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William Edward McIlwaine – Chairman NQRA 1924-32 & Community Leader

Jul 7, 2022 | Sport History

Author: Bruce A R Scott Secretary, Townsville Marksmen Rifle Club updated 24 June 2022


Most cemeteries around Australia have many registered but unmarked graves which are often the resting place of people who have positively influenced the development and growth of their community.  The reasons the graves remain unmarked are many but some can be attributed to the individual being the ‘end of the family line’, limited financial resources for the commissioning of headstones or simple oversight.

In December 2019, the Rotary Club of Townsville was made aware that a former club member and his wife rested in the Belgian Gardens Cemetery in Townsville in registered but unmarked graves.  William Edward McIlwaine and his wife, Alice ‘Couchie’ (nee Foot), lie buried in Section F13 Plots 80 and 81 respectively.  Alice died on 30th October 1965 and William died almost three years later on 19th June 1968.

Upon learning of the circumstances and hearing of the life of William McIlwaine and his service to Townsville and Australia, the Rotary Club launched a community service project titled ‘Project McIlwaine’ to appropriately mark their graves.  A summary of the McIlwaine family and details of William McIlwaine’s life makes interesting reading.

The McIlwaine Family

Frederick McIlwaine married Mary Lloyd Patterson in Belfast, Ireland in 1884 and moved to Townsville in 1885 where Frederick had lived previously for a brief period.  While living in Townsville, the three McIlwaine children (William b. 1885, Frederick Lloyd b. 1887 and Helen b. 1889) came into the world.  Sadly, daughter Helen was severely handicapped.

In 1892 after an unsuccessful business venture in Townsville, Frederick returned to journalism moving to Sydney in 1893.  Tragedy followed in 1894 with his wife Mary accidentally drowning in New South Wales which resulted in Frederick returning to Townsville with his three young children.

Frederick McIlwaine (died 29 August 1921) and his son Frederick Lloyd (died 22 May 1917) are buried in the same grave site in the Belgian Gardens Cemetery.

Helen McIlwaine (died 24 December 1958) is buried in an unknown location in Queensland.

William McIlwaine

William McIlwaine was born on 25th November 1885 at Stanton Hill in Townsville.  He attended a Sydney school until moving back to Townsville with his father, brother and sister in 1894.  He then attended the Townsville Central School before completing his education at the Townsville Grammar School.

On 31st December 1909, while a member of the Townsville Rifle Club, William McIlwaine married Alice ‘Couchie’ Foot who was the 3rd eldest child (of 10 children) of Alfred Knethel and Mary Eleanor (nee Maddeen) Foot.  In 1899 Alfred Foot took up Cardington Station which is located between Reed River and Charters Towers in North Queensland.  The Foot’s youngest son, Alfred Richard Foot (Lux Foot’s father), managed the property until the 1960s.

William and Alice did not have any children but certainly had numerous nieces and nephews.  Alice excelled at golf and was the winner of the Ladies Championship with a score of 171 over 36 holes at the North Queensland Golf Championships in 1932.

The McIlwaines moved to Perth in 1933 where William was promoted to Branch Manager of the South British Insurance Company and in 1939 they moved to Gisborne, New Zealand.  Alice McIlwaine continued her good form with golf winning the 1933 Annual ‘knock-out’ handicap for associates at the Perth Golf Club. In 1937, being a competent B Grade golfer, William McIlwaine donated a trophy for competition at the Royal Perth Golf Club (awarded Royal Charter in 1937).

They retired back to Townsville in May 1946 to 7 Willmett Street, Townsville.  The street is named after Thankful Percy Willmett who was Mayor of Townsville on several occasions including 1880-81, 1887 and 1902.  Ironically, Willmett’s daughter, Emily, was a known competitive shooter who won the 1903 and 1904 ladies competition in Charters Towers.  It is very likely that McIlwaines and Willmett family were well known to each other.

Alice McIlwaine died on 30th October 1965 aged 78 years.  William McIlwaine died on 19th June 1968 aged 82 years.  Both were buried in registered but unmarked graves in the Belgian Gardens Cemetery in  Townsville. 

The Rifle Shooter and Sports Administrator

William McIlwaine was a keen and competitive rifle shooter joining the sport at age 17 years and was very interested in the sport’s administration.  He joined the Townsville Rifle Club and was a member until he moved to Perth in 1933 to pursue his insurance career.  During his time as a rifle club member in Townsville he occupied the positions of Honorary Secretary, Honorary Treasurer and was Captain of the Townsville Rifle Club in 1913, 1919 and 1921.  William represented Queensland in the Commonwealth Teams Matches on three separate occasions including the matches held at Launceston in December 1924.  Before he departed Townsville in March 1933, the Townsville Rifle Club hosted a farewell party at the YWCA rooms and presented him with a case of pipes (smoking) as a token of the esteem in which he was held by the club.

William was a member of the Townsville Rifle Club at the same time as George Pierce Foot, Henry Daintree Foot, Eric Douglas Foot and Alexander Madden Foot who would become his brothers-in-law.  William McIlwaine is likely to have met his wife-to-be, Alice ‘Couchie’ Foot, through his connections with rifle shooting.

From 1910 he was the Honorary Secretary/Treasurer of the Townsville District Rifle Union.  Within the North Queensland Rifle Association (NQRA), William McIlwaine had risen from an executive member to the position of Chairman which he held from 1924 to 1932.  He was the NQRA Delegate to the Commonwealth Council of Rifle Associations in 1932.  It is not known if he continued his shooting interests after arriving in Perth in 1933 but maybe not as his name appeared regularly in the Perth Golf Club weekly results.

William McIlwaine is 2nd from the left in rear row

Service to his Community

For more than 40 years, William McIlwaine served the South British Insurance Company in Townsville, Sydney, Perth and Christchurch and Gisborne in New Zealand.  He had the unique distinction of having been the President of the Chamber of Commerce in Townsville (Australia 1930-31) and Gisborne (New Zealand 1944).  While in Perth he was a member of the Council of the Perth Chamber of Commerce.

Senior Staff of the Townsville Insurance Companies 1914

In 1913-14 William McIlwaine was the Right Worshipful Master of the Townsville Masonic Lodge.  In 1926 he was the Honorary Treasurer and Acting Secretary of the Townsville Bush Book Club.  William joined the Townsville Fire Brigade Board in May 1927 and was the Chairman of the Board from August 1928 to May 1931.  During 1926 to 1932 he was an active member of RACQ in Townsville being the Treasurer 1926-27, President 1929-30 and Vice President in 1932.  On 13th August 1929, as a representative of RACQ Townsville, William presented an argument to the then Mayor of Townsville, Alderman W J Heatly, for opening allotments along the road to Castle Hill.

William McIlwaine was also the President of the North Queensland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty in 1928 to 1932 and again from 1948 to 1955 and such was the standard of his work that he was made a Life Member of the Society.  This community service was most likely linked to his sister, Helen, who was severely handicapped.  He also served as Honorary Treasurer of the Red Cross in Townsville. 

While living in Gisborne, New Zealand, William McIlwaine was recorded as being a Rotarian and it is very likely that on return to Australia he transferred to the Rotary Club of Townsville as he attended a Townsville Club Meeting as a visiting Rotarian in early August 1946.

In 1946, the Rotary Club of Townsville established the  Bush Children’s Home at Rowes Bay in Townsville and in February 1947 it was handed over to the newly formed Bush Children’s Home Committee.  For more than 10 years William McIlwaine was Honorary Treasurer of that committee which was later named the Bush Children’s Health Scheme Townsville Committee.

Service to his Country

William McIlwaine’s military records show that he was mobilised for War Service in August 1914, embarked on SS Kanowna at Cairns on 8th August 1914 and enlisted on 14th August 1914 for service outside Australia.  He was mobilised before enlistment because NQRA rifle club members were “called out” to reinforce the Kennedy Regiment as Australia’s first response to the declaration of War in 1914.  This demonstrates the then national reliance upon rifle clubs for Australia’s defence prior to the Great War.

Upon return to Townsville on 18th September 1914, William was discharged from the Army. In 1915 he volunteered for further service and was allotted to the 31st Battalion as a 2nd Lieutenant.  He was deemed unfit for service in the Middle East and Europe so was posted to the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF).  William McIlwaine served with the 4th Tropical Force in Rabaul in New Guinea from 1st September 1915 to 31st December 1917. 

William maintained his competitive shooting interests while serving in Rabaul winning several competitions and on 29th September 1917 he led the Garrison troop team to a win over the Navy team. 

During his time in Rabaul he was promoted to Lieutenant and in late 1917 was made an Honorary Captain.  Interestingly William McIlwaine’s Reserve officer honorary appointment was terminated on 16th June 1921 and he was reinstated to Captain rank on 17th June 1921.

Four of William McIlwaine’s five brothers-in-law, Henry, George, Eric and Alexander Foot, served in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF).  Sadly, Lance Corporal Henry Foot, serving with 15th Battalion, was killed at Gallipoli (Quinns Post) on 1st May 1915 and Trooper Alexander Foot, serving with 5th Light Horse, was killed at Gallipoli (Wilson’s Look Out) on 22nd November 1915.   All brothers were members of the Townsville Rifle Club before the Great War.

William McIlwaine is probably unique in that, while a resident in New Zealand, he was a Lieutenant in the NZ Home Guard from 1941, presumably until the end of the Second World War.

The Project

The Idea.  The Project Team, having received a $500 commitment and the approval to proceed from the Board of the Rotary Club of Townsville, decided to adopt a co-funding approach to placing one headstone across both the McIlwaine graves.  Townsville company J&R Fletchers Monumentals, acknowledging the work was a Rotary community service project, advised the cost would be no more than $4,000 for the headstone.

Based upon William McIlwaine’s participation in and support to various community groups, all groups were contacted with an outline of the project and a request for a financial contribution. Not all community groups were interested.  Towards the end of 2020, the project team had raised sufficient funds to plan and commission a headstone.  Financial contributions were received from:

  • Rotary Club of Townsville                                $500
  • Townsville Marksmen Rifle Club                      $500
  • North Queensland Rifle Association                $500
  • Royal Automobile Club of Queensland            $500
  • Townsville Chamber of Commerce                   $500
  • Townsville Grammar School’s Interact Club     $250
  • 31st Battalion Association                                 $200
  • Mr George Colbran (Rotarian private donor)   $500
  • RSL North Queensland District                         $400

The contributions were gratefully received particularly noting the funding pressures some of the volunteer groups were under due to the broad impact COVID was having across the country at the time.

Setting Aside as a Memorial.  It was decided to schedule the dedication of the headstone to occur on the same weekend as the 31st Battalion Association’s Annual Commemorative Church Service which occurred on 25th July 2021.  Doing so enabled 31st Battalion Association members who had travelled great distances to also attend this dedication.  As a result the dedication was attended by 30 people from across North Queensland, of which some were Rotarians from the Herbert River and Atherton Tablelands areas and who very favourably commented on the appropriateness of this as a Rotary project.  Representatives from the North Queensland Rifle Association and the Townsville Marksmen Rifle Club were also in attendance.

The dedication service was supported by Townsville Rotary Club members Bruce Scott (MC), Horst Sauer (Rotary Chaplain) and Lux Foot (wreath layer) which was fitting given Bruce suggested the project to the club while Horst was President.  Significantly, Lux Foot is a nephew of William and Alice McIlwaine.

Rotarians Horst Sauer, Lux Foot and Bruce Scott and President of NQRA, Eric Christie (a former Rotarian)


Townsvillian William McIlwaine, with the support of his devoted wife Alice, provided long and dedicated service to his community whether it was in Townsville or in New Zealand.  His service is rarely equalled let alone exceeded and is certainly deserving of recognition.  All present at the grave site on 25th July agreed William and Alice McIlwaine earned the right to rest in marked graves and were honoured to witness their graves being marked after more than 50 years.

Project McIlwaine was agreed to in December 2019 and was completed with a dedication service at the Belgian Gardens Cemetery on 25th July 2021.  For those involved it was a sometimes emotional but certainly a satisfying and rewarding journey. 

This project would not have occurred without Rotary’s leadership and planning and the kind financial contributions from a number of community minded organisations such as the Townsville Marksmen Rifle Club and the North Queensland Rifle Association.

Information Sources:

1.         JCU Library Special Collection (Townsville Fire Brigade Board, North Queensland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty & Townsville Rifle Club)

2.         Book – ‘The Townsville Cenotaph WW 1 Soldiers 2017’ by Carolyn Lee Larard & Maureen Newnham

3.         Townsville Chamber of Commerce and Gisborne (NZ) Chamber of Commerce

4.         National Archives of Australia – World War 1 Soldier Records

5.         RACQ Archives, Brisbane

6.         Various newspaper articles accessed via TROVE

7.         Various records obtained from the internet

8.         ‘The MacIlwaine Family’ written by the late Dr Dorothy Gibson-Wilde OAM in June 2014 and published in FHANQ’s journal ‘Relatively Speaking’ in November 2014

Author:    Bruce A R Scott         Secretary, Townsville Marksmen Rifle Club       updated 24 June 2022

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