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Neil, Edwin Lee (1872–1934)

by Paul H. De Serville

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

Edwin Lee Neil (1872-1934), businessman, was born on 13 October 1872 at Charlton upon Medlock, Lancashire, England, son of a Scot, James Neil, salesman, and his wife Margaret, née McCallum. He left school at 12 and with his family migrated to Sydney in 1884. After working in warehouses, Neil joined the English, Scottish & Australian Bank. Posted south to head office, he observed the collapse of 'Marvellous Melbourne'. In 1895 he joined his father's drapery firm, Wright & Neil, as its accountant and when it was taken over by Sidney Myer in 1911, stayed on. On 11 September 1900 he had married Lucy Harriet Hunt at Christ Church, South Yarra.

A tall, careful, religious, conservative man, who wore pince-nez, Neil became responsible for the financial planning and delicate negotiations underpinning Myer's ambitious schemes. Neil's caution, business connexions and experience complemented Myer's intuitive flair and energy. In running the Myer Emporium, Neil especially concerned himself with the control and training of the staff. In the manner of a Christian patriarch, at times severe, at times lenient, he cultivated loyalty and enthusiasm by inspections, lectures and exhortations, stressing the desirability of good health and manners, and the avoidance of strong drink (Myer's did not sell liquor during his lifetime). He installed a doctor and nurses who daily attended staff and customers. With incorporation in 1917, Neil became manager and co-director with Sidney Myer, and in 1925 when the Myer Emporium Ltd was formed, managing director. He groomed A. H. Tolley as his successor. In the 1920s when Myer was often absent for up to six months in a year, Neil was in charge, an arrangement that encouraged speculation about growing misunderstanding. In the few months between Myer's death and his own, Neil was chairman of directors, addressing shareholders from his sickbed.

Apart from his work Neil's chief interests were music and the Church. He played the organ at St Hilary's, East Kew, and although his mother had been a fervent Congregationalist, Neil was a committed Anglican: member of synod, the Church Missionary Society, the Melbourne Bible Institute, a leader in the Days of Prayer movement, and a lay canon of St Paul's Cathedral.

Appointed to the board of the Melbourne Homoeopathic (Prince Henry's) Hospital, Neil found the institution's sturdy loyalty to homoeopathic principles incompatible with the need for reorganization, and after some years of frustration resigned. In 1925 Prime Minister Stanley (Viscount) Bruce appointed him commissioner in charge of the Australian section at the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, London. Using the opportunity to press for an Imperial preference scheme, he criticized the government's failure to foster Australian products by advertising. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1926.

During the Depression Neil took a public stand on national policy, opposing E. G. Theodore's scheme of expenditure (Neil belonged to the 'balance the books' school), and Jack Lang's plan of repudiation. In February 1931 Neil helped to found the Citizens' League, was joint vice-president with (Sir) George Coles, and wrote a pamphlet, Why We Need a Citizens' League. The league amalgamated with the All for Australia League which late in the year was absorbed into the United Australia Party.

Neil, who had not been well since he fell off a ladder while cleaning a gutter, died on 17 December 1934 at home at Kew and was buried in Box Hill cemetery. At his funeral the Salvation Army, the Myer Emporium choir and metropolitan choral societies sang his favourite hymns. He was survived by his wife, a missionary son and three daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £28,506. In death as in life, Neil epitomized that successful marriage of commerce with Protestantism, which was once the hallmark of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Marshall, The Gay Provider (Melb, 1961)
  • J. Templeton, Prince Henry's (Melb, 1969)
  • R. Cooksey (ed), ‘The great Depression in Australia’, Labour History, 1970, no 17
  • Church of England Messenger (Victoria), 21 Dec 1934
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 11 Mar 1926
  • Argus (Melbourne), 20 Apr 1927, 16-26 Feb 1931, 18, 19 Dec 1934
  • P. Nicholls, The Rise of the United Australia Party (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1971)
  • A. H. Tolley, untitled memoir on E. Lee Neil (1935?, University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Paul H. De Serville, 'Neil, Edwin Lee (1872–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/neil-edwin-lee-7733/text13549, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

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