After working in a coal mine in England where he was born in 1797, John Williams worked his passage on the Schooner John, to Australia in 1832, following his fiancé who had been convicted of receiving stolen goods. He was to become Queensland’s first true businessman.
Upon his arrival in Brisbane in 1841, there was a small but growing population, of barely 200 people, reaching just under 1,000 by the 1846 census. The colony was steadily urbanising. Even prior to his arrival, Williams had identified trading opportunities such as to more efficiently transport supplies by sea from New South Wales rather than through the New England route. In 1841, before the declaration of Brisbane as a free settlement, he was granted the first permit to trade, initially doing so aboard his ship anchored in the Brisbane River while he built his first store on the corner of Grey and Russell Streets in South Brisbane. It was the first store to be properly organised in Brisbane.
By measured risk taking Williams responded quickly to the many opportunities on offer. Of his many entrepreneurial characteristics, persistence was one of the most remarkable as demonstrated by his willingness to stay with ventures until he succeeded, such as his heavy investment in coal mining.
With a sharp eye for profit but never seeking to amass a personal fortune, he reinvested his profits in the exploration of new ventures and knew when to sell. Williams has been described as a hard bargaining honest man – a rugged individual, even a loner, who rather than forming partnerships and building long-term organisations, preferred to own and control his businesses personally. He was described by his contemporaries as “redoubtable, indefatigable, a plucky pioneer .”
In the context of early Queensland business, Williams made a remarkable contribution. Apart from being the first to hold a trading licence; he was Brisbane’s first publican; the first person to recognise the future importance of coal to the local economy especially as the means of powering ocean and river shipping; he held the first ferry licence enabling him to provide a service linking North and South Brisbane; while his diversified shipping interests served local farmers and trade between Brisbane and Sydney.
In being the number one business identity in Brisbane, John Williams was commercially astute but also a true entrepreneur, an innovator, an adventurer and a consummate business pioneer.