Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Philip James Symes (1866–1957)

by P. A. Danaher

This article was published:

Philip James Symes (1866-1957), businessman, was born on 7 October 1866 at Bristol, England, son of James Symes, linen draper, and his wife Fanny Leonard, née Crouch. Educated at Dr Nunn's College, Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, Philip migrated to Queensland at the age of 17. In 1890, with Digby Denham and his brother Edward, he founded Denham Bros, produce merchants of Sydney and Brisbane. Symes visited Central Queensland in 1895 and recommended that a new branch of the company be opened at Rockhampton. Next year a store was established there, with Symes as managing partner. He extended its operations in 1902 to include a wholesale grocery and a hide-and-skins department.

In 1904 Symes returned to Brisbane. On 29 October that year at St Peter's Church of England, Melbourne, he married Lilian Brayshay, a teacher; they were childless. After farming and breeding horses at Warwick, Queensland, and in Tasmania, he re-entered the world of business in Brisbane. When Denham Bros (Rockhampton) Ltd was formed in 1912, he was appointed chairman, a position he held until his death. The firm became a proprietary company in 1932. Convinced that a cement company could operate profitably in Queensland and compete with cement from New South Wales and with that imported from Europe and New Zealand, Symes was an inaugural director (1914-57) and chairman (1929-55) of Queensland Cement & Lime Co. Ltd, based at Darra, Ipswich. He also sat (1934-57) on the board of the construction company Hornibrook Highway Ltd.

A successful and prudent businessman, Symes exploited opportunities for expansion and innovation. He strongly advocated that Denham Bros move into soft-drink manufacturing in the 1940s, and persuaded Queensland Cement & Lime to replace jute bags with cheaper, heavy-gauge paper ones. Denham Bros directors held him in such esteem that his offer to resign as chairman, in his eighty-fifth year, was declined.

Symes was a council-member (1913-57), a vice-president (1937-38 and 1940-56) and a trustee (1941-57) of the (Royal) National Agricultural and Industrial Association of Queensland; he served on its ring committee (1916-55) and as chief ring steward (1930-40). He had presided over the Hamilton company of the Boy Scouts' Association and become a foundation member (1920) of the (Royal) Queensland Golf Club. His other recreations as a young man included hunting and polo.

Survived by his wife, Symes died on 25 March 1957 at Turrawan Private Hospital, Clayfield, and was cremated. (Sir) Albert Axon, who succeeded Symes as chairman of Queensland Cement & Lime, described him as the 'grand old man of the cement industry'. Symes's estate was sworn for probate at £131,815. He bequeathed £11,250 to twenty-six religious, charitable and public organizations. Most of the money from the sale of his Denham Bros shares went, at his request, to the Church of England, which used it to build two homes for the aged: Symes Thorpe at Toowoomba, and Symes Grove at Taigum, Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • T. B. Macaulay (compiler), The Denham Story (Rockhampton, Qld, 1986)
  • J. Anderson, A History of QCL's Darra Cement Plant 1914-1998 (Brisb, 1997)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 26 Mar, 9 July 1957
  • Bulletin, 3 Apr 1957
  • W. Browne, History of the Queensland Cement and Lime Company Limited (typescript, held by Queensland Cement Ltd, Brisbane)
  • Denham Bros (Rockhampton) Ltd papers, Capricornia collection (Central Queensland University Library, Rockhampton campus)
  • Queensland Cement Ltd papers (State Library of Queensland).

Citation details

P. A. Danaher, 'Symes, Philip James (1866–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


7 October, 1866
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


25 March, 1957 (aged 90)
Clayfield, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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