Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Frederick John Cato (1858–1935)

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Frederick John Cato (1858-1935), grocer and philanthropist, was born on 15 May 1858 in a tent at Pleasant Creek (Stawell), Victoria, third son of Edward Cato, goldminer and formerly builder, of Surrey, England, and his wife Catherine, née Nimmo, of Glasgow, Scotland. Cato was educated at Stawell State School to the age of 13 and worked in a grocery shop while studying to become a pupil-teacher. He taught at his old school until 1878 before moving to New Zealand where he was eventually in charge of a school at Invercargill. Worried about his health and tired of teaching, in May 1881 he wrote to his cousin Thomas Edwin Moran, who had established two grocery shops in Fitzroy and Carlton, asking him if there were any chance of joining in the business. On 24 July they entered partnership with £411 capital: Moran was to have two-thirds of the shares. In 1884 Cato returned to Invercargill to marry on 12 December Fanny Bethune, daughter of a minister.

The partners prospered. When Moran died in 1890, aged 30, his widow became partner in the business which by then had thirty-five branches. Cato was among the first, in 1893, to introduce six o'clock closing. The business expanded into Tasmania and into New South Wales, where Moran & Cato Ltd was formed in Sydney in 1909. In 1912 it was converted to a proprietary company with the Moran family and Cato as share-holders; Cato became governing director. In 1924 he set up wholesale companies in Melbourne and Sydney. By 1935 there were about 120 branches of Moran & Cato in Victoria and Tasmania and about 40 in New South Wales, with nearly one thousand employees.

Cato had been a founder in 1895 of the Rosella Preserving Co. and became its chairman of directors. He was also a founder in 1911 and chairman of Austral Grain & Produce Pty Ltd, and chairman of Hagita Pty Ltd, coconut-planters of Papua.

An ardent Methodist, Cato fought staunchly for union within the denomination. He was founder in 1913 and long president of the Laymen's Missionary Movement, a pillar of the Auburn Church, president of Queen's College, University of Melbourne, and a member of the Wesley College Council. He donated many scholarships to Church schools and gave extensive properties to the Methodist Ladies' College of which he was a trustee from 1927. He supported the Methodist Boys' Home and Training Farm, Cheltenham, was active in home-mission affairs, and was a generous donor to Methodist missions in Arnhem Land, New Britain and India, which he visited in 1926. He also made generous donations to metropolitan churches of several denominations and to Stawell hospital; parks are named after him there and in Hawthorn. His Methodist endowments probably amounted to some £150,000 and his total gifts to twice that sum, but he 'never gave or helped anyone blindly … He liked to know all about the circumstances and position of those people and causes whom he helped'. A. Wesley Amos commented that 'with the gift came the charm and personality of the giver'.

Cato had long suffered from chronic bronchitis. He died at Hawthorn on 4 June 1935 and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was valued for probate in Victoria at £591,176 and in New South Wales at £20,795. He was survived by two of his four sons of whom Edward went into the business and Edwin became a doctor, and by three of his four daughters. The eldest, Frances Gertrude, married Dr Karl Kumm, founder of the Soudan United Mission. Dr Una Beatrice (Porter), his youngest daughter, started the psychiatric clinic at the Queen Victoria hospital and became world-president of the Young Women's Christian Association. The Y.W.C.A. building in Canberra is named after her.

Select Bibliography

  • C. I. Benson (ed), A Century of Victorian Methodism (Melb, 1935)
  • C. E. Sayers, Shepherd's Gold (Melb, 1966)
  • L. R. East, The Kiel Family and Related Scottish Pioneers (Nunawading, 1974)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 5 June 1935
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 June 1935
  • Moran & Cato papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Cato, Frederick John (1858–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 25 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]


15 May, 1858
Stawell, Victoria, Australia


4 June, 1935 (aged 77)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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