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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Cummins, Alice Mary (1898–1943)

by Wendy Birman

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

Alice Mary Cummins (1898?-1943), businesswoman, was born probably on 31 March 1898 in Adelaide, only child of James Hurtle Cummins, a publican from Victoria, and his wife Mary, née Ryan. James moved to Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, but Alice attended Loreto Convent, Norwood, Adelaide, where she did well in languages, drawing and music. She studied at the Elder Conservatorium and played the cello in local ensembles. Weakened by severe influenza in 1923, she abandoned both her musical activities and her ambition to study medicine. Instead, she read law at the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1928) and served her articles with the solicitor Percy Hague; although admitted to the South Australian (1928) and Western Australian (1930) Bars, she never practised.

Beginning as a ledgerkeeper in her father's Kalgoorlie Brewing & Ice Co. Ltd, Cummins soon mastered the financial, engineering, refrigeration and marketing aspects of the brewing industry. In the early 1930s she urged her father to turn from the production of English-style beer and introduce the top-fermentation process of German lager. He thought her brilliant and made her director of the Merredin brewery. Hoping to reconcile her parents who were divided on the issue of alcohol, Alice designed a substantial and elegant residence at Merredin for the Cummins family. She installed Mollie Redvers-Bate as housekeeper, and briefly employed her husband Charles, an ex-British army officer and failed Burracoppin farmer, to manage the brewery.

When James Cummins died in London on 19 March 1936, Alice became managing director and the major shareholder of his enterprises. With support for the old-style beer flagging, rival breweries expanding and hotels being progressively 'tied' by competitors, her situation was critical. Undaunted, she installed new plant and equipment, and boosted Kalgoorlie Brewing's outlets by acquiring hotel freeholds and leases—for the company and in her own right—at Kalgoorlie, Merredin, Moorine Rock, Sandstone, Boyanup, Tammin, Yellowdine, Wagin and Meckering. She triumphed when the instant popularity of Hannan's lager in September 1937 was reflected in its escalating consumption figures. Despite her success, wealth and confidence, Alice retained her quiet, generous and kindly nature. Her rift with the Catholic Church over her father's cremation and the removal of his ashes to Merredin remained permanent.

Of average height, with dark eyes and hair, Miss Cummins was demure, yet rather modish as a young woman; in maturity, she wore tailored coats and skirts, plain blouses and flat-heeled shoes. Accompanied by her secretary, she regularly visited Kalgoorlie, Merredin and Perth, driving Lincoln or Chrysler black limousines. About 1934 she had taken Mollie on a world cruise, then brought her to live at The Bend of the Road, her home at Crawley, where Alice again took up the cello, installed a radio transmitter and spent hours modelling miniature galleons. There she entertained visiting celebrities, such as the violinist Jeanne Gautier.

On Mollie's departure for Melbourne in early 1943, Alice was bereft. For a few months she continued to oversee her empire, warding off attempted takeover bids from Swan Brewery Co. Ltd. She died of a coronary occlusion on 27 June that year at her Kalgoorlie home and was cremated with Anglican rites. Her estate was sworn for probate at £109,903, much of which she bequeathed to Mollie and her two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Welborn, Swan (Perth, 1987)
  • Black Swan, May 1971
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 22 May 1930
  • Kalgoorlie Miner, 21 Mar 1936, 28 June 1943
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 29 Aug 1937
  • West Australian and Daily News (Perth), 28 June 1943
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 June 1943
  • Merredin Mercury, 1 July 1943
  • papers and newsclippings (privately held).

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Cummins, Alice Mary (1898–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 10 August 2020.

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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