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Watson, William (1863–1938)

by Noelene Doohan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

William Watson (1863-1938), by Nash Boothby, 1922

William Watson (1863-1938), by Nash Boothby, 1922

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23515099

William Watson (1863-1938), businessman and politician, was born on 21 October 1863 at Campbells Creek, Victoria, eldest son of William Watson, a miner from Scotland, and his English-born wife Matilda, née Spiers. After leaving Guildford Public School at 13, Watson worked as a farm-labourer, axeman, miner, navvy, bricklayer, dairyman and commercial traveller; while employed in a rural general store, he learned the basics of the pork industry. On 2 April 1888 at Campbells Creek, near Castlemaine, he married Eliza Annie Showell.

In 1889 Watson started his own grocery store in Melbourne, but in 1895 moved to Western Australia with his family, £375 and a horse and cart. At Fremantle he opened a grocery store and a tea-room, then a store in Perth, and leased land at Hamilton Hill to establish a pork abattoir and bacon and sausage factory. Having acquired several more grocery stores, he was one of the first local businessmen to use motor vehicles for deliveries. After 1918 he changed the emphasis of his business from retailing to manufacturing and wholesaling smallgoods. Two of his sons died in action in World War I. Watson was a liberal contributor to the Fremantle War Memorial fund and his generosity towards ex-servicemen earned him honorary life membership of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia.

His aversion to 'machine' politics and his support for prohibition during the war led him to contest the Federal seat of Swan as an Independent in 1918. Though unsuccessful, Watson was returned for Fremantle in 1922, and in 1925 when his opponent was Labor's John Curtin. Watson did not stand for election in 1928 or 1929. Prompted by the economic crisis, he came out of retirement in 1931, stood again as an Independent and took the seat from Curtin. In tribute to Watson's oratory, the Age described him as 'Australia's Abraham Lincoln'. While he invariably blamed party politics for class divisions in society and occasionally criticized non-Labor governments during his years in the House of Representatives, on vital issues Watson remained one of the conservatives' staunchest supporters. He retired in August 1934 due to ill health. In 1937 he relinquished the directorship of the family business to his sons.

Known affectionately as 'Old Bill', he was a successful businessman, community leader, inventor and student of ancient history who owned a large personal library. He was also a charitable man who helped those in need, regardless of their political or religious beliefs: during a 1920s waterside workers' strike at Fremantle, he had distributed food parcels to destitute lumpers. Survived by his wife, three of his sons and three daughters, Watson died at Peppermint Grove, Perth, on 21 December 1938 and was buried in the Methodist section of Fremantle cemetery; his estate was sworn for probate at £29,412. His political success had sprung from the general esteem in which he was held: John Curtin, a pallbearer at Watson's funeral, called him a 'generous and friendly opponent'.

Select Bibliography

  • West Australian, 22 Dec 1938
  • interview with Mr H. A. Watson, May 1984 (oral history records, Fremantle City Library, Perth)
  • biography of W. Watson (manuscript, Fremantle City Library, Perth).

Citation details

Noelene Doohan, 'Watson, William (1863–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/watson-william-9006/text15855, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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