04/04/2012 - 11:09

The Baillieu empire and UWA heritage

04/04/2012 - 11:09


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A £625,000 Hackett asset sale helped fund landmark additions to the University of WA.

A £625,000 Hackett asset sale helped fund landmark additions to the University of WA.

Very few Western Australians are likely to recognise the name, William Lawrence Baillieu.

But most will have entered or seen one or both of the state’s two finest buildings, paid for with proceeds from a long-forgotten asset sale made to him.

In 1926, Melbourne businessman WL Baillieu (1859-1936), paid the estate of Perth newspaper proprietor, Winthrop Hackett, (1848-1916) £625,000 for West Australian Newspapers Ltd.

After Hackett’s widow and children received their inheritances, the University of WA and the Anglican Church obtained £425,000 and £138,000 respectively, earmarked for construction of Winthrop Hall and its three Iberian-style wings and nearby St George’s College.

It’s anyone’s guess when such magnificent Crawley foreshore structures would have arisen had WL, as he was known, not acquired Hackett’s newspaper just before the Great Depression.

But, as his just-published biography by Melbourne University historian Peter Yule, outlines, this transaction, as crucial as it was for advancing WA tertiary education,  would be among many similar-sized ones.

WL was born in Queenscliff, near Geelong, 24 years after John Batman crossed Bass Strait and founded Melbourne, and eight years after Victoria separated from New South Wales.

Like nearly everyone settling in Australia during the 19th century, WL’s parents hailed from poverty-stricken backgrounds.

His father, James, of Bath, south-west England, reached Australia’s shores with literally only the saltwater-soaked clothes he wore.

He struggled up the beach near Queenscliff after escaping from his ship’s anchor chain locker where he’d been held after a previous failed bid to reach shore. 

James would become a leading Queenscliff citizen where he and wife, Emma, of Marksbury near Bath, who reached Victoria separately, raised 13 children, William being their second son.

After working, from age 14 to 25, in a bank with branches in Queenscliff and Victoria’s goldfields, WL embarked on an illustrious real estate and auctioneering career during what was Victoria’s hair-raising 1880s land boom that ended dramatically in 1891-92.

Melbourne’s population rose from 280,000 in 1880 to nearly 500,000 by 1890, meaning that what Batman saw as an ideal site for a village was briefly the British Empire’s demographically second-largest and territorially most expansive city.

Like all booms this one also ended in tears for bankers, depositors, realtors, speculators and nearly everyone else, including WL, and, interestingly, Australia’s second prime minister, Alfred Deakin, lawyer and director of several companies associated with real estate.

Clearly, Melbourne’s escalating property market’s bold riders did not suspect that business cycles, as well as ballooning eventually dump one and all.

Compounding this oversight, the 1890s depression was harsher and deeper than the Great Depression of 1929-36.

Yule says: “… unemployment was higher, asset values fell far more and a higher proportion of businesses collapsed.

“Melbourne’s land boom of the 1880s ranks along with the South Sea Bubble as one of the great speculative booms of history.”

Thousands now fled Melbourne, many becoming “t’other siders”, by venturing westwards to the just discovered Kalgoorlie-Coolgardie goldfields.

WA’s European population nearly quadrupled, from 50,000 in 1891 to 184,000 in 1901.

Like others who were “dumped” WL was forced to wind back, dissolve a partnership, come to arrangements with creditors and regroup by moving towards embarking alone.

That ordeal meant he would only once again risk virtually all in 1920, when effectively pledging his entire fortune to ensure needed expansion of a zinc refining project.

Yule’s account of WL’s spectacular resurrection from pre-federation Australia’s dark financial depths is a magnificent example of something now rarely encountered. 

It is a detailed analysis and description of how someone who would not countenance defeat, methodically and purposively confronted reality and, over the course of a decade, emerged to become Australia’s most successful and far-sighted business identity.

He could do this because the Baillieu family, of whom Victoria’s premier, Ted Baillieu, is now the best known, did something rare.

They archived virtually all WL’s papers, and made them available for this path-finding biography 70 years after his passing.

By the time WL acquired WA Newspapers his corporate empire – it cannot be described otherwise – was made up of a long list of successful and growing ventures.

So long that only those once well-known need be named; like the Zinc Corporation and Amalgamated Zinc, which saw involvement by California-trained geologist and mining engineer and later US president, Herbert Hoover, who had earlier worked on WA’s goldfields.

WL was also a key figure in the Broken Hill South and North Broken Hill, companies that together ensured this double-barrelled named town can stake a claim to being Australia’s most significant inland centre, challenged only by Kalgoorlie-Boulder.

These four operations meant involvement in mining, smelting and refining, with presence in Port Pirie in South Australia, Port Kembla NSW and Risdon in Tasmania.

WL’s involvement in the media was as long-standing director of the Herald & Weekly Times, so he was able to help put Rupert Murdoch’s father, Keith, on the road to newspaper proprietorship.

His association with another Australian mining great, William Sydney Robinson, further ensured expansion of the Collins House Group, so named because it was located at 360 Collins Street, Melbourne, where he had headquartered about 50 companies.

Not surprisingly, Australia’s grumbling leftists portrayed 360 as the Bastille of Australian capitalism, wilfully ignoring its crucial role as wealth and job generator plus a moderniser and diversifier of Australia’s then-fledgling economy.

Collins House, which matched several great American financial empires, was also involved in mining gold beyond Victoria.

And it included Western Mining, British Australian Lead Manufacturers and Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia & New Zealand Limited.

The list goes on, with investments even in cotton growing, textiles (Yarra Falls), Dunlop, and attempted ventures in oil exploration in Australia and New Zealand and copper mining in New Guinea.

That’s a sizeable slice of early 20th century Australia’s modernising industrial, mining and processing base.

However, as well as creating and nurturing a growing business conglomerate for more than 40 years, WL sat in Victoria’s Legislative Council for 21 years (1901-22), eight at ministerial rank (1909-17), with his focus being public works, now called infrastructure.

Here he’s akin to Hackett, a WA Legislative Councillor from 1890 until 1916.

Hackett’s focus beyond politics, Anglican Church affairs and editorship and proprietorship of The West Australian, was cultural endeavour, as member of the State Library, Zoo, Kings Park and Karrakatta Cemetery boards, prompting one historian to describe him as WA’s “cultural commissar”.

Not so WL, who remained strongly focused on family affairs and diverse business endeavour.

Today journalists would undoubtedly describe WL as a “corporate czar”, since, in the words of one Melbourne business writer, he was “founder and driver of more successful enterprises than Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart and the Macquarie Group combined”.

William Lawrence Baillieu: Founder of Australia’s Greatest Business Empire, (Hardie Grant Books), Melbourne. 401 pages, 2012. RRP $65.


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