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Phelan, William (1915–1973)

by B. J. Costar

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

William Phelan (1915-1973), by unknown photographer

William Phelan (1915-1973), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria

William Phelan (1915-1973), businessman and politician, was born on 16 July 1915 at Maryborough, Victoria, second child of Sydney Clifford Phelan, ironmonger, and his wife Letitia Ellen, née Chellew, both Victorian born. Educated at Maryborough High School, Bill joined the family construction company, William Phelan & Sons Pty Ltd. On 22 October 1938 at the Methodist Church, St Kilda, he married Hazel Patten, a 22-year-old saleswoman; they were to have two sons and two daughters. At the age of 24 he succeeded his father as managing director of Phelan & Sons. In 1942 he added a joinery to the business.

Once rationing was eased, the firm flourished during the postwar building boom, producing sash-windows for the Housing Commission of Victoria. The commission invited the company to build dwellings in the Maryborough district and provided a factory at Carisbrook for the construction of transportable homes. In 1950 Phelan & Sons produced its first prefabricated house; by 1953 it had supplied five hundred, at the rate of one per day, to much of western Victoria. Phelans was Maryborough's largest firm, employing three hundred workers, for whom it created a housing estate. When building activity slowed after 1960, it won construction contracts from other State government departments.

A Freemason and a Presbyterian, Phelan was active in a range of local community organizations. He was a member (1944-61) of the Maryborough council (mayor 1954-55), a founding member (1939) of the local Apex club (president 1944-46) and of Maryborough Rotary Club (president 1961), a member (1953-63) and president (1959-61) of the Maryborough Hospital Committee, chairman (1954-55) of the Maryborough Waterworks Trust and the Maryborough Sewerage Authority, and a member of the Central Highlands Regional Committee. He also served as a justice of the peace.

These community connections made Phelan attractive to the Country Party which was keen to dislodge the Liberal Country Party minister of lands and soldier settlement, Keith Turnbull, from the Legislative Assembly seat of Kara Kara at the 1961 election. In a four-way contest Phelan finished third, with Turnbull easily defeating the Australian Labor Party's candidate. Phelan served on the Country Party's central council in 1962-64. At the 1964 election he succeeded in defeating Turnbull with the aid of A.L.P. preferences. Although he successfully defended his marginal seat in 1967, he was defeated by Labor in the anti-Country Party landslide of 1970. His brief parliamentary career was undistinguished: he advocated the decentralization of industry and served on the Privileges and State Development committees.

By contrast, 'chubby-faced, wavy-haired, smiling Bill Phelan' was, by the late 1960s, 'one of the most successful country industrialists' in Victoria. He was a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management and an executive-member of the Victorian Employers' Federation. For recreation, he enjoyed tennis, golf, field-shooting and fishing. Survived by his wife and children, he died of cerebrovascular disease on 22 December 1973 at Maryborough and was buried in the local cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at $179,075.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Osborn, Against the Odds (Maryborough, 1995)
  • Maryborough Advertiser, 28 Dec 1973
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 20 Apr 1967
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Dec 1973.

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Phelan, William (1915–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phelan-william-11381/text20333, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 March 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 15

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