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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cabena, William Whyte (1853–1928)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

William Whyte Cabena (1853-1928), businessman and lord mayor, was born on 12 November 1853 at Londonderry, Ireland, son of Francis Cabena, shipmaster, and his wife Rachel, née Whyte. His mother was of Scottish origin and his grandfather was an Italian. Cabena was educated at Londonderry, and apprenticed to a provision merchant there.

Suffering from tuberculosis, he arrived in Melbourne in 1874. He recovered from the disease and in 1877 became manager of Gavin Gibson & Co., a retail boot-business established at Sandhurst (Bendigo) in the 1850s with headquarters in Melbourne from 1870. In 1887 Cabena was admitted as a partner and, after Gibson's death in 1888, purchased a controlling interest. By 1902 he was chairman of directors and manager of the company, now described as shoe and leather merchants and importers of Melbourne and Sydney, and also chairman of a boot-manufacturing firm and a tannery in Adelaide. He was well acquainted with international trends and aware of the benefits of centralized marketing and specialization.

Cabena was politically ambitious but his free-trade views may have lessened his influence in the boot trade. In September 1902 he entered the Melbourne City Council; by 1910 he had virtually retired from his business. In 1906 he became one of the council's representatives on the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, on which he was influential for many years, especially as a member of its finance committee. In June 1914 he was elected an alderman and was an important member of various council committees, particularly those of finance and electric-supply. He was a member of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Tramways Board from its inception in 1918. He was elected lord mayor for the year 1918-19 after a bitter contest with the retiring candidate, Frank Stapley.

An Orangeman and Presbyterian, Cabena responded to public protest at the flying of a Sinn Fein Flag in the 1918 St Patrick's Day procession, stipulating that no permit for the 1919 march would be granted unless the Union Jack and the Australian flag were displayed and God Save the King sung. Cabena took the St Patrick's Day Committee's ambiguous reply as a rejection of his demands; his decision to refuse a permit provoked considerable bitterness and laid the basis for subsequent St Patrick's Day disputes in Melbourne.

Described in 1918 as a 'most dignified and smallish man' with a resemblance to King Edward VII, Cabena was a dogmatic, forceful and talented businessman. He used his financial ability to advance his own views in the council and was not above resigning or threatening to do so when he did not get his way. He was particularly active in resisting attempts to create a Greater Melbourne Council. On 1 February 1879 he had married Mrs Ann Raisbeck, née Stubbs, who died in 1906. On 22 January 1915 he married another widow, Katie Sarah Ellison, née Willis, who was a well-known worker for patriotic and charitable causes. A diabetic, Cabena collapsed on 11 September 1928 and died at his home in St Kilda Road on 11 December. Survived by his wife and predeceased by a son of his first marriage, he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1902-03, 2 (31)
  • Australian Storekeepers' Journal, June 1895
  • Australian Leather Journal, 15 Apr 1905, 15 Feb 1908
  • Punch (Melbourne), 17 Oct 1918
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Dec 1928
  • Melbourne City Council Archives.

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Cabena, William Whyte (1853–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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