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Marcus Saltau (1869–1945)

by Airlie Worrall

This article was published:

Marcus Saltau (1869-1945), merchant and politician, was born on 17 June 1869 at Warrnambool, Victoria, youngest son of Henry Saltau, Danish-born lighterman, and his Scottish wife Annie, née McKenzie. He was educated at Warrnambool State School, leaving at 15 to work for the dairy exporter, McMeekin Bros, but continuing his education through private tuition. From 1889 Saltau managed the town's tramway at a profit, while using the tramway offices as the base for his own produce and shipping business. With his associate James Jukes, Marcus incorporated his father's produce business and opened a Melbourne office, working such long hours in the tram-shed office that it became known as 'the lighthouse'. The firm chartered vessels to haul coal to Warrnambool and backload potatoes and general merchandise to Sydney and Newcastle, and an export trade in onions was set up with Canada and the United States of America, until countervailing duties and a silting harbour ended the trade. He was eventually managing director of Saltau Pty Ltd from 1915. On 4 April 1893 he had married Jeannie Buick Anton of Yackandandah at Warrnambool.

In 1899 Saltau was first elected to the local council and the hospital committee of management. He was inaugural chairman of the Warrnambool Chamber of Commerce and Manufactures in 1908 and mayor of Warrnambool 1909-11. Few towns could boast a supporter like Saltau, a leader in establishing Warrnambool's two biggest secondary industries and in expanding and modernizing its hospital. The Warrnambool Woollen Mills were established with P. J. McGennan to take advantage of the Tariff Act (1908). Saltau's chamber sub-committee pursued the plan energetically, registering the company in October 1909, and purchasing the site of an earlier mill at South Warrnambool. Teams of canvassers sold shares door to door and directors provided private guarantees. The mill, producing flannel and blankets for an eager market, was opened in 1910 and chaired by Saltau for the next thirty-three years. Nestlés milk condensation plant was established by a group of citizens including Saltau who had invited the company to consider the town. Popular recollection has him stopping the buggy at the Dennington bridge and pointing out to the company's representatives the site where the greatest milk condensory of its time would be built.

Saltau's interest in hospitals and medicine predated and outlasted his other municipal activities. He was a committee-man of Warrnambool and District Base Hospital from 1899 to 1942, and president in 1904-05 and 1912-41. Under his leadership the institution acquired a children's ward, an X-ray unit, the Jean Buick Saltau maternity ward (1928), opened by her son Dr William Dixon Saltau, and Marcus Saltau House (1938) for private midwifery patients.

In 1924 Saltau succeeded Sir Walter Manifold as a Nationalist Legislative Council member for Western Province. He was minister without portfolio (November 1928–July 1929 and March-April 1935) in the McPherson and Argyle governments, and a member (1937-40) of the Public Works Committee. Following his election to parliament, Saltau had moved to Melbourne but continued to journey to Warrnambool every fortnight for board meetings at mill and hospital, a round trip of 320 miles (515 km). He was a member of the Country Hospitals Association, chairman of the Charities Board 1923-24 and 1933-34, and country representative on the Nurses Board and the Victorian Hospitals Association during these years.

Saltau found time to sit on the boards of the Scottish Union and National Insurance Co., the Potato Wholesale and Retail Merchants Association and the Melbourne Corn Exchange of which he was president 1935-45. He was an active member of St John's Presbyterian Church, Warrnambool.

Assessments of this most public figure vary considerably. The Warrnambool Standard admired his geniality and his tact in handling men and affairs, but to his fellow hospital committee-men he seems to have appeared autocratic and overbearing; his resignation as hospital chairman was followed by a decision to limit future tenure of the office to two years.

Ill health forced Saltau from public life after 1941. His services were rewarded when appointed C.B.E. in 1945. He died on 21 July 1945 at his Toorak home and was buried in Warrnambool cemetery. His wife Margaret Hilda, née Humphries, whom he had married on 6 July 1927 at Watson's Bay, Sydney, and a son and two daughters of his first marriage survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £83,164.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Sayers, By These We Flourish (Melb, 1969)
  • Medical Journal of Australia, 1 Aug 1970
  • Warrnambool Standard, 23 Feb, 8 Mar, 2 Aug 1944, 25 July 1945
  • K. Thompson, History of Warrnambool and District Base Hospital, typescript, 1973 and Annual Report, 1926, 1942 (all held by Warrnambool and District Base Hospital library)
  • files on H. Saltau and Messrs H. Saltau & Sons (Warrnambool Public Library).

Citation details

Airlie Worrall, 'Saltau, Marcus (1869–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 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]


17 June, 1869
Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia


21 July, 1945 (aged 76)
Toorak, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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