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Young, Sir Walter James (1872–1940)

by Eric Richards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Walter James Young (1872-1940), by unknown photographer, c1935

Walter James Young (1872-1940), by unknown photographer, c1935

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6679

Sir Walter James Young (1872-1940), businessman, was born on 2 April 1872 at Moonta, South Australia, son of John Young, storekeeper and later pastoralist, and his wife Isabella, née Russell. His younger brother was (Sir) Frederick William Young. Educated at Whinham College, North Adelaide, in 1887 Walter joined Elder Smith & Co., Adelaide. He made his first overseas tour for Elders in 1897, to England, America and Japan. Rising steadily, he became the firm's assistant manager (1906), general manager (1912) and managing director (1929). With Elders, he demonstrated a stability of judgement which largely accounted for his influence during and after World War I when, from the centre of Adelaide's business world, he advised and was consulted by State and Federal governments.

A member (1914-19) of the Commonwealth Shipping Board and an expert in the international commodity market, Young was sent early in 1917 on a mission to the United States of America on behalf of the Australian government. In 1918 he was appointed C.B.E. He took a central role in the promotion of orderly marketing arrangements for Australian produce in the trade turmoil at the end of World War I. Vice-chairman (from 1916) of the Commonwealth Central Wool Committee, he was chairman (1920) of its committee in London which negotiated post-war wool sales to the British government. He was also a member of the advisory committee of the Australian Wheat Board. In 1923 he again went to London for the Imperial Conference as one of Prime Minister Stanley (Viscount) Bruce's most valued commercial advisers and a representative on the committee on intra-Imperial exchanges at the Economic Conference.

Described as a quiet, modest, kindly man, handicapped by a speech impediment and recurrent ill health, Young shunned publicity, but was excellently connected. A bachelor, he was prominent in the affairs of the Adelaide Club where he lived for lengthy periods.

Chairman (1927) of a special committee established by Premier (Sir) Richard Butler to examine the State's finances, Young was associated with investigations into railway expenditure, the amalgamation of government departments and the general condition of the South Australian economy. His committee recommended increases in railway freight charges and fares, and in a wide range of government services. Young's impact was greatest during the Depression. In June 1930 he was appointed chairman of the government's advisory committee on finance, composed of some of the most powerful and respected advisers of the day — (Sir) Leslie Melville, Reginald Stuckey, Leslie Hunkin and John Wainwright. After months of frenetic work, they submitted a report, 'The disabilities of South Australia under Federation', which argued the case for additional funds from the Commonwealth. Young played an influential role in persuading Premier Lionel Hill to accept the Premiers' Plan of June 1931; he was active behind the scenes in the Emergency Committee of South Australia which organized an anti-Labor campaign at the Federal election in December that year. In 1932 he was appointed K.B.E.

Young was one of the original members of the Round Table group in Adelaide, chairman of the State branch of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, and a councillor (1924-37) of the University of Adelaide. As chairman of its finance committee, he helped to guide the university's expansion, particularly through large benefactions. His business responsibilities were wide: he was chairman of Imperial Chemical Industries (Australia and New Zealand) Ltd, as well as a director of Mutooroo, Beltana and Milo pastoral companies, and of Elder, Shenton & Co. Ltd, Western Australia. He had interests in pastoral property in New South Wales and was a frequent visitor to other States.

Dogged by poor health after 1932, Sir Walter often retreated to St Magnus, his country property at Mount Pleasant, where he treasured his books, his gardens and his stock. Content to play the part of the modest businessman, he aspired to no more spectacular role than that of 'the quiet man who went on with the job'. After a long illness he died of hypertensive heart disease on 5 January 1940 at his North Walkerville home and was buried in North Road cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Elder Smith and Co. Ltd, The First Hundred Years (Adel, nd)
  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1909)
  • Old Scholars Union, Whinham College (priv print, Adel, 1928)
  • The Mutooroo Pastoral Company Limited after Fifty Years (Adel, 1951)
  • E. J. R. Morgan, The Adelaide Club 1863-1963 (Adel, 1963)
  • K. Sharp, A History of Milo and Ambathala (Adel, 1963)
  • L. Dumas, The Story of a Full Life (Melb, 1969)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1927, 2 (75, 76, 76A)
  • T. Hytten, ‘The finances of South Australia’, Economic Record, 7, May 1931
  • South Australiana, 17, no 1, Mar 1978
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 6 Jan 1940
  • M. J. Thompson, Government and Depression in South Australia, 1927-1934 (M.Ec. thesis, Flinders University, 1972).

Citation details

Eric Richards, 'Young, Sir Walter James (1872–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/young-sir-walter-james-9217/text16285, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 August 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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