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William Arnott (1827–1901)

by Phyllis Mander-Jones

This article was published:

William Arnott, c1890

William Arnott, c1890

State Library of New South Wales

William Arnott (1827-1901), biscuit manufacturer, was born on 6 December 1827 at Pathhead near Kirkcaldy, Fife, Scotland. He was apprenticed to a baker and confectioner and, with his younger brother David, followed his family to Australia, arriving at Sydney in the Sir Edward Parry on 17 February 1848. Both brothers were bakers in Maitland until 1851 when they went with separate parties to the Turon River diggings. William had no luck as a gold miner but did well baking bread and pies on the field and early in 1853 he was back in Maitland as a baker and pastry-cook. He prospered until the two great floods of the Hunter River in 1857 brought disaster. The new building he had put up in 1856 was flooded and he had hardly recovered when he was flooded out again in 1861. In 1862 he was forced to compound with his creditors and in 1864 there were more floods. In February 1865 one of his creditors demanded full payment and in April his wife Monica, née Sinclair, died; he had met her on the voyage to Sydney and they were married in 1850.

Arnott moved to Newcastle in 1865. By September he was established in Hunter Street, Newcastle, and quickly built up a successful business, helped by his second wife, Margaret Maclean, née Fleming, whom he married at Morpeth in October. The move to Newcastle was made possible by loans from friends but he repaid all his debts within twelve months. In the next few years the name of Arnott became famous for bread and cakes but especially for sweet and plain biscuits and ships' biscuits, in which there was a big trade with the growing number of ships in port. Between 1869 and 1876 he acquired land in what became Union Street and built a family home and a factory fitted with the latest machinery. Two sons by the first marriage were already in the business and the elder, James Haydon Leslie, now specialized in biscuits, while the younger, Samuel Sinclair, took charge of confectionery manufacture and later of accounts. From 1882 biscuits were sent by ship to Sydney, where the market proved profitable and became even more so when the Hawkesbury River railway bridge was opened in 1889.

In 1888 the family moved to Mayfield, near Newcastle, and in 1893 Arnott left his sons in charge and visited Scotland with his wife and a daughter. On his return in 1894 he bought a factory in Sydney and took his sons into partnership. He had some forty employees in 1880 and by 1894 the number had increased to nearly eight hundred in Sydney and Newcastle. He retired in 1899 and moved to Strathfield near Sydney, where he died on 22 July 1901. For several years the management of the business had been left to his sons but he had supported the plan for a new factory, built at Homebush between 1906 and 1908.

William Arnott's success was founded on hard work, integrity and insistence on quality. He was a sincere Christian, noted for his lovable and kindly nature. He and his wife were active in philanthropic work and the Wesleyan Church. In 1857 he was elected a trustee of the church in Maitland; in Newcastle he was connected with the Sunday school for twenty-four years, in twenty of which he was superintendent. An example of his honesty in business dealings was in 1883 when he repaid in full his 1862 Maitland creditors; they presented him with an address and a gold medal and held a luncheon in his honour. One of his recreations was rifle shooting. He joined the Volunteer Rifle Corps in 1860 and won the first three contests for the silver belt presented by the mayor of Maitland.

Arnott was survived by his wife (d.1902), two sons and two daughters of his first marriage and five sons and three daughters of the second. The sons of his first marriage, Leslie and Samuel, became chairmen of directors of the business and were succeeded by their half-brothers, William, John Maclean and Halse Rogers; while Robert Fleming became an engineer and Arthur Smith a colonel in the Salvation Army.

Select Bibliography

  • Arnott's Biscuits — One Hundred Years (Syd, 1968)
  • Maitland Mercury, 1851-65, 1883, especially 27 Aug 1857, 1, 8 Sept 1883
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 1 Sept 1877, 18 Sept 1880, 24 Sept 1889, 12 Apr 1893, 16 Oct 1897, 15 Sept 1899, 23, 24, 25, 26 July 1901
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Phyllis Mander-Jones, 'Arnott, William (1827–1901)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 20 July 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

William Arnott, c1890

William Arnott, c1890

State Library of New South Wales

Life Summary [details]


6 December, 1827
Pathhead, Fife, Scotland


22 July, 1901 (aged 73)
Strathfield, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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