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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Northam, Sir William Herbert (1905–1988)

by R. I. Cashman

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

William Northam, 1950s

William Northam, 1950s

City of Sydney Archives, 058752

Sir William Herbert Northam (1905–1988), Olympic yachtsman, businessman and alderman, was born on 28 September 1905 at Torquay, England, one of seven children of William Northam, 'of independent means', and his wife Kathleen, née Pardoe.  The family migrated to Australia when Bill was five and settled in Sydney.  Educated at the short-lived Knox College, North Sydney, he pursued many sports, including athletics, boxing, motorcar and motorcycle racing and rugby.  Northam began work as an engineering apprentice before becoming a car salesman and then joining Johnson & Johnson (Pty) Ltd in 1932.  He rose rapidly in the company to become managing director in 1946; when he relinquished this post in 1960, he was appointed chairman of the board, remaining until 1969.  In the late 1960s and 1970s he served on the boards of various companies, including Slazengers (Aust.) Pty Ltd and Penfolds Wines Australia Ltd.

Northam had married Esther Barbara Herford on 21 June 1929 at St Andrew’s Church of England, Roseville; she died in a car accident in 1946.  He married Alison Mary Dwyer, née Walker, on 10 April 1948 at the district registrar’s office, Chatswood.  Serving as an alderman on Sydney City Council from 1956 to 1965, he ran unsuccessfully as the business-oriented Civic Reform Association candidate for lord mayor in 1962.

In his mid-forties Northam took up sailing.  He ended Victorian dominance of the 8-metre class Sayonara Cup, when he won it in Saskia in 1955 and 1956.  A participant in two Sydney to Hobart yacht races, he was a member of Sir Frank Packer’s Gretel syndicate for the 1962 America’s Cup.  Northam set his sights on Olympic representation and travelled to the United States of America to engage designers for a 5.5-metre yacht, which he named Barrenjoey, after his Pittwater property.  He then hand-picked his crew, Peter O’Donnell and Dick Sargeant, who were more than thirty years his junior.  In the Olympic trials Northam defeated two experienced and favoured competitors, Jock Sturrock and Norman Booth, to gain selection to race in the 5.5-metre class at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Barrenjoey won three of the seven Olympic races, securing the gold medal—Australia’s first in yachting—in the final one.  The 59-year-old grandfather of five was Australia’s oldest gold medallist.  Harry Gordon suggested that he may also have been 'the most garrulous' gold medallist, as he heckled his opponents and argued with his crew during races.  However, Gordon added that he was 'one of sport’s more refreshing characters' because he never took himself too seriously.  Behind Northam’s unconventional tactics and gamesmanship lay a shrewd technical mind, a willingness to gamble and a tough competitive outlook.

Appointed CBE in 1966, Northam was knighted in December 1976.  His wife Alison had died earlier that year.  On 28 May 1977 at his mansion, Hopton Lodge, Bayview, he married with Presbyterian forms a widow Dulcie May Stephen, née Hill.  He was a renowned charity worker and Olympic fund-raiser.  In 1965 he was named Australian 'Father of the Year'.  Sir William was a gregarious individual who smoked heavily and enjoyed whisky.  Survived by his wife and the daughter and two sons of his first marriage, he died on 2 September 1988 at Woollahra and was cremated.  A memorial service was held at St Mark’s Anglican Church, Darling Point.

Select Bibliography

  • R. and M. Howell, Aussie Gold (1988)
  • H. Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games (1994)
  • P. Donovan, Johnson & Johnson (2006)
  • Woman’s Day (Melbourne), 18 August 1969, p 12

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

R. I. Cashman, 'Northam, Sir William Herbert (1905–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 10 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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