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Ralston, Walter Vardon (1846–1920)

by Arthur O'Neill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Walter Vardon Ralston (1846-1920), banker, was born on 12 August 1846 in Melbourne, son of Scottish parents Gavin Ralston, wine merchant, and his wife Emily Anne, née Vardon. Walter went to school at Nelson College, New Zealand, and was privately tutored by Archdeacon Butt.

He moved to Brisbane and reputedly eventually managed Mount Hutton station, Cannindah and Mount Larcom station, near Gladstone, through the influence of William Forrest. Illness took him to Melbourne and service in the London Chartered Bank of Australasia in the late 1860s, then the National Bank of Australasia. Ralston resigned in 1874 and joined the Queensland National Bank, Brisbane, on 17 October as a teller. Three months later he was sent to Dalby as agent. There he married Julia Cormack in the Catholic Church on 2 October 1875. He opened branches at Tambo (1875) and Cunnamulla (1878), and took charge of Cooktown (1880), Townsville (1887) and Rockhampton (1893), the largest branch. After commanding the Garrison Battery of Cooktown (from 1885), Ralston served as major in the Kennedy Regiment (1887-92) and as an unattached officer till 1896.

In the financial stringency of 1893 the Queensland National Bank with many other banks was forced to close its doors. The general manager E. R. Drury who conducted the reconstruction but did not disclose the bank's full plight, died in February 1896. Ralston succeeded him as general manager and worked with vigour and acumen. He reported to the chairman of the board that it was impossible to carry on: nearly '£3 000 000 was locked up and earns absolutely nothing and a considerable portion … will eventually have to be written off'. He submitted a vital scheme of rearrangement to prevent liquidation of incalculable magnitude, 'which would cause disaster'. The board placed Ralston's report and his scheme before the premier Sir Hugh Nelson.

The government, which claimed to be a preferential creditor, had banked with the Queensland National Bank from 1879 and had £2,365,000 on deposit when it closed its doors. A committee was appointed to investigate the bank's affairs. It reported in November 1896, confirming Ralston's findings as to bad debts which would wipe out the paid capital and leave a deficiency of £1.3 million. The committee suggested that liquidation should be carried out only as a last resort and that the pre-1893 depositors convert their deposit receipts into shares replacing the existing shareholders. The depositors were not keen on this and the shareholders opposed it.

In the end Ralston's innovative scheme of rearrangement was adopted with minor amendments by shareholders and depositors in Australia and Britain and by the government. He negotiated with treasurer Kidston the mutually satisfactory Queensland National Bank Limited (Agreement) Act of 1904; the government was fully paid by 1915. The terms of rearrangement were completely carried out by 1918, when dividends were again paid.

No doubt Ralston was responsible for the resurgence of the bank. A valued financial adviser to Queensland governments, he occasionally advised Prime Minister Fisher, particularly on the Commonwealth note issue. Geoffrey Blainey has described him as 'perhaps the most versatile banker in Australia in his day'. Firm, prudent, suave and cordial, Ralston was a director of the Queensland National Pastoral Co. Ltd and of Millaquin Sugar Co. Ltd, a patron of the Queensland Bankers' Association and sometime committee-member of the Queensland Club. His 'large-hearted liberality to his staff' and munificence with charities were proverbial. His recreations included golf, motoring, fishing and gardening.

Still employed, Ralston died on 15 October 1920 while at his home, Monte Video, Windsor, and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife survived him; they had no children. His estate, valued for probate at about £72,000, was left to relations.

Select Bibliography

  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper (Melb, 1958)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1904, 93, p 581
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 19 Dec 1896, p 86, 22 Nov 1920, p 716, 20 Apr 1912, p 294
  • Pastoral Review, 15, 17 Oct 1907, p 692
  • Brisbane Courier, 16 Oct 1920
  • National Australia Bank archives, 1872-1920.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Arthur O'Neill, 'Ralston, Walter Vardon (1846–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ralston-walter-vardon-834/text14239, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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