R.M. Williams

R M. Williams AO, CMG.


Reginald Murray Williams, better known as RM was not only a Jack of all trades but a master of them as well. At various times he has been a bushman, camel boy, bricklayer, businessman, tea grower in New Guinea, builder, horse breeder, grazier, explorer, miner, tycoon, raconteur, well sinker, stockman, avid reader, author, drover and the list could go on. RM was born on 24 May 1908 at Belalie North. Childhood years were difficult but he grew up quickly and from an early age learnt to handle horses on his father's property at Belalie. He left school at the age of 14. Although he had left school early he became an avid reader, including the works of Tolstoy.

After leaving home to see the world he took on jobs wherever they were available. One of his first jobs was learning to burn lime for the construction of a church in Victoria. On the Western Australian goldfields he helped establish a mission for Aborigines. He learnt much from his association with these people. In particular their bushcraft, cutting mulga, burning limestone, how to find water and track animals. Later in life he said that 'The mastery of these Aborigines over their environment has been the inspiration of my life'.

RM Williams and Bill Wade
Courtesy Gina Lillicrap
RM also learnt to handle camels from Afghan cameleers. As a camel boy he travelled the desert between Western Australia and Oodnadatta with Missionary William (Bill) Wade to count the number of Aborigines living in that area. After this trip he went dingo-scalping.

RM married Thelma Cummings in 1929. During the early years of their marriage they camped in the Adelaide Hills while he was sinking wells for Norman Cole on his property at Norton Summit. The deal being, no water-no pay. The price of timbering the well was 2 per foot. As RM said later, Times were hard and the Great Depression was just beginning. Their first child, Diane was born in 1930 followed by a son in 1932. He was to have nine children in all, six sons and three daughters.

After his experience in the Adelaide Hills the young Williams family moved to the northern Flinders Ranges where they set up camp at Italowie Gorge. Once again he went sinking wells, this time in the Gammon Ranges and other places in the north. On one occasion he dug 4 wells up to 25 metres, 'all by hand and some with hammer and tap steel'. Then he found water at 3 metres in a good soakage well at Nepabunna. He most probably would have stayed in this line of business had it not been for getting to know Michael George Smith. After meeting Smith, better known as Dollar Mick, his life took a different direction.

Dollar Mick had married an Aboriginal woman and had a son who worked around the pastoral properties. Mick knew how to make pack saddles and with RM perfected the art of boot making with a single piece of leather. They worked from a pattern cut out from a kerosene tin. Later RM said that 'Mick was better at stitching than himself. For two years we entertained travellers with our products and our camp fire was a meeting place for people from far and near. Dollar and I remained friends for life'. Dollar Mick, whose favourite pub was the Lyndhurst Hotel, died on 13 April 1969, aged 90. He is buried at Leigh Creek.

Life was hard in the north which RM recalled as 'a land of great dust storms where his family greatly suffered from the sand and dust'. During that time they lived mainly on rabbit meat, cooked in many different ways. Sometimes it was mixed with kangaroo and made excellent potted meat. Luckily, his wife could cope. She was content to sleep on the ground, cook on the open fire, nurse the children, eat rabbits, carry water and wash clothes in a four gallon tin. Even so, his children suffered from sandy blight and his son Ian became blind with trachoma and had to be taken to Adelaide by his wife.

During the early 1930s RM returned to Adelaide for work. He had been employed for a short time at Sidney Kidman's Eringa Station. In 1934 he made his first of many pack saddles for Kidman and opened a workshop at 5 Percy Street Prospect, Adelaide. Now his remarkable skills of boot making and leatherwork in general could be developed even further. The business soon developed into a far bigger concern than he had expected. Apart from supplying the Australian marked it also exported its merchandise overseas. The first overseas order came from the King of Nepal. Since then boots and other articles have been sold to England, USA, Europe, Canada, Falklands Islands and Indonesia. Even President Clinton has been seen wearing RM boots in the White House. Since the opening of his factory millions of pairs of booth have been produced.

Eventually the business became a multi million dollar enterprise. This according to RM was mainly because 'the Australian stockmen recognised me as one of their own. My story was their story, a camel man, stockman, well sinker, workmate'. Another success story was his gold mining adventure at Tennant Creek which he later admitted provided most of his income. In 15 years this mine produced 80 million worth of gold. RM 'used to stagger down the street to the bank with the bags of gold, a shotgun on each side'.

With his riches he bought Governor Gawler's old mansion in Adelaide and lived like a king. It did not bring him any happiness and in 1960, after a dispute with the South Australian Government over the compulsorily acquisition of his land at Northfield, RM vowed never to live in South Australia again. He packed his bags, horses, and took them along with his family to Queensland and developed a small horse breeding property, He settled at Rockybar, west of Bundaberg and only shifted to Toowoomba in 1979 for the education of his children. Not so successful was his marriage, which had ended in a divorce. In 1955 he married for a second time.

Since 1978 the RM Williams Company has opened retail stores in Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Toowoomba. As Chairman, RM travelled every month to Adelaide for board meetings. The RM Williams Holdings was sold in the 1990s to Ken Cowley and Kerry Stokes but RM was kept on for some time as a consultant.

He became patron of the Australian Roughriders Association, and later was heavily involved with the Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame which opened at Longreach in 1988. According to RM The Hall of Fame is about those men who left their tracks and nothing else. They are the faceless people who paved the way for latter-day pioneers. At the age of 72 he became Secretary of the Hall of Fame and has been editor of Hoofs and Horns for many years.

During these busy years RM wrote several books, among them The Bushman's Handcrafts, in 1943, which was reprinted 15 times. Among those that followed were Saddle for a Throne in 1952 and Beneath Whose Hands in 1984. This is 'a history of my many failures and my few successes, and having had both I have learnt some wisdom'. These books were followed by I Once Met A Man in 1989, A Song of the Desert in 1998, Australian Bush Classics in 2001 and Animal Stories in 2002. RM died on 4 November 2003 at the age of 95 on his property.

Lately he had one of South Australia's Highways named after him, as had Goyder and Thiele.


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