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Robert Bunning (1859–1936)

by Jenny Mills

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Robert Bunning (1859-1936), timber merchant and sawmiller, was born on 13 December 1859 at Hackney, London, son of Joseph Bunning, carpenter, and his wife Jane, née Bain. He was apprenticed as a carpenter, and as a boy would travel across London to work in winter with a hot baked potato in each pocket for warmth. In 1872 Joseph took his family to Boston, United States of America, where he worked on church buildings. When the family returned to London, Robert and his younger brother Arthur (1863-1929) stayed to work near Chicago. Joseph later recalled the boys to London to help him put a spire on a church. On 29 June 1886 the brothers arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, in the Elderslie to join a married sister, and set up as building contractors.

By January next year they had won contracts for additions to the Fremantle Lunatic Asylum and for the Roebourne hospital. In 1889 Robert went to Scotland to marry Georgina Taylor at Strathdon near Aberdeen on 28 August. When Arthur was injured in a riding accident, Robert became the driving force in the partnership which built the Weld Club (1892) and Trinity Congregational Church (1893) in Perth and the Coolgardie warden's quarters (1895); they claimed, too, to have owned most of the buildings in Barrack Street, Perth, at one time.

A boom during 1896-97 in the export of jarrah turned Bunning's attention to timber. Although his income of £156,756 for the year came partly from four brickyards, he was anxious to sell them. He bought his first sawmill at North Dandalup in 1897 and was involved with his friend Frank Wilson in the newly formed Timber Merchants and Mill Owners' Association. He was president in 1904-25 and represented it on the executive of the Employers' Federation in 1917-36; he was on the executive too of the Sawmillers' Association from its formation in 1913 to 1936. He had few other outside interests. As a witness to the royal commission on forestry (1903), Bunning stressed freedom of trade for the small man against the Millars' combine, and in later years attacked the State sawmills as a threat to free enterprise.

Despite a constant shortage of capital Bunning established sawmills throughout the south-west, imported the first band-saw in Western Australia to Lion Mill and was the first to instal a timber-drying kiln. He also imported a unique locomotive known as 'Dirty Mary' for use on steep grades, and was one of the first to use a tractor for log-hauling in the bush. In 1929 he leased Garden Island for a holiday resort but was defeated by the Depression.

Bunning's wife had died in 1897 leaving him with two children. In October 1902 he returned to Scotland and married Helen Marion MacRae in Edinburgh; they had five children. On 12 August 1936 during a dinner to celebrate his fifty years of business in Western Australia, Bunning collapsed and died while replying to a toast. He was buried in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta cemetery and his estate was valued for probate at £29,220.

Bunnings Ltd became a public company in 1952, by which time it was the leading supplier of hardwoods to the Western Australian building industry. It had begun expanding its retail activities into the eastern states when taken over by the Wesfarmers group in 1994, and in the 21st century became multi-national. Divesting itself of Bunnings UK and Ireland in 2018, the group retained its New Zealand interest.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Murray, Bunning's Story (Perth, 1964)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Western Australia), 1903-04, 2 (24)
  • JRWAHS, 1 (1927-31) pt 5
  • West Australian, 13 Aug 1936
  • J. R. Robertson, A History of the Timber Industry of Western Australia (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Western Australia, 1956)
  • Sawmillers' Association minutes, and Timber Merchants and Mill Owners Association, Minutes 1904, and Western Australia Timber Merchants Association minutes, 1895-1902 (held at Forest Products Association, West Perth)
  • family papers (privately held).

Citation details

Jenny Mills, 'Bunning, Robert (1859–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 July 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]


13 December, 1859
London, Middlesex, England


12 August, 1936 (aged 76)
Western Australia, Australia

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