R. M. Williams

Bushman who built a multi-million-pound clothing empire
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The Independent Online

Reginald Murray Williams, businessman: born Belalie North, South Australia 24 May 1908; CMG 1985; AO 1992; married first Thelma Mitchell (six children; marriage dissolved), second 1955 Erica Nunn (three children); died Toowoomba, Queensland 4 November 2003.

R. M. Williams made a fortune from the work boots worn by generations of outback stockmen and, more recently, by everyone from models to merchant bankers. But the former ranch hand never lost his passion for Australia's wide open spaces, and he gave up a palatial house to return to the bush.

Williams was the archetypal bushman, with the same iconic status as his brand of rugged outdoor clothing. He combined legendary bush skills with a keen business brain, and became one of his country's richest men. But R M, as he was universally known, was happiest when he had the red dirt of rural Australia beneath his feet. He worked his own property until his death at the age of 95, rising at 6am to cook breakfast, and camped out by a fire with friends just six weeks ago.

His eponymous multi-million-pound empire, with outlets around the world including London and New York, had humble origins. Williams left home at 15 with a "swag" containing his few belongings and crisscrossed the deserts and plains of the outback, surviving on rabbit and kangaroo. After learning leatherwork skills from an itinerant saddler named Dollar Mick, he designed the elastic-sided riding boots - initially for himself - during the Great Depression, selling his first pair to a fellow bushman in 1933 for 20 shillings.

Williams made a second fortune from gold, after discovering a large deposit in a Northern Territory mine that he bought from a widow for a song. He made, according to his own calculations, "many, many millions", acquired a mansion in Adelaide and experimented with urban living and an upper-crust social life. But, as he explained: "I couldn't handle prosperity; I went back to where I belonged."

Ken Cowley, a friend who bought out his company this year, saluted him as a man of rare vision and courage. "RM was as comfortable with prime ministers as he was under a gidgee tree with a ringer [stockman]," Cowley said, adding: "He had incredible mental energy, the ability to achieve anything he set his mind to." His fellow bush-men, reportedly, regarded him as "the sort of bloke you can bounce an axe off".

Reginald Murray Williams was born in 1908 on a farm in South Australia. His family moved to Adelaide when he was 10, but the lure of the bush was already strong. He left school, worked as a lime burner, found casual work on cattle stations and went prospecting in the goldfields of Western Australia.

He became a camel driver for a missionary, travelling with him for three years across the vast interior and learning bush survival skills from Aborigines. During one trek, Williams was surrounded by a group of hostile Aborigines, waving spears. He walked up to them, held out his hands and said, "Yamargi", the local tribe's word for friendship. Tensions were defused.

Other legends about him abound. While "out bush", it is said, he pulled out an aching tooth with pliers. On one occasion, he jumped from a horse on to a wild bull to prevent it from killing his son. On another, he dared a stockman to crack a five-cent coin off his tongue with a whip.

During the Depression, Williams and his first wife, Thelma Mitchell, set up camp in the remote Gammon Ranges of South Australia. A friend taught him how to plait kangaroo leather. He began crafting boots and saddles, and in 1934 set up a factory in his father's woodshed. In an early coup, he persuaded Sir Sidney Kidman, one of Australia's biggest cattle owners, to buy his pack-saddles from R.M. Williams Country Outfitters.

Williams went on to make everything from bridles and whips to moleskin trousers and flannel shirts. The boots that transformed him into a household name had a simple design; made of one piece of leather, with a single seam, they were strong, waterproof and minimised chafing. The company now turns out 110,000 pairs a year; the former US President Bill Clinton was presented with some specially made crocodile-skin "RM"s when he visited Australia.

The foray into gold-mining came at a time when the company was deep in debt and - thanks to the deposit found at Nobles Nob, as the mine was called - proved its salvation. But Williams, then in Adelaide, was not cut out for the opulent life style. His marriage broke up, and he moved to a property in southern Queensland, where he bred cattle and horses.

Williams not only loved the rural life, but wanted to preserve its values. He published bush poetry and helped to establish the Stockman's Hall of Fame in Longreach, Queensland.

He is survived by his second wife, Erica Nunn, nine children and 71 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Kathy Marks

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