Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Thomas Appleton (1859–1930)

by G. R. Henning

This article was published:

William Thomas Appleton (1859-1930), businessman, was born on 2 May 1859 at Leeds, Yorkshire, England, son of Thomas Appleton, bookbinder, and his wife Mary, née Burnley. His mother's brother William had established a profitable import-export agency in the Port Phillip District; the Appleton family visited him in Melbourne in late 1859 just before his death, but soon went back to England. William Thomas was educated at Wharfdale College, Yorkshire, before returning to Victoria with his parents in 1869 to settle in Geelong. He completed his education at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1872-73. As a youth he was a keen horseman and interested in many sports.

In the late 1870s Appleton joined his brother (Colonel) George Burnley (1850-1945) in his Geelong woolbroking and stock and station agency. On 27 April 1882 he married Elizabeth Jane, daughter of John Traill, a founder and then chairman of Huddart, Parker & Co. Pty Ltd whose Geelong office Appleton joined about 1884. Manager there early in 1887 and later of the Melbourne office, he was appointed to the board in 1894 and became managing director in 1898. In 1910-30 he was also chairman of the company, which in the 1890s had consolidated its position in the Australian coastal trade, extended its operations to New Zealand and secured a majority interest in the Hebburn and Metropolitan collieries at Maitland and on the South Coast, New South Wales.

Appleton was an able and energetic organizer in the field of industrial relations. His thorough understanding of shipping management and his mastery of detailed administration assisted him as architect and advocate of the Australasian Steamship Owners' Federation, which grew into a very powerful organization; he was its founding chairman in 1899-1903, and in 1908, 1911-16, 1920-21 and 1925-30. First appointed as a shipowner representative on the Melbourne Harbor Trust in November 1906, Appleton was chairman from April 1911 until the trust was reconstituted in February 1913, and was thereafter a senior commissioner. Throughout, he was a staunch advocate of harbour improvements and strongly supported the trust's long-term plan for new dock construction. Appleton Dock on the north side of the River Yarra was named after him.

For twenty-five years Appleton was an active council-member of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, of which he was president in 1914-16. He was also president of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Australia in 1915-16 and had been president of the Geelong branch and a representative at congresses in London. He was chairman of several shipping and colliery companies, a director of Amalgamated Wireless Australasia Ltd, and had been a trustee of the Geelong Savings Bank and a founding director of the Western and Wimmera Districts of Victoria Freezing Co. Ltd. In 1910 he intended to stand at the Kooyong Federal by-election but at the last moment withdrew in favour of the Liberal Party's nominee, Sir Robert Best. During World War I Appleton held a number of temporary official posts. He also attended the inaugural National Laboratory Conference in early 1916 and took part in later negotiations which eventually led to the formation of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research.

Appleton died of cancer on 16 February 1930 at his home in Malvern, and was cremated with Presbyterian rites. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and three of his five sons of whom the eldest had been killed at Pozières in 1916. His estate was valued for probate at £131,323. One of the most influential men in the Australasian shipping world, Appleton was respected by both shipowners and maritime unions for his strength of leadership and fairness of judgment.

Select Bibliography

  • Huddart Parker Ltd, Huddart Parker Limited 1876-1926 (Syd, 1926)
  • B. Hoare, Jubilee History of the Melbourne Harbor Trust (Melb, 1927)
  • Melbourne Harbor Trust, Port of Melbourne Official Handbook (Melb, 1933)
  • G. Currie and J. Graham, The Origins of CSIRO (Melb, 1966)
  • Southern Sphere, Mar 1911
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1 Feb 1912
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1930
  • Huddart, Parker & Co. Ltd records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

G. R. Henning, 'Appleton, William Thomas (1859–1930)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1859
Leeds, Yorkshire, England


16 February, 1930 (aged 70)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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