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Sir John Protheroe Williams (1896–1989)

by Joseph R. Cleworth

This article was published:

Sir John Protheroe Williams (1896-1989), master mariner and salvor, was born on 5 March 1896 at Hull, England, second of three sons of John James Williams, a controller’s clerk and later flour-mill manager from Wales, and his English wife Ruth, née Lister. Educated at Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, Carmarthen, Wales, in 1910 at age 14 John registered as a seaman. He was to pass his master’s certificate in 1921.

Following service as a merchant seaman during World War I, Williams migrated to Australia to marry Gladys Mary Grieves (d.1962), a kindergarten teacher, whom he had met when his ship, the Wray Castle, visited New South Wales in 1919. They married on 1 June 1922 at St Paul’s Church of England, Stockton. A family man, he came ashore after marrying Gladys, working for the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company, first as a wharf foreman at Townsville, Queensland, and later as a wharf manager in Melbourne. He then moved into the salvage industry, founding and being involved in a number of enterprises connected with salvage, shipping and transport, including United Salvage Pty Ltd, The Fleet Forge Pty Ltd (co-founded with John O’Brien) and the Fleetways group of companies.

From August 1939 Williams was mobilised for some months as a lieutenant, Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve. The next year he transferred to the Royal Australian Naval Reserve. His most important work in World War II was to lead a team that in 1941 retrieved about eight tons of gold bullion from the wreck of the RMS Niagara, off Whangarei, New Zealand. Later, he was chief salvage officer with the Commonwealth Marine Salvage Board, recovering vessels damaged by enemy action. Over 600,000 tonnes of shipping were recovered during the board’s years of operation. After the war, he reverted to the RANVR and retired in 1954 as a lieutenant commander. He had been appointed OBE in 1950.

Williams became chairman of the Australian Coastal Shipping Commission in 1956. Determined to have minimal political interference in the management of the Australian National Line, he volunteered to do the job without payment, an offer that was not accepted. He proved that a government enterprise could operate successfully on private-sector principles. Appointed CMG in 1960, he was knighted in 1967. In 1971 he retired from the ACSC, but continued to be involved in salvage enterprises throughout the world, some of great importance. He took part in salvaging the Wahine at Wellington, New Zealand, and the Straitsman at Melbourne. His company, J. P. Williams & Associates, was consulted in 1973 for the removal of the Seawise University, formerly the RMS Queen Elizabeth, which had sunk in Hong Kong Harbour after catching fire. This operation ranks as one of the largest commercial undertakings in Australian maritime salvage history.

In seafarers’ terminology, Williams was a mariner’s mariner, one who ‘came up through the hawse pipe’. Described as ‘a good listener’, he was innovative and supportive of initiatives that advanced Australian shipping, including the introduction of modern vessels and new cargo-handling equipment. He married Althea Florence Carr, née Paltridge, on 29 October 1964 at Christ Church, South Yarra. In retirement he wrote his autobiography So Ends This Day (1981). Sir John died on 29 January 1989 in East Melbourne and was cremated. His wife and the son and three daughters of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Taylor, Gold From the Sea (1943)
  • N. L. McKellar, From Derby Round to Burketown (1977)
  • Herald (Melbourne), ‘Cargo on the Move’, 23 June 1969, p 6, 6 Apr 1982, p 21
  • Australian, 13 May 1982, p 23
  • Sunday Press, 30 Nov 1986, 'Mag', p 23
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Jan 1987, p 3
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joseph R. Cleworth, 'Williams, Sir John Protheroe (1896–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 March, 1896
Hull, Yorkshire, England


29 January, 1989 (aged 92)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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