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Sir William John Allison (1903–1966)

by Merran Samuel

This article was published:

Sir William John Allison (1903-1966), businessman, was born on 7 March 1903 in South Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Alfred James Allison, carpenter, and his wife Florence Nightingale, née Gray. John left Middle Park State School at the age of 13 to work as an office-boy with Permewan Wright Ltd, operators of retail grocery chain-stores. He studied accountancy at night, passing the examinations of both the Commonwealth and Federal institutes of accountants: on the basis of his results, he gained admission to the faculty of commerce at the University of Melbourne. Transferred to Sydney, he did not complete his degree. On 8 February 1930 he married a clerk Olive Dorothy Becroft at St John's Anglican Church, Glebe; they were to have two sons and a daughter.

Fascinated by accountancy, Allison rose rapidly in the firm, with the support of its New South Wales manager W. R. Williams whom he succeeded in 1939. In 1940 Allison returned to Melbourne as general manager. He became managing director in 1947 and chairman in 1952. A stickler for accurate accounting, he allowed no hint of insider-trading or nepotism, demanded punctuality from employees and forbade alcohol at the workplace. In later years he envisaged the company becoming a broadly-based chain of supermarkets and moved towards this end as architect of the merger with Grocery & General Merchants Ltd.

He served on the council of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce from 1946 (vice-president, 1948; president, 1952-55) and was president of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Australia in 1951-53. The latter position provided a public platform for his views. At the prime minister's national conference on inflation in 1951, Allison's call to the government to fight inflation by monetary and fiscal measures made a profound impression on Federal ministers. A close relationship developed with Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies and Allison was invited to join the elite, eccentric, power-broking and very private West Brighton Club. Menzies frequently visited his home where the two men talked for long hours into the night. When import restrictions were imposed in March 1952, Allison was appointed a member of the Commonwealth Consultative Committee on Imports and served on that body for six years. Although theoretically a 'free trader', he recognized that pockets of industry required protection.

Government concern for the necessity to be prepared for war led to Allison's appointment in 1953 as chairman of the board of business administration, Department of Defence. Among the issues it considered were the purchase of a Jindivic pilotless aircraft, the need to maintain a submarine capacity and whether to buy Mirage aeroplanes. He subsequently became chairman of a committee that reviewed rates of pay, allowances and retirement benefits for servicemen. His concern to establish superannuation for workers, in the defence forces and elsewhere, arose from his family's suffering after his father's death.

In 1955 Allison was appointed a member of the business advisory group of the Australian Atomic Energy Commission. He believed that the potential advantages of atomic power for peaceful use far outweighed its potential as a 'destroyer of mankind'; he also thought that, as coal and water were freely available in the south-eastern States, the development of atomic power would probably occur in such places as South Australia and the Northern Territory. As a policy-shaping body, the business advisory group initially made a strong contribution, but by 1958 had been reduced to being a 'rubber stamp' for the commission's policies.

Having been persuaded to stand for the Melbourne City Council in 1954, Allison was elected unopposed for the Lonsdale Ward and became chairman of the finance committee. Somewhat over-extended and disillusioned with council politics, he resigned in 1958. Duty to government continued to attract him and he served as chairman (1958-65) of the Export Development Council. He considered exports to be crucial in determining the rate of Australia's economic growth and recommended taxation rebates as incentives for producers.

His lifelong commitment to education and training led to Allison's appointment as a member of the council of the University of Melbourne in 1955. He played an influential part in the establishment of the university's summer school of business administration, and was chairman of its board of management and principal from 1956. Keen to establish a professional status for businessmen, he was foundation president (1964) of the Victorian Institute of Directors. He was knighted in 1954 and elevated to K.B.E. in 1959.

Generally good humoured, with a pleasant voice, engaging smile and erect carriage, Sir John had great managerial ability, as well as a quality of friendship and an ability to delegate which partly accounted for his success. People were inspired by him and worked hard for him. On occasions he would be applauded by his exhausted friends as he handed to charity a cheque, the funds of which had been raised by them. A number of worthy causes attracted his interest. He was treasurer (1944-48) and president (1949-50) of the 'Uncle Bob's Club' which collected money for the orthopaedic hospital at Frankston; he was also chairman (1955-56) of the annual Red Cross appeal.

A gregarious man who often enjoyed a drink with his many friends, Allison belonged to numerous clubs, among them the Australian, Hawthorn and Commonwealth. He was a director of Murray Shipping Ltd, Robert Harper & Co. Ltd, Holeproof Industries Ltd and Peters Ice Cream (Vic.) Ltd (Petersville Australia Ltd). His family life was unpretentious, his private interests simple—reading and early-morning swimming year-round at the Middle Park baths. Survived by his wife and sons, he died of a coronary occlusion on 20 September 1966 at his Kew home and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. Menzies, Harold Holt and (Sir) John McEwen paid tribute to his public service and his contribution towards the encouragement of exports. Allison's portrait by Paul Fitzgerald hangs in the graduate school of management, University of Melbourne; another is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, Record, June 1951, June 1952, Jan 1954, Apr 1954
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, Oct 1966
  • Victorian Historical Magazine, Nov 1966
  • Search (Sydney), 6, no 9, 1975
  • Argus (Melbourne), 6 Oct 1949, 18 Apr 1951, 13 Jan, 18 May, 1 June 1954
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Aug, 25 Sept, 11-16 Dec 1954, 31 May 1955, 10 Apr 1958, 13 June 1959, 9 Feb 1960, 4 Feb 1961, 22 Oct 1964, 20 Jan, 1 Apr, 26 May 1965, 22 Sept 1966
  • Herald (Melbourne), 26-28 May, 20 June 1953, 1, 21 Jan, 6 June 1954, 21 Sept 1966
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 26 May, 1 July, 8 Oct 1965
  • Department of Defence, personal correspondence, A 595459/3 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Merran Samuel, 'Allison, Sir William John (1903–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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