From Hooves to Highways

Neil McNeil, Esq



Neil McNeil, courtesy Presbyterian Ladies’ College Archives.

Scottish-born Neil McNeil grew up in Ballarat, Victoria, and, in 1882, government railway contracts brought him to WA. Here, he became a passionate pioneer and giant of WA’s timber industry. In 1889 he established the Neil McNeil Company, Jarrah Timber Station, which employed hundreds of men and exported WA timber to build London roads. In 1902 the company amalgamated with Millar Brothers to become Millars' Karri and Jarrah Co Ltd. By 1912 he also owned Karridale Mill.

In 1892 he bought an enormous block of land in Peppermint Grove bounded by The Esplanade, McNeil Street, and the Perth to Fremantle Road (now Stirling Highway), on which he built The Cliffe in 1894 almost entirely out of jarrah. The Peppermint Grove Roads Board, which did not share Neil’s love of jarrah, subsequently banned construction of timber homes in the area. The original home was designed as a bachelor’s residence by Clarence Wilkinson but, after his 1899 marriage to Jessie Laurie, in around 1900 he contracted J J Talbot Hobbs to design additions. Still standing, today it is heritage listed and being restored.

McNeil’s Surrey Chambers on the corner of St George’s Terrace and Howard Street c1908. Courtesy National Library of Australia.

A canny businessman with perfect timing, Neil invested early on in WA’s gold rush and owned shares in several productive mines. With the profits he built Perth’s Surrey Chambers and McNeil Buildings, and Fremantle’s Phillimore Chambers, and owned several others in the Goldfields. He was also a fine judge of horseflesh and bred top quality carriage horses he exercised in The Cliffe’s paddocks. In Mount Barker in 1908 he established an apple, pear, and stone fruit orchard, described as the finest in the south-west.

He was an Elder of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Perth and, though childless, was a generous benefactor of Presbyterian Ladies’ College, which has a faction named for him. He died at The Cliffe in May 1927, after a long illness, aged 70. 

What, Where, When

This is Neil McNeil’s 1903 Panhard, of a bright enough yellow to be described as “gaudy”. It comfortably seated five for touring, had spare tyres on board and acetylene head and side-lights for night driving.

They are parked on the front lawn of The Cliffe, which commanded stunning views over Freshwater Bay, Peppermint Grove (now built on).

In the driver’s seat is his chauffeur, William Best. The distinction between a driver and a chauffeur is an important one; both could drive, but chauffeurs could also fix the car if it broke down. Best was a professional chauffeur and can also be seen standing beside William Butcher’s car in The Motor Car in Western Australia.

Best was a well-credentialed driver and qualified mechanic but, being a bicycle racer, he had a tendency to speed.

“The other day McNeil's chauffeur was pulled up for furious driving, but Gus Rowe dropped the case like a hot potato. The worthy beak and McNeil are both members of the Weld Club, but men in the Terrace are making some rather strong remarks."

Truth, 27 October 1906

Jessie McNeil is in the back seat on the left. Her sister Ellison, wife of Neil’s older brother Andrew, is on the right.

McNeil put his yellow Panhard up for auction in January 1911, but it seems it did not sell as when he died in 1927, his bright yellow Panhard, the oldest in WA, was listed amongst the items in his estate.

Panhard (15 H.P., 4 cyl.) the property of Neil McNeil, Esq.

Neil, Jessie and Ellison McNeil in their carriage at The Cliffe, early 1900s. Courtesy Presbyterian Ladies’ College Archives.

Grounds of The Cliffe, early 1900s, courtesy Presbyterian Ladies’ College Archives.

The Cliffe and carriage, early 1900s

Neil and Jessie McNeil on their horses ‘Whiskey’ and ‘Soda’, outside The Cliffe, c1900. Courtesy Presbyterian Ladies’ College Archives.