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William McIlrath (1876–1955)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Martin McIlrath

Sir Martin McIlrath (1874-1952) and William McIlrath (1876-1955), merchants and philanthropists, were born at Banbridge, Down, Ireland, sons of Robert McIlrath, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Urey. Martin, born on 9 July 1874, arrived in Victoria in 1889 and spent some time in the Wimmera district. In 1892 he joined his brother Hugh in a grocery business in Sydney; this developed into McIlraths Ltd and McIlrath Holdings Ltd, a State-wide grocery and provisions business with thirty-six chain stores in the Sydney metropolitan area.

McIlrath acquired pastoral properties including Merribindinya, a 6000-acre (2428 ha) Hereford and merino station at Bethungra. His company directorships included the Bank of New South Wales in 1940-52 (president, 1950-52). Though he shunned publicity he spoke out when his business interests were involved: in 1944 he criticized tea and sugar rationing; in 1950 the trade union movement; and in 1952 high taxation, the 'costly' welfare state and the structure of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia which he averred was 'not conducive to the unbiased leadership of the banking system'. In 1941 he had been elected president of the Australian National Service League.

His interests extended beyond the field of business and McIlrath became well known for his philanthropy. The full extent of his generosity is not known but in 1937 he endowed a new ward at the Royal North Shore Hospital of Sydney and in 1940 he and his wife gave £10,000 to the Commonwealth government for the war effort. His largest single donation was £50,000 to the University of Sydney for medical research in 1950; he also gave £20,000 to the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Pymble, of whose council he was chairman for many years. In 1945 he gave Merribindinya, valued at £58,000, to the State government for soldier settlement on condition that the government pay the approximate value of the property into a trust to endow scholarships in agriculture and veterinary science at the university. In recognition of his generosity the university conferred on him an honorary LL.D. in 1952.

A kind and gentle personality, Martin McIlrath was as modest and shy as he was successful and wealthy. Though of a retiring nature, he was no recluse: he was a foundation member and president of the Avondale Golf Club, Pymble, and a prominent member of the New South Wales and Tattersall's clubs. He died of cancer at his home Ingleholme, Turramurra, on 20 December 1952—his knighthood was announced posthumously—and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by his wife Ada Maitland, née Eldridge, whom he had married at West Maitland on 5 September 1906, and by three daughters and an adopted son. His estate was sworn for probate at £524,018.

William arrived in Victoria in 1890 and worked with Martin in the Wimmera before joining his elder brothers in the grocery firm in Sydney in 1897. After Hugh's mysterious disappearance in Shanghai, China, in 1909 William became joint managing director with Martin. On 12 October 1910 at St David's Presbyterian Church, Haberfield, he married Catherine McLeod. In 1928 he made a 'motor expedition' through New South Wales and central and western Queensland to Darwin.

Managing director of Town & Country Lands Pty Ltd, in the 1930s he set up the Windsor Hereford stud at Myall Creek, Delungra, so named after its foundation sire Windsor Matchless, imported from the Royal stud in England. He became well known in Australia and overseas as a successful breeder of beef cattle and won a record number of first prizes at the Sydney show.

Like his brother, William was a generous benefactor. In 1938 he gave £10,000 to the Prince Henry Hospital and £10,000 to the Commonwealth government for the war effort in 1941. Elected to the board of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in 1939, in addition to £2500 donated in 1936 he gave an undisclosed but substantial sum to the hospital to establish visiting 'guest professorships' for 'men of high academic standing in the world of medicine and the allied sciences'. In 1953 he gave £50,000 to the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization for animal husbandry research. He was a foundation member of the council and a benefactor of Knox Grammar School.

William was a member of the Australian and New South Wales clubs and his private annual dinner at the latter to Hereford breeders was a notable show-time event. His main recreation was bowling at the Warrawee club.

McIlrath died suddenly of heart disease while addressing directors of his city office in Pitt Street on 20 June 1955, survived by his wife and a daughter. His only son and a daughter had been killed in an aircraft accident overseas. He was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His estate was valued for probate at £588,747.

Select Bibliography

  • Pastoral Review, 19 Jan 1953, 16 July 1955
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Aug 1928, 20 Dec 1938, 17 May 1940, 10 Mar, 19 May 1941, 3 Aug 1945, 17 Nov 1948, 6 Jan, 20 Apr, 2 May, 25 Nov 1950, 29 Nov, 22, 28 Dec 1952, 19 Mar, 22, 25 Oct 1953, 21 June 1955.

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'McIlrath, William (1876–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 20 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]


Banbridge, Down, Ireland


20 June, 1955 (aged ~ 79)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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