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One of the most famous legends in Australia is Reginald Murray Williams aka R.M. Williams. He was born in rural South Australia in 1908, and legend has it that he dropped out of school at the age of 13 to explore the vast bush area until landing a job as a camel driver in the mid-north at the age of 18.
An Australian bushman and entrepreneur, he raised himself up from the underclass to become a millionaire. His fortune came from crafting leather products for horse-riding, the most famous being his riding boots.
Demand for R.M. Williams’ products grew and his signature boots eventually became popular amongst city-dwellers and politicians. While R.M. William’s Boots don’t look much different from many other chelsea boots on the market at first glance, these boots are unique and especially known for their upper, which is constructed out of a single piece of leather, and a solitary stitch running down the back of the boot.
The R.M.Williams company gained a reputation for high-quality products across South Australia and beyond. The firm produces a wide range of leather items, but it’s riding boots have proven to be particularly popular. The ability to work with leather is what sets RM’s footwear distinct from the competition. The boots’ uppers are made from a single piece of leather, which increases longevity and gives them a classic, clean aesthetic.
This method of manufacture is still used by R.M.Williams today. As of 2013, the R.M. Williams Company produced handcrafted riding boots, with the use of 70 hand processes but still using a single piece of leather externally (with the inside lining being made up of several pieces).
R.M. Williams boots are often worn by Australian politicians with former prime minister Kevin Rudd as one of the famous wearers. In fact, Kevin Rudd’s personal appearance is defined by his RM Williams riding boots in particular. He wore riding boots all the time as Prime Minister, regardless of the formality or informality of the occasion or event. While visiting President Barack Obama at the G20 Summit in London in March 2009, Kevin Rudd was seen wearing black RM Williams riding boots.
R.M. Williams boots are also commonly gifted to foreign leaders by Australian prime ministers, with the likes of Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe and Indonesia president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
R.M. Williams got his leatherworking abilities from a stockman named Michael George Smith, sometimes known as “Dollar Mick,” in the Flinders Ranges region of South Australia. In Australia, a stockman is a person who, typically on horseback, tends after the animals on a vast property known as a station that is controlled by a grazier or a grazing business.
Dollar Mick was camping at Italowie Gorge not far from where the Nepabunna Mission had been established by the United Aborigines Mission (UAM), an interdenominational Christian group, in 1931. Williams had become a missionary with the UAM in 1927.
Dollar Mick, who was an Aboriginal man,taught Williams how to make bridles, pack saddles and riding boots and general leatherwork skills.
Through trial and error, Dollar Mick and Williams together developed the distinctive design that is a variation on the Chelsea Boot, made out of one piece of leather, that became a cornerstone of Williams’ business empire.
Williams, who died in 2003, was open about Smith’s singular role in its creation, stating in his 1984 autobiography that the basic ideas the pair conceived at Italowie “never changed”. “My success began the night Dollar came in his mule buggy and asked to stay,” he wrote.
Williams needed money in 1932 due to his son’s illness and the cost of hospital care, so he began selling his saddles to Sir Sidney Kidman, a rich pastoralist. With the money he gained from the first orders, Williams created a small factory.
Several Adnyamathanha mission members were hired by Williams. Before European contact, the Yura people had been manufacturing water bags (yakutha) and clothes (valdha) from animal skins sewed with bone needles. Yura is how Adnyamathanha people refer to themselves whom the United Aborigines Mission (UAM) had been working with for the Nepabunna mission.
According to oral history and reports in the UAM magazine, The United Aborigines’ Messenger, William’s workshop paid younger boys “by results,” with each component, such as a sole, worth a penny. Older men were paid fifteen shillings each week, with food, boots, and clothing given as well. Williams reported to the Chief Protector of Aboriginals in December 1933 that his workshop helped to support nine people in addition to himself and his wife.
In March 1934, a pair of boots sold for 20 shillings by mail order.
Williams departed the mission in April 1934, after Thelma had returned to Adelaide to have their baby son Ian’s trachoma treated, and another missionary took over his post at Nepabunna.
Back in Adelaide, Williams restarted his factory in his father’s shed in Prospect, an Adelaide suburb. Up to this day, the location still remains as one of the company’s retail outlets and hosts the R.M. Williams Outback Heritage Museum.
In Adelaide, Williams’ factory grew into the home of a nationally recognized outfitting company, with a reputation for excellence and an image of authenticity rooted in the founder’s experience.
The company’s success in the 1940s and 1950s led to an expansion into hats and clothes inspired by the outback and the bushmen who worked the land. Boots, on the other hand, is the company’s mainstay.
The business flourished, and became a household name. Williams sold the company in 1988, it went into receivership in 1993, was bought out by family friend and former News Ltd boss Ken Cowley, and then sold 49.9% of the company to the French luxury goods conglomerate LVMH in 2013.
In October 2020, R.M. Williams was purchased by Tattarang Investment Company, one of Australia’s largest private investment groups owned by Andrew and Nicola Forrest. At present, the renowned Australian brand has a developing worldwide fanbase, with 74 locations and 784 stockists in over 15 countries.
Rodger Bartholomew is proud to be a stockist of R.M Williams Craftsman Boots in Canberra ACT.