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Sir William Gaston Walkley (1896–1976)

by Barrie Dyster

This article was published:

Sir William Gaston Walkley (1896-1976), businessman, was born on 1 November 1896 at Otaki, New Zealand, son of London-born parents Herbert Walkley, draper, and his wife Jessie Annie, née Gaston. William attended several schools as the family moved from town to town in an arc surrounding Palmerston North. In middle age he rose at 4 o'clock and went to bed about 8 p.m., a habit formed in the dairying country of his youth.

On 12 April 1917 Walkley enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He trained in England from February 1918, but had two spells in hospital and did not see action. In January 1919 he was promoted temporary warrant officer. At the register office, Andover, Hampshire, on 21 July that year he married Marjory Ponting, a schoolteacher; the marriage was to end in divorce. Returning to New Zealand, he was discharged from the army on 2 February 1920.

In February 1921 Walkley was admitted as an associate of the New Zealand Society of Accountants. About 1922 he opened an accountancy practice at Hawera, the centre of a rich farming district. He sat on the local borough council between 1925 and 1935. At Hawera he met William Arthur O'Callaghan, an accountant and motorcar-dealer twenty years his senior. By the end of the 1920s O'Callaghan presided over the North Island Motor Union. He recruited Walkley as its secretary. Motorists complained that foreign oil companies set the price of petrol. Ostensibly to bring down prices, O'Callaghan and Walkley helped to form the Associated Motorists' Petrol Co. Ltd in 1931, selling under the Europa brand-name. Walkley had little capital to invest, but earned commissions by hawking shares.

The price of petrol, and alleged transfer pricing to limit the tax foreign oil companies paid, were also bitter issues in Australia. In 1935 a consortium of New Zealand businessmen backed O'Callaghan, Walkley and George Hutchison of the Automobile Association (Auckland) when they approached the National Roads and Motorists' Association in Sydney offering to repeat the New Zealand experiment. The N.R.M.A. council decided not to sponsor an oil company officially, but its president, Chris Watson, and its secretary, treasurer and solicitors sought investors. Early in 1936 the Open Road, the N.R.M.A.'s periodical, publicized the float of the Australian Motorists Petroleum Co. Ltd.

During the summer of 1935-36 Walkley sold his practice at Hawera and settled in Sydney as the A.M.P.Co.'s general manager. He recruited staff, sold shares, arranged pump-space at service stations and supervised the excavation at Bald Rock, Balmain, to make room for tanks and offices beside White Bay on Sydney Harbour. The first tanker from the Richfield Oil Corporation, United States of America, arrived at White Bay in December 1937. By that time the company had substantial capital and bank credit, storage tanks, drivers, and sufficient pumps at service stations to begin trading. Walkley, gregarious, ebullient and audacious, had bustled many diverse people into co-operation. He joined the board as managing director in August 1939.

During World War II Walkley served on the Oil Advisory Committee and the board of Pool Petroleum Pty Ltd, both of which supervised the distribution of petrol. He came in touch with Federal politicians, bureaucrats and industrialists, particularly with Sir George Wales of the Alba Petroleum Co. of Australia Ltd, a Melbourne-based firm with a small market in Tasmania and South Australia. In 1943 Walkley and Wales travelled to the U.S.A. to arrange for supplies of cheap Middle East oil through the California Texas Oil Co. Ltd. The A.M.P.Co. bought out Alba amicably in 1945. The company changed its name to Ampol Petroleum Ltd in 1949.

At St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, on 19 December 1945 Walkley had married Theresa May Stevens, née Fisher, a 36-year-old divorcee who had been his private secretary since 1937. They lived at Manly. On their many overseas journeys, by luxury liner more often than by aeroplane, she carried a stenographer's pad and typewriter, and helped to compose the cables, submissions, memoranda and reports that arose from business transacted. Tess answered telephone calls at night, decided whether Walkley needed to be woken, and typed his notes. She was as bustling and decisive as her husband.

The Chifley government persisted with petrol rationing postwar because of the worldwide shortage of American dollars. By 1948 Walkley was openly campaigning against rationing and instigating searches across Europe for cargoes that might be bought for pounds sterling. He provided (Sir) Arthur Fadden with a thick file of calculations, plans and opinions to enable the coalition parties to make petrol rationing a central issue at the 1949 election. Fadden in particular presented Ampol as a gallant Australian company battling against foreign oil monopolies. Walkley was careful to cultivate politicians on both sides in State politics, but, as the Liberal and Country parties were to remain in office for the rest of his working life, he had little to do with Labor at the Federal level.

Australia was totally dependent on oil imports until the late 1960s. Walkley's visits to oil-rich North America during his nation's wartime stringency had impressed him with the need for domestic self-sufficiency. He had used the diplomatic pouch in 1943 to send geological data to Frank Morgan, Richfield's vice-president and chief geologist. After the war he consulted (Sir) Harold Raggatt, founding director of the Bureau of Mineral Resources, Geology and Geophysics. Morgan and Walkley flew over the Exmouth Gulf region of Western Australia in April 1947. Two months later Walkley obtained from the State government exclusive exploratory rights over 'about 325,000 sq. miles [841,747 km²] of country'. Richfield, rather than Ampol, paid the early expenses of the search for oil because the Ampol board feared its uncertainty and cost.

Richfield withdrew in 1948, but Walkley cajoled Caltex—which had become Ampol's main supplier of oil by the late 1940s—to send its leading geologists to Australia in 1950 and six members of its board to Western Australia in 1951. The Western Australian government responded by substantially reducing the royalties it would demand and by re-amending (1951) the State Petroleum Act (1936) in ways congenial to Caltex, and to Walkley. West Australian Petroleum Pty Ltd (Wapet), formed in 1952, was four-fifths owned by Caltex and one-fifth by Ampol. The Western Australian government sanctioned the transfer to Wapet of the exploration zone. In the following year Ampol established Ampol Exploration Ltd and offered 30 per cent of stock to the public. The new company took over Ampol's minority holding in Wapet. Walkley's lone efforts were recognized when he was appointed chairman of Ampol Exploration.

Walkley was jubilant when the first well (drilled at Rough Range, beside Exmouth Gulf) struck oil at the end of 1953, triggering stock market frenzy in oil-exploration stocks. Although Wapet's later discoveries were scanty, the unused portions of its zone were parcelled out by the government to other companies. Raggatt and Morgan, among many others, believed that subsequent deployment of foreign and domestic capital in oil exploration owed much to Walkley's pioneering example. In the 1950s Walkley took the lead in lobbying to secure tax breaks and trade-offs that would make the expensive risks of mineral exploration acceptable to investors.

An enthusiast for resource development generally, Walkley was a foundation council-member (1954) of Professor Harry Messel's Nuclear Research Foundation within the University of Sydney, to which Ampol made annual donations. In 1962 Walkley brought (Sir) Roderick Miller on to Ampol's board, and in return became a director of R. W. Miller (Holdings) Ltd. When Miller bought an oil tanker in 1963, their interests came into open conflict. Each man resigned from the other's board. Walkley was also a director (from 1963) and chairman (1966-67) of Thiess Holdings Ltd. Messel, Miller, (Sir) Leslie Thiess and Sir Frank Packer were all grandstanding empire-builders who were drawn to Walkley, as he was to them.

Inspired by what he saw on regular visits to the United States (to California above all), Walkley dreamed of an Australian continent holding 150 million people, especially if the government built highways for settlement and defence, and diverted coastal rivers inland. The Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme provided a triumphant example of publicly funded infrastructure, creating the conditions for private investment, both large and small. In 1961 Walkley contributed an article to the Sydney Morning Herald series, 'If I ran this country'. He began by saying that, 'under-populated and under-developed', Australia 'will cease to be a white man's country . . . Australians are but a drop of white in a sea of colour that teems with more than 1,200 million land-hungry Asiatics'. Immigration made sense to him on a personal level: he was a migrant (and the son of migrants) who returned regularly to London, the city that his parents had left in hope of betterment. Moreover, immigration made sense for his core business, the sale of motor oils.

Ampol targeted the sporting public by sponsoring contests that ranged from polocrosse to fishing. O'Callaghan and Walkley, both ardent golfers, established the Ampol tournament in 1947. By the mid-1950s it was the richest tournament outside the United States. The company paid leading American and other foreign golfers to play in Australia. As Australian representative (1957) on the International Golf Association, Walkley arranged for the seventh annual Canada Cup to be held at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in 1959. The company put up half the money and he chaired the organizing committee, of which the governor of Victoria was honorary president.

A member of Manly Surf Club, Walkley took a personal interest in lifesaving. In 1953 he accompanied the president of the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia and a group of champion lifesavers whom the company sent to Hawaii to start clubs there. Other endowments followed, including assistance that brought six overseas teams to compete at surf carnivals to coincide with the Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956.

Walkley had first become interested in soccer when he 'realised that so many people from overseas were making their homes in Australia'. From 1958 Ampol donated the winner's cup and prize-money for the pre-season competition in New South Wales and arranged for pre-season interstate champions to meet in a national knock-out competition. While president (1963-70) of the Australian Soccer Federation, he negotiated Australia's reaffiliation with the Fédération Internationale de Football Association in July 1963. Australia could again campaign for the World Cup, welcome international teams, and send its own national team abroad. Walkley became inaugural president of the Oceania conference of F.I.F.A in 1965, a post he relinquished in March 1970.

To be successful, sponsorship required publicists. Walkley courted the media and used charter flights to ferry journalists around the nation to special business and sporting occasions. He enjoyed the conviviality of these gatherings, and the goodwill that flowed from them. Announcing, shrewdly, that 'in all my experience with journalists I have never had a confidence broken', he had endowed the annual Walkley awards for journalism in 1956, to be administered by the Australian Journalists' Association. He always presented the awards himself and bequeathed $10,000 to the A.J.A. to perpetuate them.

Just as Walkley worked on forming a mutually advantageous relationship with the media, he believed that a successful enterprise flourished through loyalty given as well as received. When he retired as managing director of Ampol in March 1963, the then chairman of the board had been the accountant for the company's float in 1936, the deputy-chairman had been Alba's chairman in 1945, and three other board-members had begun as company employees. Whenever he spoke about management, Walkley emphasized that subordinates should be rewarded, materially and with public praise, for useful ideas and criticisms.

Walkley thrived on conversation and on informality. He loved talking, but not into microphones or camera lenses because his manner of speaking was vernacular and jocular. Among navy-clad businessmen he was the one in the powder-blue suit and matching bow-tie. Among a crowd of sportsmen he was the one with the most alarming tan, burnished by sunlight reflected from salt water—on Manly beach at daybreak, on his ocean cruiser Serena, and on the stateroom-deck of liners.

In 1960 Walkley joined the board of the Royal New South Wales Institution for Deaf and Blind Children and chaired a fund-raising committee of Sydney businessmen to help it build schools for the deaf and the blind at North Rocks, near Parramatta. In 1965 he became president of the institution. Two years later he visited every premier, minister of education and State director of education in an attempt to obtain endorsement and funding for a national school for the deaf-blind. Despite chronic illness, he remained president until his death.

Appointed C.B.E. in 1961, Walkley was knighted in 1967. Soon after, he retired from his directorships in Ampol, Ampol Exploration and Thiess. He died on 12 April 1976 at Manly District Hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife survived him. Walkley had told a journalist three years earlier, 'I've done everything I wanted to and enjoyed doing it too'. Childless, he left his wife $100,000 and a life interest in the residue of his estate. On her death, the money would establish the Sir William Walkley Trust for the benefit of the Royal New South Wales Institution for Deaf and Blind Children.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Simpson, Show Me a Mountain (Syd, 1961)
  • H. G. Raggatt, Mountains of Ore (Melb, 1968)
  • Ampol News Bulletin, May, July 1953, July, Dec 1954, Mar 1955, July, Sept, Dec 1956, Jan, Sept, Nov 1957, Apr 1958, Feb, Oct 1959, Mar, Apr, May 1960, Dec 1962
  • People (Sydney), 13 Jan 1954, p 40
  • Woman's Day, 27 Oct 1958
  • Ampol Staff News, July 1963, May-June 1976
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 June, 26, 27 Oct, 11, 29 Nov 1949, 8 Feb 1950, 7 May 1951, 5, 7, 12 Sept, 5, 22 Dec 1953, 4 Sept 1957, 12 Apr 1961, 31 July, 25, 26 Oct, 2 Nov 1963, 23 Sept, 3, 17 Nov 1967, 6 Sept 1973
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 6 Dec 1953
  • Sun (Sydney), 28 Nov 1958, 5 Mar 1970
  • A. Wilkinson, The NRMA Story, 1920-21 to 1963-64 (typescript, 1964, held by NRMA Archives, Sydney)
  • Walkley papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Ampol papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Barrie Dyster, 'Walkley, Sir William Gaston (1896–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 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]


1 November, 1896
Otaki, New Zealand


12 April, 1976 (aged 79)
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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