Royal Reels: Gambling


The cover has a printed lilac ‘TWO PENCE’ stamp of Victoria canceled with a duplex MELBOURNE/ 14 A/ OC 19/ 88 with the VICTORIA obliterator over the stamp. It is addressed to Messrs McLean Bros & Rigg, Elizabeth St, Melbourne. The reverse was not seen (Figure 1).

William McLean, merchant, was born on 12 January 1845 in Dumfries, Scotland, son of Peter McLean, cabinet maker, and his wife Jane. The family arrived in Melbourne in 1853 and William completed his education. He was employed first by John McTier and later by the hardware firm, E. Keep & Co. After seven years McLean was ready to open his own hardware business and in 1870 he went into partnership with T. E. White. In 1872 the partnership was dissolved and McLean was joined by his brother Joseph as well as William Rigg, and the firm was known as McLean Bros & Rigg, which specialized in wholesale and retail ironmongery, general hardware and machinery importing.

The new company grew quickly into one of the successes of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’. In 1876 the partners opened an office in London; branches were established at Adelaide in 1879 and Sydney in 1884, also in Perth, and an office in New York in 1886. In 1887 the firm became a limited liability company with the partners holding a controlling interest and McLean as general manager. The company was very prosperous. In 1887 the ’emporium’ in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne, was claimed to be ‘second to none in Victoria’; it specialized in hardware and machinery, but furniture, silverware, clocks and marble and bronze statuary were also featured. A picture of the building opened in Perth is seen in Figure 2.

At the rear, McLean Bros & Rigg built a four-storied wholesale warehouse in Collins Place, Melbourne and had an iron yard and bond store in Bourke Street. Imported machinery was assembled in a large bluestone factory at Port Melbourne. McLean had many overseas agencies and with patent rights to many local inventions was able to diversify his business. In the 1880s Victoria’s protectionist policy opened a profitable field for investment and McLean, though a moderate free trader, he was quick to exploit the new opportunities, taking large contracts from the Victorian railways, Melbourne Tramway Trust, Telegraph Department and Public Works Department. He described himself as a follower of the ‘Conservative Party’ but twice resisted pressure to contest safe Legislative Council seats. In 1883 he argued cogently before the royal commission on the tariff, supporting the infant industry argument but detailing many anomalies of the tariff structure.

McLean was appointed a justice of the peace for the Central Bailiwick and in 1884 a commissioner of the Savings Banks of Victoria. He served on the Melbourne Hospital Committee in 1882-94, and was chairman of the Melbourne Permanent Building Society, a director of the Federal Bank and chairman of the Melbourne Coffee Taverns Co. A strong advocate for temperance he was treasurer of the Victorian Alliance and a supporter of the Northcote Inebriate Retreat. He was well known for his charity generosity, while the land boom lasted. He was prominent in several banks, as well as the Union Finance Co. The collapse of the boom made McLean’s insolvency inevitable. In 1894 he resigned his public offices and filed his schedule for £200,000, most of which was owed to the Federal and Real Estate Banks. He was allowed to retain his general managership in McLean Bros & Rigg and was finally released from sequestration in 1898. In 1900 he resigned from the firm which was bought by Thomas Luxton in 1907.

After retirement McLean made the last of his eight visits to Europe and in 1901 set up as a manufacturers’ agent in Little Flinders Street. His health was failing and he was ordered to rest but would not follow medical advice. On 6 February 1905 he was found drowned off the Middle Brighton pier. In 1869 he had married Margaret, daughter of Andrew Arnot. Of their eleven children, Oliver was active for some years in the firm’s management. A picture of William McLean is seen in Figure 3.

No worthwhile information has been found on his partner William Rigg, but McLean’s wife Margaret McLean (1845-1923) was a person in her own right, as a feminist, school teacher, social reformer, temperance advocate and a women’s suffragist; she is seen in Figure 4.

The above paper was abstracted from the entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Addendum (November 2009):  A  Reply Post Card with a pink ‘One Penny’ stamp of Victoria was seen recently, and it was interesting for two reasons:  The 2 parts of the card were still intact and in fine condition, and the contents of the card were somehat unusual.  The card was addressed to Messrs. Mc. Lean Bros. & Rigg Ltd., 107 to 113 Elizabeth Street, Melbourne.  The printed stamp was postmarked MELBOURNE/ AP 26?/ 01 (Figure 5).

The reverse was typewritten as follows:  Melbourne, April 26. 01  Sir, please send me the price-list of your pretty German dolls, that can speak and walk.  Sincerely yours, Lois Edwards.  201 Scotchmar Street, North-Fitzroy.  Melbourne.  (Figure 6).

The Reply portion has the same pink ‘One Penny’ stamp and is cancelled MELBOURNE/ AP 26/ 01 and the hand written address is to Mr. Lois Edwards, 201, Scotchmar Street, North-Fitzroy, Melbourne (Figure 7).

The reverse has Sir,  The price-lists are expeced to come in next week. I shall send them at once.  Sincerely yours  F. McLean (Figure 8).

In addition I have found a drawing of William McLean , as chairman of the Melbourne Permanent Buiding Society, whose speculative activities sent him bankrupt and ruined his hardware firm, and he is seen in Figure 9.

I found an advert in the West Australian, 12 March 1898 in which the firm describes itself as Wholesale Ironmongers, Oil & Colour Merchants, and General Importers, Pier Street, Perth.  The pretty German mechanical dolls presumably fall under the latter category of ‘General Importers’ (Figure 10). 

Categories: Business