Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ernest Alexander Watt (1874–1954)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Ernest Alexander Stuart Watt (1874-1954), shipowner, pastoralist and patron of the arts, was born on 8 December 1874 in Sydney, third son of Scottish-born John Brown Watt, merchant, and his native-born wife Mary Jane, daughter of George Holden. Educated in England at Clifton College, Bristol, Ernest took the history tripos at King's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1896; M.A., 1901).

Coming home on his father's death in 1897, Watt inherited a share in Llanillo station, Walgett. He married Annie Elizabeth Caroline Weston on 3 April 1900 at St Mark's Anglican Church, Darling Point, and took her to London; they had two daughters before being divorced. Called to the Bar at the Inner Temple on 26 January 1905, Watt read for a year with the eminent counsel Frank Newbolt, then joined David L. Thompson & Co., stockbrokers. He published Love Letters of a Genius (1905) which he had translated from the French of Prosper Mérimée, Pauline's Book of Poetry (1911) and an anthology, A Diary and Other Indiscretions (1914).

On 22 February 1912 at the register office, Hanover Square, Watt married Marie Margeurite Beerbohm, a 22-year-old niece of Max Beerbohm. Rejected for active service, Watt taught at Boxgrove School, Guildford, Surrey. His marriage soon ended in divorce. On 23 June 1917 at the Guildford register office he married Bertha Marion Ada Campbell, daughter of Dr A. J. Brady of Sydney and widow of Captain Prowse, R.N.; they were to have a daughter. To Bertha and Other Verses appeared in 1919.

Back in Sydney by 1920, Watt was a director of the family shipping firm, Gilchrist, Watt & Sanderson Ltd, the Liverpool and London and Globe Insurance Co. Ltd, Wallarah Coal Co. Ltd, Sayers, Allport Pty Ltd and Koitaki Para Rubber Estates Ltd (New Guinea); he was also founding chairman of the New South Wales Cremation Co. Ltd. He extended his pastoral interests to Kurrabooma, Moree, and cattle stations in Queensland (Strathmore, Bowen, and Glen Prairie, Rockhampton). While supporting the Empire and the Church of England, he was not politically-minded, though he described himself as a 'Democrat'.

His tribute to his brother, Oswald Watt (1921), brought Ernest into close contact with his co-editors Sydney Ure Smith and Bertram Stevens. In 1922 Watt became a director of Ure Smith's Art in Australia Ltd and took a great interest in the Home, swamping the office with glamorous and giggling misses, eager to be photographed. In 1927 he bought, and with Hugh McCrae edited, the short-lived magazine, New Triad. Watt was a generous supporter of Australian artists and writers, especially the Lindsay brothers, and collected good paintings. (Sir) Charles Lloyd Jones became his close friend.

A popular man about town, Watt belonged to the Union and Australian clubs in Sydney and to the Melbourne Club. He loved the theatre and acted in amateur productions, once playing the title role in The Importance of Being Earnest. He had played cricket at Cambridge; later he took up bridge and was a member of Royal Sydney Golf Club; a racehorse owner, he belonged to the Australian Jockey and Rosehill Racing clubs and had a seat in the private stand at Newmarket, England.

Again divorced, on 2 September 1929 Watt married 23-year-old Ruth Edmunds Massey in the registry office, Sydney. They lived with their daughter at Darling Point and later at Point Piper. About 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with light brown hair and blue eyes, Watt 'spoke with a quiet, pleasant drawl and moved with a leisurely gait as though time were no object. He was immensely vague, pre-occupied and unpredictable … capable of flashes of anger'. His personality baffled Leon Gellert, who was 'very, very fond of him'. Survived by his wife and by his four daughters, Watt died at Paddington on 18 February 1954 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at £117,265.

Select Bibliography

  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 Feb 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Feb 1954
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 15 Jan 1967
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Watt, Ernest Alexander (1874–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 20 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 December, 1874
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


18 February, 1954 (aged 79)
Paddington, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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