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Williamson, Hugh Dean Thomas (1901–1985)

by D. T. Merrett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Hugh Dean Thomas Williamson (1901-1985), banker and philanthropist, was born on 4 February 1901 at Ballarat, Victoria, youngest of four children of Victorian-born parents John Christopher Williamson, mechanic, and his wife Jane, née Thomas. Educated at Dana Street State School and Ballarat Agricultural High School (1914-17), Hugh took a job with the Ballarat Banking Co. in May 1917. A year later he joined the Ballarat branch of the Bank of Australasia and followed the standard career path of moving between branches. In 1921 he qualified as an accountant and was posted to Wycheproof, Victoria, where he made his mark with a bright personality and quick wit.

In 1924 Williamson refused a job offer from the newly formed Primary Producers Bank of Australia, but the offer was a catalyst for his advancement to higher office. He held a succession of increasingly senior managerial and administrative jobs in Australia and New Zealand; in 1947 he was appointed chief inspector, the heir apparent in the ’Asia. Seven years later he was chosen as general manager (1954-61) of the Australia and New Zealand Bank Ltd, the product of a 1951 merger between the Bank of Australasia and the Union Bank of Australia.

The merger left a legacy of internal bickering and inefficiencies, which Williamson helped to overcome. As the sole general manager––his predecessors were joint appointments from each of the former banks––Williamson was in a position to stamp his authority on the institution. He came to the top job at a time when the London-based directors finally recognised that the bank had to comply with the restrictive monetary policies of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, leaving little opportunity for expansion. Williamson fought hard, however, to win support from the board to seek what opportunities he could to build the bank’s domestic business. He enjoyed some success with the introduction of a savings bank in 1956 and a partnership with the hire purchase firm Industrial Acceptance Corporation Ltd in 1957. Moreover, mechanisation of back-office work proceeded apace and bank branches were modernised on his watch.

Using his considerable diplomatic skills, Williamson rebuilt what had been strained relations with Australia’s central bank, preferring to sort out difficulties by meeting its governor, H. C. Coombs, on the golf course or in the bar. His constant travelling around Australia and New Zealand, raising morale by encouraging and mentoring staff at all levels, paid dividends. As an active president (1955-61) of the Bankers’ Institute of Australasia he encouraged bankers to build their knowledge through further study. By the time he retired in 1961, the year he was appointed CBE, he had laid much of the groundwork for the ANZ Bank’s strong performance over subsequent decades. His energy of purpose had weakened, however, in the last few years; fellow executives privately bemoaned his willingness to take soft options and the time he devoted to managing his growing share portfolio.

Williamson enjoyed a particularly active retirement. He served on the boards of many companies, partly due to his association with (Sir) Ian Potter, and gave generous support to a range of causes including the Salvation Army, the National Gallery of Victoria, the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, and the Royal Melbourne and Freemasons hospitals. He was a trustee of the William Buckland Foundation, an enterprise that became a model for his own philanthropic legacy.

In later life Williamson became a bon vivant who enjoyed the company of his wide circle of friends, former colleagues and acquaintances. His friendly demeanour masked a complex person who could be generous, spontaneous, cynical and unsentimentally hard. This amalgam was forged by the life journey of a boy from a country town, who was short, stocky and prematurely bald, and who by hard work and good fortune came to circulate among the elite of Melbourne. He remained, however, a wary outsider despite the trappings of high office and having amassed a fortune playing the share market.

On 26 April 1929 at St Kilda Presbyterian Church Williamson had married Louise Buchanan McPherson, a ‘computer’. She suffered from agoraphobia and seldom left her home; few of his colleagues knew he was married. They had no children and lived apart for many years before her death in 1983. Around the time of his retirement he had met a dressmaker, Elaine Berkefeld, who was his companion for the remainder of his life. Williamson died on 20 December 1985 at East Melbourne and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $4,411,635. Under the terms of his will the Hugh D. T. Williamson Foundation began operation in 1986 with a capital base of more than $4 million.

Select Bibliography

  • D. T. Merrett, ANZ Bank (1985)
  • J. Sandilands, Hugh Williamson (2000)
  • Bankers Magazine of Australasia, vol 74, no 12, 1961, p 276
  • J. Sandilands, Elaine Alice Berkefeld (unpublished manuscript, 2001)
  • F. S. Holt, confidential notes on H. D. T. Williamson, 1981 (ANZ Bank archives)
  • D. T. Merrett, interview with H. D. T. Williamson (typescript, 1982, ANZ Bank archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. T. Merrett, 'Williamson, Hugh Dean Thomas (1901–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/williamson-hugh-dean-thomas-14887/text26077, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 November 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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