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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Samson, Sir William Frederick (1892–1974)

by Patricia Brown

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Sir William Frederick Samson (1892-1974), businessman and mayor, was born on 12 January 1892 at Fremantle, Western Australia, second of four children of Michael Samson, civil servant, and his wife Mary, née Murphy. His grandfather Lionel Samson had been one of the first Swan River settlers. Educated at Christian Brothers' colleges at Fremantle and in Perth, Freddy studied engineering at the University of Western Australia. In 1915 he abandoned his course, intending to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force, but was declared medically unfit. He then joined the Metropolitan Water Supply, Sewerage and Drainage Department. Between 1918 and 1930 he worked as a surveyor, though his health was impaired from the effects of Spanish influenza, contracted in 1919. In 1931 he set up as an auctioneer and real-estate agent at Fremantle. On 9 January 1935, in the home (built in 1888) he had inherited from his father, he married with Anglican rites Daphne Alice Marks (d.1953), the 27-year-old daughter of his housekeeper. They were childless.

Entering the Fremantle City Council in 1936, Samson was to serve as mayor for twenty-one years: he was elected unopposed in 1951 and remained unchallenged in that office until he retired in 1972. He believed that Fremantle was the best place in the world and Perth its mere adjunct. Each of his council meetings began with the Bible opened at Psalm CXXXIII, verse 1: 'Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!' A man of the people and a 'rough diamond', he maintained that a city should be more than a place of commerce and exchange, and made himself accessible to anyone who came to him for advice or help. He was quixotic in his efforts on behalf of the community and kept a pocket full of coins with which he fed meters on the streets as he passed by, thereby saving motorists from a possible fine.

In the early 1950s Samson oversaw construction of the O'Connor industrial estate, intended to provide work and housing for returned servicemen. From 1958 he campaigned to save the convict-built Fremantle Lunatic Asylum, which was transformed into a museum and arts centre by 1970. As a member of the Cultural Development Council, he ensured that other neglected historic buildings were restored for public use. He served on the committees of at least eleven clubs and associations—sporting, cultural, commercial and charitable. A shrewd businessman, he had helped to form the Home Building Society in 1946; while chairman (1951-74), he saw its assets increase to $70 million. He was also a councillor of the Real Estate Institute of Western Australia (1949-64) and a member of the State Electricity Commission (1954-74).

Short and portly, Samson had an auctioneer's booming voice that carried across a room. He was hospitable but abstemious, preferring tea to wine. In 1962 he was knighted. In 1969 he was appointed the first honorary freeman in the Fremantle municipality. Denied his wish to spend his last moments in the four-poster bed in which he had been born, Sir Frederick died on 6 February 1974 in Fremantle Hospital and was buried in the local cemetery. His home, bequeathed to the trustees of the Western Australian Museum, became the Samson House Museum. A suburb of Perth was named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • West Australian, 1 Jan 1962, 7 Feb 1974
  • L. Troy and L. Wood (oral history transcripts, Fremantle Library, Western Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Patricia Brown, 'Samson, Sir William Frederick (1892–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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