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John McIlwraith (1828–1902)

by J. Ann Hone

This article was published:

John McIlwraith (1828-1902), manufacturer and shipowner, was born on 26 May 1828 at Ayr, Scotland, eldest son of John McIlwraith, plumber, and his wife Janet, née Howat. Educated at Watson's School and the Wallacetown Academy, he entered his father's plumbing business. An industrious worker, he still found time for helping to found the Ayr Musical Association. In January 1853 he arrived in Victoria. He tried the goldfields and in November joined Alexander and Francis Graham in a plumbing, painting and glazing business. He soon left them and opened a shop in Melbourne with zinc and lead pipes sent by his father. In September 1855 he moved his store to the back of his Collingwood home; with continual shipments from his father he gradually built up his business despite strong competition. He mainly supplied the plumbing trade but did profitable work on the new water supply scheme and in 1858 fitted up the Melbourne Hospital's hot water supply. With his father's help and in partnership with his brother Thomas he planned the construction of a lead mill. In September 1860 he went to Britain to buy the 'most powerful and best machinery used there for manufacturing sheet lead'. He returned with it in July 1861 and by mid-1862 the mill was working. In the next years he consolidated his business position but relationships with his father worsened as his advice and help were less and less required.

After an unsuccessful bid McIlwraith, 'an out and out Protectionist', was elected in 1870 to the Melbourne City Council for the new and dominately free trade Albert Ward. In 1873-74 he was mayor but his term was clouded by the death of a son and his wife's illness. In 1874 he became a magistrate and was pressed to stand for parliament but refused, for 'once go into politics and there is no end to it'. He was a member of the Australian and European Bank's provisional committee and a Harbor Trust commissioner in 1877-82. In 1875 he began to manufacture block tin tubes with hydraulic machinery at his Melbourne lead works and won medals in Melbourne and the United States. His tubes were in great demand by the gas companies. In 1876 he was Victorian commissioner at the Philadelphia Exhibition. He had leadrolling machinery built in Ayr to American specifications and for many years imported his lead from Western Australia.

In 1875-78 McIlwraith was Melbourne agent for his brother Andrew who became the partner of M. D. McEacharn in a shipping business. McIlwraith also joined John Carson in a line of coastal coal and wool steamers and in 1877 commissioned the Kerangie which was wrecked in February 1879. In 1882 John McIlwraith and his brother Thomas made a triumphal return to Ayr; they received the freedom of the city in 1884. McIlwraith returned to Victoria in 1886 but left again at the end of the decade confident that his eldest son could manage the business. The first news of the depression failed to hurry his return. He was more concerned when John Danks set up in Sydney, and advised his Sydney branch to build a shot tower. On returning to Melbourne in 1893 he found a grim situation and compared it to plague panic. Of the thirty-four companies whose shares he held, half had suspended payment and he had to keep a supply of gold ready to meet current accounts. The continuing slump wore down his optimism and made him long for Scotland.

Andrew McIlwraith's shipping firm survived the crash but after an acrimonious row in 1895 John made him buy him out and when this was settled late in 1896 he felt 'as if [he] had got a new lease of life'. However, he remained unreconciled to the colony, attributing the continuing depression to radicalism and trade unionism. Business affairs and a bad fall in 1898 kept him in Victoria until April 1901. He died in Ayr on 9 September 1902, survived by his wife Mary, née Whannell (d.1915), three daughters and three sons, John, Thomas and David who continued to run the Melbourne and Sydney lead works and the Flinders, bought in 1894 for the Western District trade. McIlwraith left an estate valued at £21,840.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Oct 1873, 2 Oct, 7 Nov 1874
  • Age (Melbourne), 20 May, 3, 5 June 1893, 11 Sept 1902
  • Ayr Advertiser, 11 Sept 1902
  • Warrnambool Standard, 12 Sept 1902
  • Australasian, 13 Sept 1902
  • Bulletin, 20 Sept 1902
  • John McIlwraith & Co. records (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

J. Ann Hone, 'McIlwraith, John (1828–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 May, 1828
Ayr, Ayrshire, Scotland


9 September, 1902 (aged 74)
Ayr, Ayrshire, Scotland

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