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William Ramsay (1868–1914)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published:

William Ramsay (1868-1914), manufacturer, was born on 6 June 1868 at Glasgow, Scotland, eldest son of John Ramsay (1841-1924) and his wife Margaret, née Thomson. John, 'a religious, resourceful Scot of merchant stock', was born at Forth, Lanarkshire. His early occupations were bookseller, commercial traveller, jeweller, die-sinker and engraver. In June 1878 William arrived in Melbourne with his parents and his three brothers, who included (Sir) John and Hugh. Three sisters and two more brothers were born in Melbourne. The Ramsays settled at Prahran and on leaving school William joined his father in a real estate business, John Ramsay & Son, which prospered sufficiently to enable his father in 1888 to build for his family a mansion, Clydebank, at Essendon. After the boom broke, John Ramsay was a valuer for the Essendon and Melbourne City councils and for the State Savings Bank of Victoria.

William visited New Zealand and on 2 January 1901 at Oamaru married Annie Elizabeth Meek. Returning to Melbourne he formed a partnership with Hamilton McKellar and established a modest factory at Carlton to manufacture a range of products including disinfectant powder, stove polish, cleanser and boot cream. In 1904 they moved to Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, and next year produced a new boot cream, 'Mirror', which was moderately successful.

In October 1906 Ramsay & McKellar introduced a boot polish under a new trademark, 'Kiwi', in recognition of Annie Ramsay's origins; by the end of the year they had sold eighty-six gross. Competition remained severe until 1908 when they released 'Dark Tan', the first stain polish, which restored colour to faded leather as well as polishing and preserving. In 1909 William sold one hundred gross in Sydney. Other colours followed and within three years 'Kiwi' had become a leading brand name throughout Australia. McKellar left the company; Ramsay, trading as sole proprietor of Kiwi Polish Co., moved into larger premises in Elizabeth Street. In 1912 his father visited England to establish a branch in London and next year William followed to promote his product in Europe.

Returning to Melbourne in 1914, William died of cancer at Clydebank on 4 September and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His wife, daughter and two sons survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £11,500.

World War I led to an enormous demand for 'Kiwi' polish for use by Australian, British and, later, American forces. In accord with a wish expressed in William's will, the British and Australian companies amalgamated in 1916 as The Kiwi Polish Co. Pty Ltd with William's father as chairman of directors and his brother James, who had been running the English branch, as joint managing director. The company claimed to have made in 1917 the earliest advertising film in existence, a two-hundred foot, six-minute promotion. By 1918 thirty million tins of 'Kiwi' had been sold and by 1924 it was distributed in fifty countries. A large modern factory at Richmond and more extensive English headquarters at Finchley, London, were built.

On 3 March 1924 William's father, John, died at Clydebank. He had been a prominent Congregationalist lay preacher, for twenty years he conducted a Bible class for the Young Men's Christian Association, of which he had been president, and he spoke on the Yarra Bank. William's widow took over as chair of the company (1924-33) and in 1928 their elder son John (1904-1966), who had joined the company in 1921, became managing director. Their younger son (Sir) Thomas (b.1907) also joined the company as consulting chemist in 1926 and in 1956 became managing director, with his brother John as chairman. In 1981 Kiwi International Ltd merged with Nicholas International Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Ramsay, A Layman's Religion (Melb, 1924)
  • Kiwi Polish Co. Pty Ltd, The Kiwi Story (1905-1951) (Melb, 1951)
  • Kiwi International since 1906 (Melb, 1966)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 Mar 1924, 10 Feb 1933.

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Ramsay, William (1868–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


6 June, 1868
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


4 September, 1914 (aged 46)
Essendon, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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