saw Miller as courageous, idealistic, forthright and scrupulously honest. Following a prolonged takeover battle, Howard Smith Ltd, Ampol Petroleum Ltd and Bulkships Ltd emerged in 1973 as the major shareholders in R. W. Miller. In 1979 the firm became a subsidiary of Howard Smith.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1962, 17, 25, 31 Oct 1963, 4, 7 July, 15 Sept 1964, 11, 17, 20, 23, 25 Mar, 1 Apr, 30 June, 6, 26 Oct 1965, 21 Nov 1966, 2 July 1968, 11 Mar 1969, 1 Jan 1970, 27 Apr, 2 Nov 1971, 7 July 1972
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 18 Aug 1963
  • Australian, 27 Apr 1971
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 28 Apr 1971
  • private information.

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Citation details

John Atchison, 'Miller, Sir Roderick William (1911–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/miller-sir-roderick-william-11126/text19813, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 20 December 2014.

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

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