Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Maddison Alderson (1814–1884)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

William Maddison Alderson (1814-1884), manufacturer and politician, was born on 7 May 1814 at Newcastle upon Tyne, England, son of William Henry Alderson and his wife Barbara, née Maddison. After working for some sixteen years in the leather trades in England he migrated to New South Wales in 1842. In 1844 he established a tannery in Sydney which in the mid-1850s was moved to Bourke Street, Surry Hills, just outside the city limits in accordance with the Act 13 Vic. no. 42, regulating the location of noxious trades. The business prospered and Alderson extended his activities into the other leather trades, winning medals at the London, Paris, New South Wales and Victorian exhibitions in 1851-69. He later established a tannery and fellmongering works at Kedron Brook, Brisbane.

By 1860 Alderson was one of Sydney's leading manufacturers and strongest advocates of protection. As the employer of about 160 persons and owner of an establishment with an estimated worth of £15,000 and a turnover of about £60,000 for 1861, he gave evidence before the select committee on the state of manufactures and agriculture in October 1862. He attributed the current slump in manufacturing to the flooding of the market with cheap English goods and advocated the levy of a protective tariff of 10 to 20 per cent to remedy the situation. In an endeavour to compete more favourably with the imported product Alderson that year had followed the lead of another Sydney boot manufacturer, James Vickery, and introduced power machinery. By 1865 it was reported that 100 workers with cutting, riveting and sewing machines produced about three times as many boots and shoes as 160 under the old handwork system. At this time Alderson had two separate branches; in addition to the tannery and finishing works in Bourke Street employing over a hundred hands, he had an upper, saddlery and harness works in Elizabeth Street which employed about sixty. By 1870 Alderson was employing over 250 in his tanning, boot and harness works and producing 120,000 pairs of boots and shoes a year.

The application of machinery to the leather trades led, as in other industries, to the development of a fairly extensive factory system and the consequent organization of labour, and soon Alderson and other employers were forced to look to the interests of their class. During a curriers' strike in 1881 Alderson's firm, which had always refused to negotiate with the Trades and Labor Council, strongly rejected the proposal of a ten-hour pay for an eight-hour day and any interference by the council. Alderson declined to stand for the Legislative Assembly but in August 1882 he was appointed a life member of the Legislative Council, where his protectionist views led him to an unequivocal espousal of the cause of the employer and freedom of contract. Speaking on the land boilers inspection bill in 1883 he referred to the Employers' Liability Act of 1882 and what he called 'others of a similar tendency' and said: 'If Parliament goes on legislating in this way … many of the industries of this country will have to be closed. There is so much to contend with in competing with that grand old country England that we ought not be handicapped in any way whatever. We ought rather to receive encouragement'.

In addition to his active association with the Protection League of Australia in 1857, the New South Wales Trade Protection Society and the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts Alderson devoted some of his time and patronage to the appropriate charitable institutions of the city. He died at his home, Brighton House, Kellett Street, Darlinghurst, on 21 April 1884 and was buried in the Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his wife Isabel, née Mitford, whom he had married in England in 1835, and seven of their thirteen children. His estate was sworn for probate at more than £36,000.

Select Bibliography

  • Select Committee on Tanners and Curriers Bill, Report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1862, 5, 1065, 1148
  • Sewage and Health Board, Eighth report, Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1875-76, 5, 507
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1882, 590, 1883, 1459
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Feb, 29 Apr 1857, 2 May 1859, 7 Sept 1870, 22 Apr 1884
  • Sydney Mail, 1 Apr 1865
  • Evening News (Sydney), 12, 14 Mar 1881
  • Town and Country Journal, 26 Apr 1884.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Alderson, William Maddison (1814–1884)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (Melbourne University Press), 1969

View the front pages for Volume 3

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 May, 1814
Newcastle upon Tyne, Tyne and Wear, England


21 April, 1884 (aged 69)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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