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Munro, David (1844–1898)

by Michael Cannon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

David Munro (1844-1898), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co., c1887-90

David Munro (1844-1898), by Johnstone, O'Shannessy & Co., c1887-90

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H83.118/1

David Munro (1844-1898), engineer, speculator and contractor, was born in Kirkintilloch, Dumbartonshire, Scotland, son of John Munro, blacksmith, and his wife Esther, née Dunlop. The family and some near relations migrated to Victoria in 1854 in the Tudor. The adult males worked at Geelong for £90 a year with rations. John soon started business as a blacksmith and contractor in King Street, Melbourne, where his three sons joined him as they grew up. They won the contract for the Moorabool viaduct in Geelong in 1858 and as the colony's railways extended shared in many government contracts. By 1869 only David remained with his father, trading as John Munro & Son. In September they filed a voluntary petition in insolvency, showing a deficit of £1419 from business losses. Their schedules showed that John Munro controlled all the assets while David owned only the £3 worth of clothes he wore in court, 'a very unsatisfactory Estate' according to the official assignee. After release from sequestration in February 1870 David apparently did not resume business with his father. In 1871 he married Sarah Elizabeth Sydenham.

David started his own engineering and machinery business, finally occupying land in Queen Street, à Beckett Street, and Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. His trademark was a phoenix arising from the flames and his motto Resurgam. In the construction and railway boom of the 1870s and 1880s David Munro & Co. was one of the colony's biggest employers of labour. Two of his best works still carry traffic across the Yarra: Queens Bridge built on the site of the old Falls Bridge for £45,000 and opened in April 1890; and the new Princes Bridge built in 1888 for £137,000. His many railway contracts included the Fitzroy-Whittlesea line built for £100,000, and the Frankston-Crib Point line for £53,000. Munro sold every type of sawmilling, threshing and mining equipment, either for cash or on his new 'Purchasing Lease System'. His patented or improved machines were commonly used by selectors and included a post-boring machine, the 'Victory Self-adjusting Windmill' and portable engines using 'the colonial fire-box, the steam jacketted cylinder, the variable expansion gear, the sliding crank shaft bracket, the three-way force-pumps'. Like many capitalists he was harsh on his employees and in the temporary slump of 1887 cut their wages from 7s. to 6s. 6d. a day. Unmoved by protests he told the men that their union leaders were 'vermin to be squelched'.

Munro served as president of the Chamber of Manufactures, councillor of the National Agricultural Society and in 1881-83 on the royal commission on the tariff. He also developed close links with Thomas Bent after sharing with him the construction of the Nepean Road tramway. They were directors in the Brighton Gas Co. Ltd. In 1888 Bent and John Blyth suggested to Munro that he convert his business into a public company and offer shares on the stock exchanges. In return for his assets Munro received 40,000 shares with a face value of £5 paid up to £2 10s. each and 80,000 shares paid up to £1 each. Bent and Blyth each took up 10,000 partly-paid shares and persuaded the graziers W. and S. Kiddle to take thousands more. Munro plunged into the land boom with abandon, borrowing large sums on mortgage from the Bank of South Australia and Bank of Australasia and investing it in land for subdivision at Somerton, Canterbury and elsewhere. He bought several expensive acres in Kooyong and built a mansion. Under his wife's name, large sums were borrowed from the Mercantile Finance Co. Ltd for land speculation.

Munro floated the Caledonian Land Bank Ltd, its purpose the acquisition of his properties at Brighton and Canterbury. A meeting of shareholders early in 1889 claimed that he had sold the properties to the company at grossly inflated valuations. Munro offered to make good any loss, produced a bag of bank-notes and on the spot bought the shares of dissatisfied shareholders. Eleven days later a shareholders' committee of investigation asked Munro to buy all the remaining shares. He refused and wrote scornfully to the newspapers criticizing shareholders who sought 'to relieve themselves of their personal liability'. Nineteen days later he filed a voluntary petition in insolvency. While speculating in land he had continued as managing director of his engineering business on a five-year agreement. At the time of flotation he had about £500,000 worth of contracts in hand. Recommended by Bent and Blyth, he arranged a large overdraft with the City of Melbourne Bank to finance these contracts, but weaknesses in the land market led the bank to insist on Munro's resignation from the engineering works. Incompetent managers were appointed, many contracts ran late and the company suffered heavy loss. A shareholders' meeting on 5 April disclosed losses on contracts of £90,000.

In the land-boom collapse the value of shares in David Munro & Co. Ltd dropped almost to nothing as did the market price of his land. When a call of 5s. a share was made, Munro could not pay and had to forfeit his 120,000 shares. His personal estate showed debts of nearly £380,000 on bank overdrafts, calls on shares and sums owing to other land speculators. His wife also went through the Insolvency Court with debts in her name to land companies of a further £45,000. Six years later a Supreme Court investigation found grave irregularities in the City of Melbourne Bank's manipulations of his engineering works. Since the bank's manager, Colin Milne Longmuir, had died at sea, no criminal charges were made and Munro was not recompensed for his losses. The Munros moved from their mansion to a small cottage in Parkville, where he died on 31 March 1898 from a haemorrhage and alcoholism. He was survived by his wife who died in 1914, three sons and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Franklyn, A Glance at Australia in 1880 (Melb, 1881)
  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • M. Cannon, Land Boom and Bust (Melb, 1972)
  • Melbourne Bulletin, 24 Dec 1885
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Oct 1886, 21 July 1887, 6 Apr 1889
  • Australasian Sketcher, 27 Jan 1887
  • Age (Melbourne), 1, 12, 21 Feb, 12 Mar 1889
  • Table Talk, 22 Jan 1892
  • David Munro & Co. Ltd, file 1251 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

Michael Cannon, 'Munro, David (1844–1898)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/munro-david-4270/text6903, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 September 2019.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

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