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Merrylees, William Andrew (Bill) (1900–1969)

by Donald Boadle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

William Andrew (Bill) Merrylees (1900-1969), philosopher, grazier and lobbyist, was born on 13 December 1900 at Charlton, Victoria, eldest of four children of Victorian-born parents William Andrew Merrylees, farmer and Methodist lay preacher, and his wife Jane Alice, née Pearse. Bill 'could handle machinery and mend anything', but his father aspired to have him ordained. From Charlton Higher Elementary School and Wesley College he proceeded to Queen's College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1921; M.A., 1923; D.Litt., 1935). He rowed for his college and was influenced by W. R. Boyce Gibson, the Idealist philosopher. Gibson's Idealism was not incompatible with Christian belief, and Merrylees only gradually abandoned institutional religion. Awarded the 1921 Rhodes scholarship for Victoria, he read philosophy at Oriel College, Oxford (B.Litt., 1923). Back home, he married Margaret Annie O'Hara, half-sister of J. B. O'Hara, at Queen's College chapel on 26 June 1924. He briefly managed a family property, Groongal station, Hay, New South Wales, then embarked on further study at the University of Heidelberg, Germany, in 1925. In the following year he was appointed senior lecturer in philosophy at the University of Melbourne.

Slowly spoken, intensely serious and reserved, Merrylees disliked lecturing and wandered deviously through Bernard Bosanquet and F. H. Bradley. Their Absolute Idealism had few Australian followers, but he was drawn to Bosanquet's political altruism; his own writings on public affairs revealed him as a social liberal and disciple of J. M. Keynes. He published prolifically in the Australasian Journal of Psychology and Philosophy and, while convalescing from pneumonia in 1933, wrote a substantial monograph, Descartes: An Examination of Some Features of His Metaphysics and Method (1934), which earned him his doctorate. Expected to succeed to Gibson's chair, he was deeply hurt when the professor's son Alexander gained preferment. To his siblings' dismay, Merrylees insisted on taking over Groongal in partnership with his brother Joe. During his last year at the university in 1935, he attended Melbourne Technical College on Friday mornings to learn woolclassing.

Merrylees was eager to diversify production on the 37,470-acre (15,164 ha) sheep run on the Murrumbidgee River. He taught himself surveying and began to lay out irrigation channels, initially on the border-check principle and later using his own controlled wild-flooding system. His scheme to convert Groongal into a huge mixed farm alarmed his brother who wanted to build up a merino stud and to use irrigation simply as drought insurance. Undeterred by Joe's opposition and their bankers' misgivings, Bill formed a separate partnership with Annie to irrigate the property's western portion, Coonara. The burning of their two-storeyed wooden homestead in 1944 proved but a temporary setback: he circumvented postwar restrictions by enlisting his children and employees to build a nineteen-room concrete replacement, and installed fire-alarms. From there he dispensed hospitality to visiting parties of farmers, politicians and bureaucrats who were attracted by reports of quadrupled carrying capacity and unorthodox practices like winter watering.

Broad shouldered and over six feet (183 cm) tall, with sandy brown hair, blue eyes and a sun-ravaged complexion, Merrylees looked and sounded like a countryman. Yet he was never conventionally country-minded, being conscious of the disadvantages of rural life and eager to advance regional social-policy objectives. He served on Carrathool Shire Council (1951-68, deputy-president 1956-68) and on Murrumbidgee County Council (1955-68, deputy-chairman 1960-68), promoting libraries and rural electrification, but opposing the proliferation of intensive irrigation settlements.

In 1952 Merrylees founded the Riverine University League and won national prominence with his campaign for a rural university. A formidable controversialist and pamphleteer, he relentlessly attacked the binary policy championed by Sir Leslie Martin and Senator (Sir) John Gorton, and almost secured the establishment of a Riverina university college in 1966. When the Federal government offered to finance a college of advanced education at Wagga Wagga, he persuaded the State government to make it a multi-campus institution serving the entire region. His contribution to establishing the Riverina College of Advanced Education was to be acknowledged in 1981 when the library at the Riverina campus of Charles Sturt University was named after him.

Diagnosed with angina in 1964, Merrylees died of myocardial infarction on 17 August 1969 while digging a utility truck out of dry sand at Coonara. He was buried with Methodist forms in Griffith cemetery; his wife, three daughters and two sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Watt, Australian Diplomat (Syd, 1972)
  • H. Dow (ed), More Memories of Melbourne University (Melb, 1985)
  • D. Boadle, Selling the Rural University (Wagga Wagga, NSW, 1986), and for bibliography
  • D. Boadle, 'The Idealist as Lobbyist: W. A. Merrylees and his campaign for an Australian Rural University', in Melbourne Studies in Education, 1989-90, D. Stockley ed (Melb, 1990)
  • D. Boadle, 'Critics of Australia's Binary Policy: the Riverina University College Debate, 1965-67', History of Education Review, 23, no 2, 1994, p 18
  • Riverine University League papers (Charles Sturt University Regional Archives)
  • Blake and Riggall records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Donald Boadle, 'Merrylees, William Andrew (Bill) (1900–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/merrylees-william-andrew-bill-11113/text19787, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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