Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Durham Leslie (1857–1933)

by O. S. Green

This article was published:

William Durham Leslie (1857-1933), businessman, was born on 21 November 1857 at Wattle Mill, Sale, Victoria, third child of Scottish parents James Leslie, blacksmith and engineer, and his wife Margaret, née Durham. His father had migrated to Victoria on the advice of P. H. McArdle, Scottish-born Gippsland businessman, and was later McArdle's partner. Leaving Sale Common School at 15, William worked on the Gippsland Times as a proof-reader and later became a counter-hand for James Cromie, then Gippsland's largest softgoods merchant. On 31 March 1882 at Sale he married Cromie's Irish niece Mary Margaret Hanna; of their eight children, three sons and two daughters survived infancy.

In 1888 Leslie commenced business for himself as general draper in Foster Street, Sale. He assumed control of the Cromie business in 1895 and added to it saddlery, footwear, grocery, kitchen hardware and confectionery departments and tea-rooms, making W. D. Leslie & Co. (Pty Ltd from 1922) Gippsland's largest emporium. A parking area for wagons and buggies took in the former site of James Leslie's smithy and engineering shop; a furniture business, bought in 1901, was relocated opposite the large complex. Leslie was the first Gippsland businessman to organize his store into departments, each operating under a manager, with sales transactions being sped on overhead wires to the centrally located cashier. He opened stores at Warragul and Traralgon, and, later selling these, added a branch store at Maffra.

Leslie lived at Mulcarie, Lansdowne Street, but also had a Melbourne home at Malvern. A member of the Commercial Travellers' Association and council-member of the Victorian Master Drapers' Association, he was also on the boards of the Gippsland Steam Navigation Co. and the Sale Butter Factory. He was president of the Sale Early Pioneers' Association and belonged to the ratepayers' association and the cemetery trust. Leslie followed his father on to the Sale Borough Council in 1896 and was mayor three times (1897, 1898 and 1903) in his eighteen years service. In 1910, as a Deakin supporter, he challenged G. H. Wise for the Federal seat of Gippsland but was forced by illness to withdraw.

Leslie was a member of the Sale Presbyterian board of management, as well as church organist and choirmaster, and initiated the Presbyterian purchase in 1923 of William Pearson's Kilmany Park for conversion into a farm home for boys. Fearless in upholding his principles, he supported the Victorian Protestant Federation in sectarian debate on appointments to the Victorian Public Service.

A skilled bowler, Leslie was in the Australian team which toured the United Kingdom in 1922. The breeding of a pedigree dairy herd and thoroughbred racehorses were other interests. Ayrshires bred on his property, Raith, won major awards at district and State shows. Leslie was a councillor of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria and judged at New Zealand, Melbourne and Sydney shows. In Sydney in 1933 he was knocked down by a motor cycle; the effects contributed to his death at Malvern on 2 December. He was buried in Sale cemetery and, survived by his wife and children, left an estate valued for probate at £43,152.

Select Bibliography

  • O. S. Green, Sale: The Early Years—and Later (Sale, 1979)
  • C. Daley, The Story of Gippsland (Melb, 1960)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 May 1930, 31 Mar 1932
  • Gippsland Times, 4 Dec 1933
  • private information.

Citation details

O. S. Green, 'Leslie, William Durham (1857–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


21 November, 1857
Sale, Victoria, Australia


2 December, 1933 (aged 76)
Malvern, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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