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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McNeil, Neil (1855–1927)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

Neil McNeil (1855-1927), railway contractor, timber merchant and landowner, was born on 30 December 1855 at Dingwall, Ross-shire, Scotland, second son of Neil MacNeil (1827-1915), railway contractor, and his wife Elizabeth, née Urquhart. He migrated to Victoria with his parents about 1860 and settled at Ballarat. Educated at Ballarat College, he joined his father's firm and soon became superintendent. Later he set up as a contractor and won government contracts for railways from Hamley Bridge to Balaklava in South Australia, Colac-Camperdown and Lilydale-Healesville in Victoria and Fingal-St Mary's in Tasmania. In Hobart he was also responsible for constructing large works for the metropolitan water supply scheme.

In 1882 McNeil went to Western Australia where he built the Jarrahdale-Bunbury and Geraldton-Mullewa railways. In 1889 he was involved in promoting and constructing the Victoria reservoir in the Darling Range and the Perth water supply scheme, initially a private venture. In that year the 'Neil McNeil Company, Jarrah Timber Station' was incorporated in Victoria and as managing director McNeil successfully negotiated the sale of Western Australian timber in London. Through his efforts English capital was later invested in the company, which in 1897 became Jarrahdale Jarrah Forests and Railways Ltd. Activities expanded greatly in the next two years: the concession was extended for forty years, three hundred men were employed on the mills, and Jarrahdale was described as 'a community of happiness and contentment'. In 1902 the company amalgamated with Millar Brothers to become Millars' Karri and Jarrah Co. Ltd.

For some time McNeil lived in Melbourne but made regular trips by sea to Albany and overland to Jarrahdale to supervise the mills. On a visit to Britain in 1890 he married Jessie Alexandra, daughter of Hugh Laurie, in Ayr, Scotland, and on his return to Western Australia he acquired ten acres (4 ha) of choice land between Claremont and Cottesloe. He soon built The Cliffe, a large home constructed mainly of jarrah, to demonstrate his faith in the quality of local timber for building purposes.

From the early 1890s to the turn of the century his interests rapidly widened. An early visitor to Kalgoorlie in the gold rush, he acquired shares in the Star of the East Mine in the Murchison, the Wealth of Nations and Londonderry mines. He also bought such properties as Surrey Chambers and McNeil Buildings in Perth and Phillimore Chambers in Fremantle. In 1908 he bought 9000 acres (3642 ha) in the Blackwood district and the Mount Barker estate, one of the finest orchards in the south-west, where he concentrated on pioneering the export trade of apples and pears as well as producing large quantities of stone fruits for commercial purposes. He also imported stock and bred excellent carriage horses.

A staunch Presbyterian, he donated £1000 towards the building of St Andrew's Presbyterian Church in Perth. He also gave generous support to the Young Men's Christian Association and to the victims of the earthquake disaster at Messina in 1908. Respected for his business acumen and honesty, he was appointed a justice of the peace for Western Australia in 1902. He died without issue on 8 May 1927 at The Cliffe and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 2 (Adelaide, 1913)
  • V. G. Fall, The Mills of Jarrahdale (Perth, 1972)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Council, Western Australia), 1887-88 (AI, 14)
  • Inquirer (Perth), 17 Mar 1886
  • West Australian, 10 May 1927
  • Western Mail, 6 Apr 1939.

Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'McNeil, Neil (1855–1927)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 25 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (MUP), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

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