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Sir George James Coles (1885–1977)

by Diane Sydenham

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Sir George James Coles (1885-1977), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 28 March 1885 at Jung Jung, near Murtoa, Victoria, second of ten children and eldest son of George Coles, storekeeper, and his first wife Elizabeth, née Scoular, both Victorian born. The family moved frequently, establishing several stores; George was educated at various state schools and as a boarder at Beechworth College.

In 1910, after working in Melbourne and in the country, George bought his father's store at St James. Three years later he decided to travel to the United States of America and Britain to observe the methods and style of retailing. He was greatly impressed by what he saw, particularly in the '5 and 10 cent stores', common in the U.S.A. In April 1914, in partnership with his brothers Jim and (Sir) Arthur, he opened a store in Smith Street, Collingwood.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 18 June 1917, George fought in France as a lance corporal in the 60th Battalion. In April 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux he was shot in the knee and evacuated to England. He was discharged on 1 March 1919 in Melbourne. His brothers Arthur, Jim and David had also served in the A.I.F.; Jim was killed in action (1916) and David died from wounds (1917). On 7 February 1920 George married Margaret Gertrude Herbert with Anglican rites at Holy Trinity Church, Kew; they were to have five children.

After the war George and Arthur sold their store to an uncle and in June 1919 opened another in larger premises in Smith Street. The success of the partnership encouraged them to establish G. J. Coles & Co. Pty Ltd on 1 July 1921, with George as managing director. By 1924 their brothers (Sir) Edgar and (Sir) Kenneth, and half-brother (Sir) Norman had also become involved. They began to use the slogan 'nothing over 2/6' which became a by-word for the business.

Expansion was swift. During the 1920s G. J. Coles & Co. acquired further stores and in 1924 opened one in Bourke Street, in the heart of Melbourne's central business district, diagonally opposite the Myer Emporium. It contained what was said to be Australia's first self-service cafeteria. On 31 October 1927, with nine stores operating in Victoria and total sales of £840,000, the company went public. Next year it purchased Cole's Book Arcade, Bourke Street, and opened an Art Deco store there. Suffering poor health in 1931, George handed over the managing directorship to Arthur, but remained as chairman. His autocratic style of leadership led to an abortive attempt by his brothers to oust him in 1935 amid public controversy. G. J. Coles & Co. continued to expand despite the Depression, and on the eve of World War II operated eighty-six stores nationally.

Finding that the less onerous role of chairman enabled him to pursue other interests, in 1934 George had become president of the Melbourne Rotary Club. In the previous year he had taken on the honorary position of treasurer to the Alfred Hospital and was soon advocating expansion and improvement. He was appointed chairman of a sub-committee to develop a ten-year building plan which in 1936 proposed a multi-storey development. George contributed some £10,000. As president (1939-42) of the board, he made good use of knowledge acquired since his appointment (1935) to the Victorian Hospital and Charities Commission. George made a further substantial contribution to the Alfred Hospital to enable the construction of a much-needed wing. It opened in 1943 as the Margaret Coles Maternity Wing (from 1955 Margaret Coles House) in honour of his wife who had joined him in energetically supporting several charities, among them the Melbourne District Nursing Society.

After World War II the retailing sector of G. J. Coles grew rapidly. Dominated by a few family dynasties, retailing was highly concentrated and Coles acquired many of the smaller chains. In the 1950s Selfridges (Australasia) Ltd, Penneys Ltd, F. & G. Stores Ltd and Manton & Sons Ltd all succumbed to Coles' aggressive expansion policies.

In 1956 George retired as chairman and continued as a director. He remained comparatively aloof from the family business, concentrating more of his energy on political and philanthropic causes. He belonged to the Royal Melbourne and the Peninsula golf clubs (president 1954-58), as well as to the Athenaeum, the Victoria Racing and the Melbourne Cricket clubs, but his family and other intellectual interests took up most of his time. A committed Christian, he was a warden of St John's Anglican Church, Toorak.

George's support of conservative political ideas had helped to promote the foundation of the Institute of Public Affairs in 1943. Coles was president until 1957, but was not a significant financial backer and preferred to keep behind the scenes. He appears to have maintained a similar role at the National Bank of Australasia where he was a director (1946-68) and vice-chairman (1966-68).

Appointed C.B.E. in 1942, Coles was knighted in 1957 in recognition of his charitable activities. In his later years he gave money for building the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine, opened at the University of Melbourne in 1963. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, Sir George died on 4 December 1977 at his Toorak home and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $986,486. The family business continued to expand, forming a partnership in 1968 with an American company in the establishment of K-Mart (Aust.) Ltd. With the takeover of the Myer operation in 1985, Coles Myer Ltd became the largest private employer in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • A. M. Mitchell, The Hospital South of the Yarra (Melb, 1977)
  • W. Ives, Arthur William Coles (Melb, 1982)
  • J. McLaughlin, Nothing Over Half a Crown (Main Ridge, Vic, 1991)
  • Nautilus, Winter 1968
  • Australian Women's Weekly, Oct 1985
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 Feb 1957, 12 Jan 1971
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Dec 1977
  • Australian, 6 Dec 1977
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Dec 1977
  • Financial Review, 6 Dec 1977.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Diane Sydenham, 'Coles, Sir George James (1885–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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