Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William James Cleary (1885–1973)

by Alan Thomas

This article was published:

William James Cleary (1885-1973), brewery manager and administrator, was born on 29 December 1885 at Redfern, Sydney, second son of native-born parents Thomas Patrick Cleary, foreman, and his wife Elsie, née Rose. His father was later a cellarman at Tooth & Co. Ltd's Kent Brewery. Cleary was educated at Blackfriars Public School and at Sydney Boys' High School on a scholarship. At 14, although he wanted to stay at school, he started work at Tooth's. On 20 April 1912 Cleary married Melanie Newton Lewis in Adelaide; they began married life in a 'tent city' at Balmoral Beach, Sydney, and later lived at Mosman. He also attended the University of Sydney part time, won several prizes and graduated Bachelor of Economics with first-class honours in 1918. In 1922-29, while still at Tooth's, he lectured on business principles and practice at the university and was elected a life member of the Workers' Educational Association. In 1934-39 he served on the university senate.

At Tooth's Jim Cleary showed administrative brilliance and was appointed assistant manager in 1920 and general manager in November 1932. He revolutionized the company's book-keeping system, piloted the amalgamation of Tooth's and Resch's Ltd in 1929 and 'never had a strike despite a highly unionised workforce'.

In 1927 Cleary refused an offer to become chief civic commissioner for Sydney, but in November 1929 he accepted appointment as chief commissioner for railways for New South Wales. In an effort to make the railways pay he was responsible for 'dismissals, wage and salary cuts, and short time', and managed to save some £2½ million a year. Money meant little to Cleary and as the Depression worsened, he gave up part of his salary, but he remained an outsider to the railwaymen. From October 1930 he clashed fiercely with the new premier Jack Lang who countermanded his orders and opposed his proposals to reduce the railway deficit. When Cleary dismissed C. A. Goode, a senior official and protégé of Lang, for corruption, Lang retaliated by legislating Cleary out of office. In July 1932, after Lang's electoral defeat, Cleary's charges against Goode were largely upheld by a royal commission, and he returned as chief transport commissioner. He resigned in December on realizing that if he made the necessary drastic changes 'it would be impossible to avoid the suggestion of vindictiveness'.

On 3 July 1934 Cleary succeeded (Sir) Charles Lloyd Jones as chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission at a salary of £500; he treated it as a full-time position. He was cultivated and loved classical music and intellectual pursuits; he had even continued his singing lessons each morning at the height of his clash with Lang, and had taught himself French, German and Latin; widely read, he possessed a large library. Cleary saw that an independent A.B.C. could supplement the mass appeal of commercial radio with programmes meant to educate as well as entertain. With the aid of Herbert Brookes, with whom he forged a close personal bond, he helped to establish permanent A.B.C. symphony orchestras in each State by 1936, encouraged the holding of composers' competitions, and arranged for celebrity artists from overseas to give public concerts. He also promoted talk and commentary sessions and radio plays. After W. T. Conder was dismissed in 1935, Cleary acted as general manager until he had groomed (Sir) Charles Moses to take over the position.

On the outbreak of World War II, Cleary fought against the restrictions and suspicions of the press which opposed an independent A.B.C. news service. Throughout the war he had to contend with government interference and censorship. (Sir) Robert Menzies had ordered E. A. Mann, 'The Watchman', not to criticize the government, and tried to prevent the launching of the A.B.C. Weekly (the newspapers refused to publish A.B.C. programmes); Bert Evatt wanted the news slanted towards the war in the Pacific, and John Curtin complained of the lack of Australian content in programmes. Cleary was often called to Canberra for discussions and to give evidence to the Parliamentary Standing Committee (Joint) on Broadcasting. Unexpectedly, late in February 1945 he resigned, partly because of political interference, but mainly because 'he could no longer rely on the loyalty of those from whom he had a right to expect loyalty'.

Cleary thereafter played little part in public life. A director of Mark Foy's Ltd from 1935, he was its chairman in 1943-49, and was also chairman of J. Ireland Ltd of Newcastle and president of the Industrial Building Society. He was an adventurous and accomplished bushwalker, covering hundreds of miles through parts of New South Wales and Victoria and in New Zealand. Small in stature, he was agnostic, impeccably honest, cool, decisive and strong-willed; described as an 'archbishop of commonsense' he had 'a sturdy independence of spirit'. He was always eager to serve the community and was deeply affected by newspaper criticism. By practising his belief that too personal a relationship with staff was to risk showing favouritism, he was regarded as aloof.

Survived by five daughters, Cleary died in a Sydney nursing home on 20 July 1973 and was cremated. During his last years he looked back to his days as chairman of the A.B.C. with bitterness despite the fact that he had been its main guiding influence.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, Dick Boyer (Canb, 1967)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • M. F. Dixon, Inside the ABC (Melb, 1975)
  • Brewer and Bottler's Gazette, 15 July 1920
  • Wireless Weekly, 3 Aug 1934
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sept 1931, 17 Dec 1932, 7 July 1934, 28 Feb, 25 Apr 1945
  • Sunday Sun and Guardian (Sydney), 7 Aug, 18 Dec 1932
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 3 Aug 1938, 14 Apr 1940
  • H. Brookes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Cleary papers (National Library of Australia and A.B.C. Archives, Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Thomas, 'Cleary, William James (1885–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 December, 1885
Redfern, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


20 July, 1973 (aged 87)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.