Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Clegg, William Edward (1886–1957)

by Warwick Eather

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

William Edward Clegg (1886-1957), industrialist, was born on 9 April 1886 at Douglas, Isle of Man, eldest child of William Henry Clague, greengrocer, and his wife Margaret Jane, née Kewley. In 1890 the family migrated to New South Wales where William Henry established a milk-vending business at Newcastle. Young William was educated at Wickham Superior Public School, but spent most afternoons assisting on the milk run. In 1901 he was apprenticed as a fitter and turner to A. Goninan & Co. Ltd; in the evenings he attended Newcastle Technical College, and later undertook correspondence courses in metallurgy and accounting. He regularly travelled throughout the State for Goninans, installing winding machines and boilers. At St James's Anglican Church, Wickham, on 21 May 1912 he married Elsie Parsons, daughter of an engine driver.

In 1916 Clegg established engineering works at Cowra, before returning briefly to Newcastle in 1919 to manage Goninans. In March 1921 he was appointed engineering consultant at Commonwealth Steel Products Co. Ltd (Commonwealth Steel Co. Ltd after the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd purchased a controlling interest in 1935). He became manager in September 1921 and general manager in 1925. Under his stewardship the company expanded: new shops were built, modern plant was installed and employees increased from 170 in 1921 to 2283 in 1951. He visited the United States of America, England and Europe in 1926, 1929, 1935 and 1939 to keep abreast of developments.

Clegg's lifelong hatred of trade unions—whose leaders, he believed, were 'false prophets . . . leading the men [into] a desert'—underpinned the company's policy of vigorous and pertinacious anti-unionism. On the job, he tempered his hardline approach with heartfelt paternalism; he knew many workers personally, but did not hesitate to dismiss troublesome employees. When he retired in December 1951, he was made a director of Commonwealth Steel, honoured with numerous testimonial dinners and presented with the deeds to the company-owned mansion, Braeside, Waratah, where he had lived since 1921.

President (1936-55) of the Newcastle Technical Education Advisory Council, Clegg served on the council of the New South Wales University of Technology (University of New South Wales). From 1951 he represented the university on the Newcastle University College advisory committee and was awarded an honorary D.Sc. in 1955. The University of Newcastle has annually awarded the W. E. Clegg memorial prize in mechanical engineering since 1958.

A foundation member (1926) of the Rotary Club of Newcastle, in 1932 Clegg helped to establish the Newcastle and District Association for Crippled Children and insisted that classes be held in his dining-room until its school was completed in 1936. He was involved with the Newcastle Chamber of Commerce and with local branches of the Chamber of Manufactures (president 1924-29), Metal Trades Employers' Association, Institution of Engineers, Australia, Australasian Institute of Cost Accountants, Standards Association of Australia, Australian Institute of Management and the Royal Empire Society. Lawn bowls was his abiding passion and the source of graphic tales of exploits: he was president (1922-51) of Islington Bowling Club and patron (from 1935) of the Newcastle District Bowling Association.

Holding an extensive share portfolio, Clegg was a wealthy man and one of the last Edwardians. His housekeeper and two maids lived at Braeside until old age forced them into nursing homes (an expense he happily bore). Meals were events with the best silver and china; fruit could not be eaten unless the appropriate knife and fork were used. His wife laid out his suits every day. He was barely more than five feet (152.4 cm) tall, and had a fetish about punctuality and day-to-day routine. An Anglican, he attended church regularly. He was devastated by the deaths of his daughter Marion and, in April 1955, of his wife; without her support, his regimented world began to crumble. Survived by his son and two daughters, he died on 23 July 1957 at Braeside and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • BHP Review, Apr 1937, p 5, June 1937, p 5, Mar 1952, p 14
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 10 Dec 1923, 20 Mar 1926, 30 Nov 1929, 24 Sept 1938, 28 Apr 1950, 29 Nov 1951, 24 July 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 July 1950
  • BHP papers (BHP Billiton Archives, Melbourne)
  • University of Newcastle records
  • University of New South Wales records
  • private information.

Citation details

Warwick Eather, 'Clegg, William Edward (1886–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/clegg-william-edward-9760/text17243, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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