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George Washington Griffiths (1844–1924)

by M. French

This article was published:

George Washington Griffiths (1844-1924), foundry proprietor, was born on 24 March 1844 at Bristol, England, son of Thomas Griffiths, accountant and Congregational minister, and his wife Elizabeth, née Hawkins. The family moved to London in 1846 and to Manchester in 1848 where Thomas became a junior partner in A. & S. Henry, cotton merchants; he became wealthy from contraband cotton during the American Civil War. George was educated at Dr Clark's Boarding School, Brill, Buckinghamshire, and briefly at Manchester Mechanics' High School. Hoping to become an architect, he left school in December 1857 and worked briefly in building, engineering and haberdashery before joining A. & S. Henry. On 31 July 1867 George was married by his father to Isabella Park Atherton. With his wife, children and brother-in-law William Atherton, he sailed for Queensland on 2 October 1870.

Griffiths and Atherton bought a small ironmongery and mechanical repair shop at Toowoomba late in 1871; Atherton soon left and, after the arrival of a brother, John Alfred Griffiths, and two sisters, the firm became Griffiths Bros & Co. early in 1873. Moving to a larger site in 1874, they built a foundry and made their first casting in February 1876. They survived by making some of Australia's earliest metal windmills until their first contract for railway rolling-stock in 1881. In 1884 Griffiths bought out his family partners and formed the Toowoomba Foundry and Rolling Stock Manufacturing Co. Ltd with himself as quarter stockholder and managing director. To make steel sleepers for the Normanton-Croydon Railway, a plant was opened in Brisbane. When the railway contracts expired in 1892, the firm was saved by an accommodation with the Queensland National Bank and by the purchase in Griffiths's wife's name of some £5000 worth of shares held outside the family. Saved again by railway contracts in 1895-1902, the firm then began to produce the famous 'Southern Cross' windmill. It contracted in 1910 and 1914 to build thirty-five locomotives for Queensland but, after a loss on a Commonwealth contract, it abandoned railway work. After a trip to England in 1903-04 Griffiths began transferring control to his two youngest sons. He retired in 1911.

Griffiths himself was not an engineer and did not employ designers and engineers, preferring to rely on imported designs or the patterns provided with the precarious railway contracts. When necessary, he hired his brother John Alfred. A good estimator and manipulator of money, Griffiths removed competition by ruthless price-cutting. Essentially he was a salesman rather than a manager and often relied on injections of capital by his wealthy father in difficult times. Generous in large matters but parsimonious in small, he loved reading novels and history and devoted much leisure to a large garden. An active Freemason, he turned from the Congregational to the Anglican Church. He served briefly on the Toowoomba Municipal Council.

Following his wife's death in 1910, Griffiths married Margaret Ann Hunt on 7 March 1911 at Mosman, Sydney. He died on 27 August 1924 at Rose Bay, Sydney, survived by his wife and four daughters and three sons of his first marriage.

His third son Alfred Atherton Griffiths (1879-1948) was born on 5 March 1879 at Toowoomba. Educated at Toowoomba Grammar School, he joined the foundry in January 1895 as a storeman but soon unofficially assumed many of his father's managerial duties. He became a director in 1900, de facto managing director in 1908 and joint managing director in 1911 with his brother George Herbert Griffiths (1881-1977), born on 17 April 1881 at Toowoomba. Educated at J. A. Baxendall's Downs School, Toowoomba, Bert joined the firm in 1898. More technically minded than his brother, he started on the works floor, is credited with developing the 'Southern Cross' windmill, became a director in 1904 with the unofficial title of works manager and joint managing director in 1911. From the mid-1920s both brothers delegated their routine duties to other directors but retained overall control. Atherton became the first president of the Southern Cross group of companies and was succeeded by Bert.

Under their direction branches were established all over Australia. They took over the Eclipse Windmill Co. in 1925, created an export division in 1939 and established a subsidiary in South Africa. They also diversified into south-west Queensland pastoral properties. During World War II the Toowoomba foundry employed over 1000 men on shell-primers, engines and other equipment for the Australian and allied forces. In peace, the firm concentrated on water-supply systems and, more recently, automotive castings. Industrial Investments Pty Ltd was formed in 1949 (renamed Industrial Enterprises in 1952) to co-ordinate all Australian operations.

The two brothers had an amicable, complementary but distant relationship. Atherton, like his father, was the manager and salesman with a head for figures and minute detail. Like his uncle, Bert was inventive, even visionary, and usually initiated major developments. From 1904 the two gradually bought shares held outside the immediate family and ensured that the company remained a family business.

Much more outgoing than Bert, Atherton was an alderman of Toowoomba intermittently in the 1920s and consistently in 1930-48. A football enthusiast, he was one of the oldest practising Rugby referees in the world when he retired in 1943. He married Evelyn Hamilton at Toowoomba on 20 June 1907; they had five children. Divorced on 12 September 1934, he married Marjorie Jessie Nankervis in 1937. He died of cancer at Toowoomba on 25 June 1948 and was cremated. Bert, who served in France as a sapper in 1918, was a crack rifle shot. He had an alert, retentive mind, and in retirement made extensive notes on the firm's history. He married Agnes McIntyre at Sandgate on 10 October 1917; they had three children. Three more children resulted from his marriage to Margaret Walton Kent at Inverell, New South Wales, on 4 November 1933. He died at Toowoomba on 8 July 1977 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. J. Fox (ed), The History of Queensland, vol 1 (Brisb, 1919)
  • South-West Queensland Railway Historical Society, Pony Express, Oct 1973
  • Darling Downs Gazette, 21 July 1884
  • Toowoomba Chronicle, 28 Aug 1924, 26 June 1948, 9 July 1977
  • Griffiths family register and papers, and notes on the history of Toowoomba Foundry, 5 vols (typescript, held by Toowoomba Foundry Archives)
  • foundry records (University of Southern Queensland Archives).

Citation details

M. French, 'Griffiths, George Washington (1844–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


24 March, 1844
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


27 August, 1924 (aged 80)
Rose Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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