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RM Williams

 

1908 - 2003


Reginald Murray Williams was born at Belalie North, South Australia in 1908.  His father wasR.M. Williams with his dog a pioneer settler, working and training horses for a living.   His family moved to Adelaide when he was aged 10 as his mother wished her children to receive a good education.  At 16 he was apprenticed as a builder to Len Kennett. Together they built a church that is still standing at Underbool, Victoria.  RM never lost his passion for building, particularly with stone.

At an early age he headed to WA and the Laverton mission, where he burned Lime and built a water tank that is still in use. RM understood the importance of clean water and was proud of the many wells that he dug for aboriginal groups.  In 1926, RM set out into the desert in Northern South Australia on a pioneering trip as camel boy to Bill Wade. The contract was to count and minister to bush aboriginals, many of whom had not seen white people. They were exploring new frontiers, learning to survive away from civilisation and these experiences shaped the man.  

Prior to leaving Adelaide, RM had met Thelma Cummings; she made a big impression on him. She left the city to work on an outback station, he sought her out and just before his 21st birthday, they were married.  Their married life began with the depression, a difficult time for everyone. RM, Thelma and Diane, their first child, moved to Nepabunna Aboriginal Mission in the Gammon ranges. They lived in a wood and iron hut, RM worked in the mission and dug wells to sustain them. In 1932, Ian was born. RM’s view of the world was forever coloured by his experience of the depression and the hardships that he witnessed.

On his return to Adelaide, RM organised and was secretary of the Aboriginal Advancement League and arranged the purchase of land to establish the Ernabella Aboriginal Mission.  During his many trips in the bush and around properties looking for work as a young man, RM learnt many leather skills from bushmen. He recognized the needs of isolated people and understood how important it was for equipment to be strong, durable and practical.

While in the Gammon Ranges he met Dollar Mick who showed RM how to make a pack saddle.  After several months of experimenting, the pair created the first pair of boots from one piece of leather. These became the famous elastic sided boots.  RM returned to Adelaide where his father let him use an area of his shed to start making pack saddles and boots.  RM advertised ‘Elastic side boots made to order’ for twenty shillings, cash with order at 5 Percy Street, Prospect.  This was the birth of RM Williams Pty Ltd. The factory at 5 Percy Street prospered and so did the staff.  They were like one family with RM helping many to finance and build homes.  Reunions are still held and they refer to RM as a treasured friend. RM’s generosity and genuine friendship with his staff inspired great loyalty, and this was the foundation of a successful business.

As the factory grew in size, so did RM’s family as he and Thelma welcomed Dene in 1934 and Jocelyn in 1937.  RM’s life then took another dramatic turn as he became involved in the mining industry, working Noble’s Nob gold mine in Tennant Creek. This became the richest single reef ever worked in Australia. His family was still growing with the arrival of John in 1943 and Kerry in 1945. Now a rich man, RM and his family lived in a luxurious mansion, enjoyed playing polo and mixing in fast circles.  RM did not adapt well to high society, this lifestyle was in conflict with the ideals he had forged as a young man in the bush.

In the early 1950’s RM’s first marriage fell apart and RM experienced a personal crisis. He and Ian set out for Queensland on a personal pilgrimage.  He purchased ‘Rockybar’ in the Eidsvold Shire. In 1972, RM and family moved to Toowoomba (leaving sons Ian and Kerry at ‘Rockybar’).

His second marriage ended soon after. He took a renewed interest in the company and in 1978 the first RM Williams store opened its doors in Toowoomba.  A further 17 stores opened in Australia and various parts of the world. Whilst RM lived at his property ‘Rockybar’ Arabians, near Toowoomba, he wrote his many books.  RM purchased more cattle properties and relished this connection to the cattle industry and his opportunities to visit the bush for the remainder of his life. He established one of the early covenants over an area of pristine bush land at ‘Rainbow’ near Rolleston because he understood the need to use the land, grow food, but also preserve the natural environment.

On November, 4 2003, RM hung up his boots for good.

Throughout his life, RM talked with all types of people, he listened to countless dreams, he helped float many of these, plus his own. He was generous and interested.  He was acknowledged publicly for his service to the community many times, the most notable of which are;

1984 - Order of Saint Michael and Saint George;
1992 - Order of Australia;
2001 - Centenary Medal;
2003 - Became listed as one of Queensland's Greats.
Despite his legendary reputation as a bushman and storyteller, RM Williams is more widely recognized as a successful businessman and for his philanthropic activities in preserving outback culture.  

He was known as:

  • A poet, raconteur and writer;
  • A friend of the aboriginal;
  • An entrepreneur;
  • A passionate appreciator of horses, riding and horse people;
  • A talented stonemason and leather craftsman;
  • An enthusiastic and practical conservationist;
  • Recognizing the importance of rural education; and
  • Having a passion for preserving bush craft and culture.

RM inspired and worked upon many projects, often in partnership with others.

Some of the projects that were nurtured to fruition are;

  • Bicentennial National Trail;
  • Australian Rough Riders Association;
  • Australian Equestrian Association
  • Hoofs & Horns Magazine;
  • Tom Quilty Edurance Ride;
  • Australian Stockman's Hall of Fame, Longreach; and
  • RM Williams Pty Ltd Bushmen's gear and clothing Company.

The community of the North Burnett and the family of RM Williams wished to honour the life and times of this great Australian character and entrepreneur while recognising his strong educational focus, his deep and essential love of the bush. It is our firm wish that the RM Williams Australian Bush Learning Centre will provide benefits to the local community today and into the future.