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William Pearson Tewksbury (1869–1953)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published:

William Pearson Tewksbury (1869-1953), by unknown photographer, 1949

William Pearson Tewksbury (1869-1953), by unknown photographer, 1949

National Archives of Australia, CU919/1

William Pearson Tewksbury (1869-1953), businessman, was born on 7 February 1869 at Yackandandah, Victoria, youngest of four children of John Edward Tewksbury, carpenter and goldminer, and his wife Sarah Edith, née Croft, both English born. Pearson was delicate and in his youth prone to more accidents than average. What education he got was 'fugitive and patchy', though he claimed to have spent a period at Fort Street Model School after his family moved to Sydney. At 14 he was apprenticed to a Sydney watchmaker, but later speculatively explored several other occupations, including that of country salesman for tea merchants Atcherley & Dawson. 'Tewks' returned to his trade at Muswellbrook, New South Wales, after seizing the opportunity to buy a failing watchmaker's business with a borrowed £5. He added a bicycle agency to his storekeeping and sold so many penny-farthings that he became a travelling representative of a cycle agency. On 5 December 1893 in Sydney he married Juanita Blunt with Methodist forms; they were divorced in 1924.

While recuperating at Porepunkah, Victoria, from an eye problem that threatened his sight and his future, Tewksbury became interested in gold prospecting. Attracted by the idea of alluvial dredging as then practised in New Zealand, he took up 100 acres (40 ha) at Bright and managed to form a syndicate to begin bucket-dredging. When the syndicate ran into critical difficulties, Tewksbury bought out its liabilities and its expensive dredge, and prospected with a New Zealand crew as director of the Ovens Valley Gold Dredging Co. Desperately dependent on that 'seventh sense which creates the bridge between desire and achievement', he was eventually able to cover his risk. He then formed eight companies, known as the Tewksbury Group, employing dredges in the Bright district, Victoria, and at the Shoalhaven and the Araluen Valley, New South Wales. He also cannily kept control of all smelting and was reputed to have banked gold worth £1 million. He set up headquarters in the Equitable Buildings, Collins Street, Melbourne. 'Slim, upright, of middle build' with 'a touch of friendly shyness', in 1910 he bought the Oriental Hotel in Collins Street where he subsequently lived.

A child of his time, Tewksbury enthusiastically embraced the technology of the day—bicycles, cars (he owned a de Dion in 1903) aeroplanes and films—and rather prided himself on 'thinking today what other people would be thinking next week'. About 1910 he founded the City Motor Service, one of the first hire services that revolutionized motor passenger transport. In Melbourne, and later Sydney, a 'high chugging four cylinder Fiat' with a smartly uniformed driver could be hired for a minimum of 3s. 6d. In America Tewksbury saw meter-operated taxi-cabs for the first time and returned to promote Yellow Cabs of Australia Ltd and Yellow Express Carriers Ltd with a capital of £1 million in 1922. One hundred of these cabs imported to Melbourne carried 200,000 passengers within three months. As a prelude to their appearance in Sydney, Tewksbury held personal negotiations with J. T. Lang to persuade him to amend local regulations. In 1926 Tewksbury founded Drive Yourself cars and in the following year resigned as chairman of Yellow Cabs.

A visit to Hollywood inspired him to produce a commercial film of Rolf Boldrewood's Robbery under Arms, which he shot in the Araluen Valley in 1922 and in which he acted. Next year he made a pioneering journey by car from Bourke to the Gulf of Carpentaria. An avid traveller, he joined several flights in the early 1930s, including the first west-east crossing of the United States of America and another from London to Alexandria. For recreation he went big-game hunting in Africa in a collar and tie, and with a camera more often than a rifle, frequently travelling with his favourite niece.

During World War I Tewksbury had raised £20,000 for disabled servicemen by raffling a 'Kitchener Flag' signed by leading war personalities. In World War II he repeated the pattern with his 'Churchill Flag', this time raising £28,000. He published an account of his life and struggles, donating the proceeds to the Australian Red Cross Society. As one of Melbourne's wealthy men, he made public gifts to charities.

Somewhat of an outsider, Tewksbury all his life had to manufacture his own publicity. In later years, monocled, natty, vain, and coy about his age, he wandered in 'a sober blue suit with a dark silk handkerchief flowing out of his breast pocket'. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1920. Survived by a son and daughter, he died on 12 July 1953 at the Oriental Hotel and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £119,546.

His elder brother Alphonso Reed Tewksbury (1864-1959) was born on 17 October 1864 at Yackandandah and educated at Fort Street, Sydney. He, too, began his business career early and by 1888 was able to enter into partnership in a brewery at Wagga Wagga. He later opened a brewery at Temora—which then had no water-supply—and was that city's mayor for three successive years.

An owner-trainer of trotters and a leading authority in the sport, he established his Delavan Stock Farm at Temora where he bred such major winners as Countess Chimes, Delavan's Guest and Delavan Bill. In 1923 he transferred the stud to Windsor. That year he joined Yellow Express Carriers as managing director and was chairman in 1938-46. Vice-chairman (1938-52) of Yellow Cabs of Australia, he was a foundation director (1936) and chairman of Australian Motorists Petrol Co. (Ampol Petroleum Ltd from 1949). In his youth an outstanding amateur cyclist, 'Alf' was an expert marksman and car enthusiast. He was also a founder and chairman (1943-55) of the Veteran Motorists Association of Australia. Survived by his wife Santina Isabel, née Moglia, and by three daughters and a son, he died on 3 May 1959 at Strathfield, Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Grant, 500 Victorians (Melb, 1934)
  • V. Kelly, Achieving a Vision (Syd, 1950)
  • G. Blainey, The Rush that Never Ended (Melb, 1963)
  • J. Reynolds, Men and Mines (Melb, 1974)
  • People (Sydney), 14 Mar 1951, 16 Dec 1953
  • Parade, June 1959
  • Punch (Melbourne), 29 May 1913
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 18 May 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Sept 1926, 11 Aug, 12 Nov 1927, 12 Aug 1943, 13 July 1953
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1948, 25 Jan 1956
  • Age (Melbourne), 13 July 1953.

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Tewksbury, William Pearson (1869–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Pearson Tewksbury (1869-1953), by unknown photographer, 1949

William Pearson Tewksbury (1869-1953), by unknown photographer, 1949

National Archives of Australia, CU919/1

Life Summary [details]


7 February, 1869
Yackandandah, Victoria, Australia


12 July, 1953 (aged 84)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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