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Sir John Vicars (1857–1936)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with William Vicars

John Vicars,by Falk-Monty Luke Studios, 1920

John Vicars,by Falk-Monty Luke Studios, 1920

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P1/Vicars, John

Sir John Vicars (1857-1936) and Sir William (1859-1940), manufacturers and businessmen, were born on 29 September 1857 and 24 May 1859, at Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire, Scotland, eldest sons of John Vicars and his wife Anne, née Moor. Settling at Rockhampton, Queensland, in 1863, the family moved to Sydney in 1871. John and William completed their education at Sydney Grammar School and entered their father's woollen mill in Sussex Street. After the retirement of John senior in 1887, John and his brothers William and Robert (1867-1962) moved the factory to a larger site at Marrickville in 1893; they later acquired the Sydney Woollen Mills Ltd at Parramatta. On 8 November 1893 John married Sophia Aspinall Harvie at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Sydney. After twenty years with John Vicars & Co., he formed a partnership with James P. Johnson as Messrs Johnson & Vicars, woolbrokers, wool-scourers and fellmongers, with offices at Circular Quay and works at Botany.

During World War I Vicars was active in patriotic causes and an executive-member of the French-Australian League of Help. He did outstanding voluntary work as chairman of the State Wool Committee from 1917 and as chairman of the British Australian Wool Realization Association Ltd (1920-24). For many years he was on the executive and sometime chairman of the Wool Buyers' Association, treasurer of its soldiers' convalescent hospital and a member of the Tariff Board in 1923. Next year he was knighted.

In 1928 Sir John joined the board of the Australian Gas Light Co., and later the boards of Australian Steam Pty Ltd, Caledonian Collieries Ltd, Howard Smith Ltd, the Equitable Permanent Benefit, Building, Land and Savings Institution, and the National Mutual Life Association of Australia Ltd.

He had an abiding faith in Australia and its workers; the Bulletin wrote that 'physically, mentally and in character—he was “a big Australian”'. A golfing enthusiast, he was a president and captain of the Australian Golf Club and a member of the New South Wales Club. Survived by his wife, he died in Sydney on 28 February 1936 and was cremated.

William Vicars was co-proprietor, with his brother Robert, of John Vicars & Co. and a director of the Sydney Woollen Mills Ltd. At the Presbyterian Church, Rockhampton, on 23 July 1884 he married Mary Emily Hutton. He also became prominent in the business life of Sydney and was noted for his philanthropy. In 1900-01 and 1914 he was president of the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales.

After World War I he championed the cause of returned servicemen; he was chairman of the State Repatriation Board in 1919-20 and of its purchase and contract and orphan education boards until 1922. In 1921 he and Robert gave Pitt Town Farm to the Church Social Campaign to train needy ex-servicemen for the land. Long associated with the work of the Australian Red Cross Society, in 1920 he became chairman of its convalescent homes committee and in 1921 chairman of the New South Wales division of the society. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1920 and knighted in 1922. In tribute, his employees paid for his portrait to be painted by Norman Carter.

Sir William fought to overcome prejudice against locally-manufactured woollen fabrics; as a result of his efforts, 'Vicars, Marrickville' became the hallmark throughout Australia for quality tweeds, serges, woollens, blankets and rugs. Returning from an overseas visit in December 1926, he averred that American fabrics were neither better nor cheaper than Australian.

He was also a director of Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd (chairman, 1922), the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney (1924-28, 1933-39), Home Recreations (Australia) Ltd and the Australian board of Royal Exchange Assurance of London. In 1931-33 Vicars was one of the commissioners of the Government Savings Bank of New South Wales. A founder of the National Club and member of the Union Club, he played golf regularly.

Distinguished-looking, with strong features and a King George V beard, he had an easy nature, entirely devoid of anything stilted or pompous: quoting the epistle of Saint James, a friend saw in Vicars 'no variableness, neither shadow of turning'. Survived by his wife and daughter, Sir William died at his Rose Bay home on 20 October 1940 and was buried in South Head cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at £114,818.

Select Bibliography

  • Marrickville Council (compiler), A History of the Municipality of Marrickville 1861-1936 (Syd, 1936)
  • Australian Manufacturers' Journal, 15 July 1910
  • Lone Hand, 1 Jan 1912
  • P.F.A. Quarterly Magaine, Dec 1920, p 14
  • Sydney Tatler, 7 Dec 1922
  • Bulletin, 4 Mar 1936
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Nov 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 July, 22 Oct 1921, 2 Jan, 2, 10 June 1922, 1 Jan 1924, 13 Dec 1926, 26 Aug 1931, 29 Feb 1936, 21, 30 Oct 1940
  • Sydney Mail, 18 Jan 1922
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 13 Feb 1922.

Additional Resources

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Vicars, Sir John (1857–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 June 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

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