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Sir William McMillan (1850–1926)

by A. W. Martin

This article was published:

William McMillan (1850-1926), by unknown photographer, 1880s

William McMillan (1850-1926), by unknown photographer, 1880s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23596452

Sir William McMillan (1850-1926), merchant and politician, was born on 14 November 1850 in Londonderry, Ireland, third son of Gibson McMillan, Wesleyan minister, and his wife Eliza, sister of Alexander McArthur. He was educated at St Stephen's Green (the Wesleyan Connexional School), Dublin, with Henry Bournes Higgins, and at Tulse Hill School in London. Although initially intended for the Bar, at 17 he went into the London office of his uncles' merchant business, W. and A. McArthur Ltd. Sent out in 1869 to join A. H. C. Macafee, a Sydney partner, he worked as traveller in New South Wales and spent several years in Melbourne in the McArthurs' Flinders Lane warehouse. At the Wesleyan Church, South Yarra, he married Ada Charlotte Graham, aged 16, on 8 March 1878. On Macafee's death in 1878 he returned to Sydney to become partner and manager of the firm's Australian operations.

On first arriving, McMillan had joined the Sydney School of Arts Debating Club where he met budding politicians like (Sir) George Reid and (Sir) Edmund Barton, developed his talent for public speaking and sharpened his already considerable knowledge of literature and economics. By the 1880s, through his lectures, articles and letters to the press, he was recognized as an authority on commercial matters and spokesman for the interests of Sydney importers. Elected president of the Sydney Chamber of Commerce in 1886, he attended in London the Congress of the Chambers of Commerce of the British Empire. As the tariff issue became important in the colony's politics he played a leading part in setting up the Free Trade Association of New South Wales, urging men of 'wealth, intelligence, and influence … to show some patriotic interest in the country to which they owe their all'.

Under pressure from the chamber and 'a large number of businessmen', he agreed to stand for East Sydney at the general election of 1887. The Bulletin dubbed him 'Patriotic MacMillion', champion of the 'calico-jimmy' interest, and cartoonist Livingstone Hopkins sketched him as the would-be rescuer, armed with a 'freetrade' blunderbuss, of a 'softgoods pup' doomed to be gobbled up by the crocodile, 'protection'. But McMillan won effortlessly, was chosen by the new Parkes ministry to move the address-in-reply, and settled into the Legislative Assembly as leader of a small Free Trade ginger group which leavened Parkes's faction followers. As such he headed a party revolt when Parkes resigned in pique in 1889 on trivial Opposition charges of corruption. After a narrow Free Trade victory at a consequent general election, Parkes was forced to reconstruct the ministry as an unequivocal Free Trade combination: McMillan became treasurer and deputy leader.

Parkes was not an easy chief to follow. His refusal to consult ministers brought cabinet dissension and several plots to unseat him in favour of McMillan or James Brunker. Though incapacitated with a broken leg, Parkes refused during the maritime strike to surrender control of the police to his deputy and after the Circular Quay 'riot' of September 1890 publicly rebuked McMillan, who 'in the unfortunate absence of my chief' had provocatively committed the government to putting down 'disorder and anarchy'. McMillan offered his resignation but the governor Lord Carrington persuaded him to withdraw and, with ruffled tempers smoothed, the treasurer remained at his post until pressure of private business forced him to resign in July 1891. In McMillan respect—even affection—for Parkes in fact ran deep.

Though, like most doctrinaire free traders, initially nervous at the possible tariff implications of Federation, McMillan became under Parkes's tutelage a keen Federationist. He was a delegate at the 1890 Australasian Federation Conference and at the 1891 National Australasian Convention where, in La Nauze's words, he 'usefully insisted on discussing practical issues'. Elected to the 1897 Australasian Federal Convention, he spoke of the financial arrangements for the future Commonwealth as an 'insoluble conundrum' and was chosen to chair the difficult finance committee. He was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1901 primarily in recognition of this work.

McMillan represented Burwood in the Legislative Assembly in 1894-98. His early hostility to Reid waned as the latter consolidated the Free Trade party and proved himself a shrewd and capable leader. Reid's radicalism and his readiness to work with the Labor Party were however not entirely to McMillan's taste and he was as much the government's 'candid critic' as its supporter. He particularly deplored Reid's attacks on the Upper House, disliked his establishment of an income tax and kept a sharp eye on all financial measures. He was either not asked, or refused, to serve in Reid's cabinets, though the two came more happily together in the first Federal parliament, to which McMillan was elected for Wentworth. In May 1901 the Free Trade members of the House of Representatives elected Reid as leader and McMillan as deputy. Reid, obliged by professional engagements to spend much time in Sydney, thought McMillan's acting leadership always 'zealous and efficient'. But McMillan's career in the Federal house was short: business cares forced his retirement in 1903, and, unexpectedly, his political career was at an end.

McMillan's business interests were wide ranging and took him on frequent visits to England. In the 1890s he was Sydney director of the National Bank of Australasia, chairman of Associated South Coast Collieries and the Metropolitan Coal Trust Co. of Sydney Ltd and a director of the limited companies, Westinghouse Brake, Phoenix Assurance and E. Rich. He lectured on public finance to the Institute of Bankers of New South Wales and, though a political opponent, was consulted by Sir George Dibbs on banking legislation during the crisis of 1893. The McArthur firm was reconstructed in 1907 and conditions for such importers worsened during and after World War I. Though McMillan's financial fortunes waned he remained interested in public affairs. He was defeated for the State seat of Willoughby in 1913, but was an active member of the British Empire League in Australia and the Proportional Representation Society of New South Wales, served for twenty years on the Council of Women's College, University of Sydney, and was in demand as a public speaker for a variety of patriotic and charitable causes. He also maintained his active membership of the New South Wales, Australian, Union and Melbourne clubs, and the Devonshire Club, London.

On 15 November 1888 McMillan had been granted a judicial separation from his wife and custody of his four children, and on 3 September 1891 a decree absolute. In Glasgow, Scotland, on 29 August 1892 he married a widow Helen Maria O'Reilly, née Gibson and granddaughter of Rev. William Boyce. She was president of the National Council of Women of New South Wales in 1918-19 and was involved in several charitable organizations. McMillan died at his home, Althorne, Woollahra, on 21 December 1926 and was buried with Wesleyan forms in the Anglican section of Waverley cemetery. A son and two daughters of his first marriage and his second wife and their two daughters survived him; Lady McMillan married Andrew Munro in 1930. McMillan's portrait by Norman Carter is at Parliament House, Canberra.

Alfred Deakin saw McMillan as the prototype of the 'thoughtful, educated businessman, narrow and cold after the manner of the Manchester School … business-like in manner and incisive in debate'. An enlightened conservative, in his public life he did his best to vindicate the uses in government of good management and probity. A handsome figure with eyes 'intensely and vividly blue', his dour exterior hid, if Lady McMillan is to be believed, 'a great love of fun … quick and ready wit and gift for repartee'. His letters to Parkes, especially those written at the time of his divorce, reveal a man of great sensitivity and inner resourcefulness.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Deakin, The Federal Story, H. Brookes ed (Melb, 1944)
  • J. A. La Nauze, The Making of the Australian Constitution (Melb, 1972)
  • P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • A. W. Martin, Henry Parkes (Melb, 1980)
  • Review of Reviews for Australasia, 20 July 1894
  • A. W. Martin, ‘William McMillan: A merchant in politics’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 40, pt iv (Mar 1955)
  • B. Nairn, ‘A note on the colonial treasurer's resignation’, Historical Studies, 13, no 49 (Oct 1967)
  • Helen McMillan, Brief Record of William McMillan, K.C.M.G. (typescript, privately held)
  • Henry Parkes papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

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Citation details

A. W. Martin, 'McMillan, Sir William (1850–1926)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 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

William McMillan (1850-1926), by unknown photographer, 1880s

William McMillan (1850-1926), by unknown photographer, 1880s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23596452

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1850
Londonderry, Londonderry, Ireland


21 December, 1926 (aged 76)
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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