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William McLean (1845–1905)

by George Parsons

This article was published:

William McLean (1845-1905), merchant, was born on 12 January 1845 in Dumfries, Scotland, son of Peter McLean, cabinet maker, and his wife Jane, née Strong. The family arrived in Melbourne in 1853 and William completed his education. He was employed first by John McTier and later by the hardware firm, E. Keep & Co. After seven years McLean was ready to open his own hardware business and in 1870 he went into partnership with T. E. White. In 1872 the partnership was dissolved and McLean was joined by his brother Joseph and William Rigg as McLean Bros & Rigg which specialized in wholesale and retail ironmongery, general hardware and machinery importing.

The new company grew quickly into one of the successes of 'Marvellous Melbourne'. In 1876 the partners opened an office in London; branches were established at Adelaide in 1879 and Sydney in 1884 and an office in New York in 1886. In 1887 the firm became a limited liability company with the partners holding a controlling interest and McLean as general manager. The company was very prosperous. In 1887 the 'emporium' in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, was claimed to be 'second to none in Victoria'; it specialized in hardware and machinery but furniture, silverware, clocks and marble and bronze statuary were also featured. At the rear McLean Bros & Rigg built a four-storied wholesale warehouse in Collins Place, and had an iron yard and bond store in Bourke Street. Imported machinery was assembled in a large bluestone factory at Port Melbourne. McLean had many overseas agencies and with patent rights to many local inventions was able to diversify his business. In the 1880s Victoria's protectionist policy opened a profitable field for investment and McLean, though a moderate free trader, was quick to exploit the new opportunities, taking large contracts from the Victorian railways, Melbourne Tramway Trust, Telegraph Department and Public Works Department. He described himself as a follower of the 'Conservative Party' but twice resisted pressure to contest safe Legislative Council seats. In 1883 he argued cogently before the royal commission on the tariff, supporting the infant industry argument but detailing many anomalies of the tariff structure.

McLean was appointed a justice of the peace for the Central Bailiwick and in 1884 a commissioner of the Savings Banks of Victoria. He served on the Melbourne Hospital Committee in 1882-94, and was chairman of the Melbourne Permanent Building Society, a director of the Federal Bank and chairman of the Melbourne Coffee Taverns Co. A strong advocate for temperance he was treasurer of the Victorian Alliance and a supporter of the Northcote Inebriate Retreat. He was also active in the Young Men's Christian Association and as a leading member of the Collins Street Baptist Church helped to engage Rev. Samuel Chapman for its pastor in 1887 and S. P. Carey in 1897. McLean organized the Victorian Baptist Fund and was well known for his generosity.

McLean could afford his philanthropy while the land boom lasted. He was prominent in the Real Estate Bank, the Centennial Land Bank, the United Property Co. and the Union Finance Co. He used his chairmanship of the board of the Federal Bank to lend £20,000 to the Melbourne Permanent Building Society, but his overdraft of about £100,000 with the Federal was concealed from the shareholders by 'floating' balances before each settlement day to put the directors' accounts in credit. This was accomplished by borrowing from the City of Melbourne Bank. The collapse of the boom made McLean's insolvency inevitable. In 1894 he resigned his public offices and filed his schedule for £200,000, most of which was owed to the Federal and Real Estate Banks. He was allowed to retain his general managership in McLean Bros & Rigg and was finally released from sequestration in 1898. In 1900 he resigned from the firm which was bought by T. Luxton in 1907.

After retirement McLean made the last of his eight visits to Europe and in 1901 set up as a manufacturers' agent in Little Flinders Street. His health was failing and he was ordered to rest but would not follow medical advice. On 6 February 1905 he was found drowned off the Middle Brighton pier. In 1869 he had married Margaret, daughter of Andrew Arnot. Of their eleven children, Oliver was active for some years in the firm's management.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • M. Cannon, Land Boom and Bust (Melb, 1972)
  • Bulletin (Melbourne), 22 Dec 1882
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9, 19 Oct 1886, 4, 6 Feb 1905
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 Dec 1893, 24 Feb, 14 Nov 1894
  • insolvency papers, 90/2005 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

George Parsons, 'McLean, William (1845–1905)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 May 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]


12 January, 1845
Dumfriesshire, Scotland


6 February, 1905 (aged 60)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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