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Fred William Hughes (1869–1950)

by J. A. Ryan

This article was published:

Fred William Hughes (1869-1950), pastoralist, industrialist, racehorse breeder and owner, was born on 12 September 1869 in Brisbane, third son of Henry Benjamin Hughes, butcher, and his wife Sarah, née McLaren, both Australian born. Beginning as a farmhand, he later worked for the Sydney firm Thomas Geddes & Co., wool-scourers of Harris Street. By 18 he was assistant wool-valuer, graduating through wool sales to control the firm's scouring. Soon Hughes bought out Geddes and became sole proprietor of Buckland Mills, Waterloo. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Sydney, he married a widow Matilda Morris, née Hawthorne, on 7 September 1898; they were childless.

Enterprising qualities characterized Hughes's business career. Moving his plant to Botany in 1898, he analysed the whole process of wool treatment. A government bounty for wool-top production in 1907 led him to expand and to move into exports. By 1914 the Colonial Combing, Spinning and Weaving Co., which he operated in partnership with E. A. Coghlan, had an output of three million lb. (1.36 million kg) of tops. During World War I, despite the controls of the Central Wool Committee, Hughes doubled his plant and his output.

Meanwhile Hughes moved into other processes of the sheep industry—fellmongering, tanning, glue-manufacture and meat-processing with his company, Colonial Wholesale Meat Co. Ltd. He imported, and built, new machinery for spinning and weaving in his own mills, organizing production from the shearing shed to the spun products of his 'Sunbeam' and 'Sunglo' wools and worsted cloth. Botany remained the site of Hughes's industrial activity which, with 1000 employees, covered almost thirteen acres (5 ha). In 1908 Hughes drew his ventures together in one company, F. W. Hughes Ltd, of which he was managing director.

Tough and determined, Hughes had a relentless streak. He resisted the controls placed on his wool-top business during both wars and, becoming involved in long-drawn-out conflict and litigation with the Commonwealth government, threatened to close down. Charges were made, in public and in parliament, that he won concessions for his companies through political influence, such as by using the connexion of his friend, the former Labor leader J. C. Watson with the W. M. Hughes wartime government. Hughes reacted strongly, asserting that no politician had any links with his companies. After the war Hughes visited Japan and tenaciously negotiated a large tops contract; he later exported to Canada, China, Mexico, Greece and England. Hughes advocated a strong economic nationalist line, consistent, of course, with his own commercial interests in seeking support and protection for the Australian wool industry and access to overseas markets.

Overall, Hughes's industrial relations with his employees appeared good: the Australian Textile Workers' Union supported his nationalist and protectionist stand. However he strongly opposed the granting of the 44-hour week and forecast bankruptcy and loss of jobs if there was no exemption for the industry.

In 1925 Hughes bought his first grazing property Welbondongah, near Moree. He soon acquired other properties near Wagga Wagga and Tumut for Merino sheep and Corriedale fat-lamb raising, and Kooba in the Riverina. By extensive irrigation he grew grain crops and lucerne and with improved pastures built up a huge flock of sheep, reputedly 600,000 by the end of World War II.

After the death of his wife in 1935, Hughes turned to horse-racing on doctor's advice. Doing nothing by halves, he entered the racing world with the same zest and drive he gave his business operations. Starting with the purchase of Highborn in 1937, he acquired a string of horses which were trained by J. W. McCurley, and at the same time began his thoroughbred stud at Kooba. Within ten years he had acquired some 300 racehorses and in his thirteen years of racing had 270 winners, some in partnership with his long-term associate Coghlan. Hughes's greatest successes were winning the Sydney Metropolitan twice, with Dashing Cavalier (1941) and Nightbeam (1944), and in his crowning year 1947 the Melbourne Cup with Hiraji.

At Kooba Hughes was the first Australian breeder to import a son of Hyperion in 1940. He also had Nizami, sire of Hiraji, and sixteen other stallions (ten imported). By 1950, as part of a long-range plan to produce a Derby winner, Hughes had acquired 300 brood mares. His career as a racehorse owner and breeder is legendary and the sums that he spent on buying, breeding and racing his horses will never be known. During World War II Hughes donated a percentage of his stake winnings to the Australian Red Cross Society.

A 'dapper little figure', Hughes was seldom seen in public except at the races and led a very private life. He died at his Edgecliff home on 18 August 1950 and was cremated. He left instructions that there was to be no public announcement. His horse Marconi raced and won at Rosehill the next Saturday, but only his near relations knew its owner was not alive. He left an estate valued for probate at £83,853: later J. B. Renshaw, the State Labor treasurer, claimed that Hughes had died a millionaire and when a company, F. W. Hughes Industries Ltd, was registered a year later with a nominal capital of £7½ million, an enquiry was set up into the estate.

A larger significance may be found in the career of F. W. Hughes, as it reflects something of the experience and mythology of Australia itself: the success of the common man transcending social origins, a vindication of the colonial belief that it's 'what you are' not 'who you are'; the transition from a rural-based to an urban industrial economy in twentieth century Australia—that he did this within the basic economic staple, riding on the sheep's back, makes it more interesting; and finally, personified in his own career, faith in the gospel of 'Australia Unlimited'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. R. Hall, The Manufacturers (Syd, 1971)
  • Pastoral Review, 6 Sept 1950
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 30 May 1947, 24 Oct 1951
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Nov 1947
  • Country Life, 25 Aug 1950
  • S. Tweedie, Between Depressions: Australian Dilemmas in the Search for Asian Markets, 1893-1933 (M. Com. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1982)
  • records, of the Australian Jockey Club, and Australian Textile Workers' Union, New South Wales Division, and Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales (Sydney).

Citation details

J. A. Ryan, 'Hughes, Fred William (1869–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 18 July 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

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