“It was 110 degrees F in the shade and nobody that I knew would be shooting for fun…
… a puff of smoke showed from behind Paddy’s windbreak, followed by the sharp whip-like crack of a high-powered Savage .22 calibre.
I dived behind my packs and searched for my only weapon, a small .25 automatic waiting for something to happen…
The crack had come from my side of the waterhole, and I could see the shape of someone crouching behind a log not 200 meters from where I watched.
The only cover Paddy had were his pack-saddles and I could see him stretched out as flat as he could against the dust floor…”
As a child we all read fictional adventure books. The paragraph above, however, doesn’t come from a fairytale.
Perhaps you dreamt of exotic locations and the legendary figures that dwelt there, or imagined the fantastic lives these adventurers lead. Maybe you hoped that one day you would hike those mountains, see the same desert sunsets or perhaps ride horses through a canyon, eyes scanning the horizon for an ambush.
Here’s the thing about legends, sometimes as incredible as they are, they ring true.
RM Williams was the quintessential Australian bushman. He was a man of great character and adventure, who could in equal measure spin a yarn or sit comfortably with Lords.
Perhaps best known internationally for his business of making high-quality, long-lasting and rugged boots, RM’s story connects the two halves of Australia and became the stuff of legend.
In fact the stories and history of Reginald Murray Williams are almost unbelievable and certainly not a story you would think could happen today.
That encounter above is simply one of many such adventures from his life, some even more fantastic featuring bags of gold, twin shotguns, failing businesses and much more.
But we’ll get to that in just a second.
Outback adventure and the ‘real’ Australia
It is important to understand RM the man and how he shaped Australia.
RM loved the bush for what it was but he could also see the future and the outback’s great potential, helping to connect the city and the bush to develop our heritage.
Twice in his life he chose the bush over the city. The first time was when he was a teenager, and secondly, as a successful businessman at the height of his success. He left his mansion estate to set up a working station on the deep red soil of the land.
Born in 1908 in the blistering heat of North Belalie, SA, RM started off with a simple, hard working life, a situation that would continue to appeal to him later on as he found success.
North Belalie was a rural settlement 200km north of Adelaide and more than 12km from the nearest town of Jamestown, nestled in the shadow of the ancient Flinders Ranges (a 650 million-year-old former reef, now mountain range).
His father was a pioneer settler, training and shoeing horses, and RM was amazed at what he could produce with his hands. The men in RM’s world were quiet and tough and they took pride in hard work:
“He was a man of another age, really, holding a set of values that differed in essence from those that most men hold today … As a heritage of his life at the forge and the field, my father had hands like a giant … It was the horse and buggy days … horses were our life.”
Having grown up surrounded by the horse teams and bush it came as an unhappy situation when, at age 10, RM moved to Adelaide so he and his two sisters could go to school.
He disliked his lessons so much that he decided to pack his swag and go back for the bush, aged just 15. Travelling and labouring as he ventured north, he found work building stone water tanks out in the desert, burning lime for church construction, and spending time working on cattle stations. In the evenings he would teach himself by reading books of great literature, including those by Tolstoy and others.
It would be easy to imagine a life from here of hard labor and nothing more, but RM was a true renaissance man, writing five books, poetry, and much more to eventually become one of Australia’s wealthiest citizens.
The beginning of bush craft
Although RM was brought up in the bush, true bush craft is something handed down from generation to generation, from those who have lived and survived in the outback.
At the age of 18 RM found work as a camel driver for missionary William Wade and spent three years travelling Australia’s deserts.
During these travels he met and learned bush craft from local Aborigines who taught him not just to survive but also their ways and beliefs. These beliefs that would greatly affect RM in later life:
“The mastery of these Aborigines over their environment has been the inspiration of my life…
This ability to live and thrive in the wild truly impressed me. I am more than century older now, but the aura of self-sufficiency that enclosed them remains as an inspiration.
Their influence set a pattern for my life, and I liked it all: the country, the tribes, the adventure, the search for water, the big granite mountains…”
RM Williams, Beneath Whose Hand
It was during this period that RM met ‘Dollar Mick’, a celebrated horseman who taught him how to make saddles, pack bags and the celebrated leather riding boots, which became his hallmark.
Working with the most basic of tools, the two men fashioned a unique riding boot, now universally known in Australia as ‘RMs’, from a single piece of leather.
(These elastic-sided boots, which require 80 distinct processes, are still made by hand in the famous R.M.Williams Workshop in Adelaide.)
“We were partners in what must have been the humblest beginning ever of what grew into a multi-million dollar business…
…The ideas that we dreamed up round the campfire never changed, and the beliefs that we shared continued to govern our thinking throughout a lifetime.”
But then disaster struck
Even thought the RM boots were popular and starting to sell, it wasn’t until an unfortunate incident that the business grew from a hobby.
In 1932 RM’s second son Ian developed an eye disease and the family was left wondering how to cover the medical costs. Like any good entrepreneur, RM saw the potential in each situation and approached Sir Sidney Kidman, a wealthy man who owned dozens of cattle stations.
Having lived in the bush and worked with cattle, RM showed him his leather work and Kidman agreed to buy his saddles.
“Kidman gave me a start making pack saddles and that started me off.”
Using the money from those first orders, RM started buying leather and equipment and set up a his first factory in his father’s shed in Percy Street, Adelaide. As word spread about RM’s bushman’s products, orders flowed in from all over.
Soon RM had to borrow money to expand his business to keep up with growing demand. Unfortunately he was soon deep in debt.
Some people would have given in at this point but RM was made of sturdier stuff.
When the opportunity arose to buy a rundown gold mine near Tennant Creek in the Northern Territory for 72,000 pounds, RM knew this was a challenge he couldn’t resist.
Gathering his family and friends together, he worked out a deal to buy the mine.
RM the legend
They hit gold – in fact they hit millions and millions’ worth.
“I would walk into town with a bag of gold on each hip, and a shotgun in each hand, looking out in case of bandits.”
This hardworking man from the sticks had managed to not only build a successful business but also become wealthy in a way that would change his life forever.
Although the first people to buy RM’s beautifully made riding boots, belts, moleskin trousers and oilskin coats were stock men, drovers, miners and other outback types, this distinctively Australian look soon began to appeal to city dwellers – even those beyond Australia’s shores.
(Much later, President Bill Clinton was inaugurated in a pair. Today, these iconic elastic-sided boots are worn in the boardrooms of Sydney, New York and London as well as on dusty outback stations.)
RM continued to author many more books, helped to create the Australian Stockman’s Hall of Fame, and Outback magazine.
He was awarded numerous honours including being made a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) by Queen Elizabeth II, but he still never forgot his early years scratching a living in Australia’s arid interior.
His success led to a city mansion filled with antiques but his heart was back home in the bush. And so, after some searching, he settled on a property called Rocky Bar on Queensland’s Darling Downs. The property was rundown and the cattle were wild, but RM rose to the challenge, working hard to make a new home.
This quote from his book I Once Met a Man sums up RM and his life:
“This book is not of deeds, achievement, great honour; just that indefinable something that has no other name in our language, but spirit…”
RM was a man of unique character and perseverance who desired everything the world could teach him.
He was out camping in the bush only weeks before his passing at the age of 95.
He strived for adventure and excellence in his life – a true hero.
From poet to bushman to entrepreneur, he lived his life by his own terms.
He wasn’t held back by doubt or indecision. He decided on the experiences he would have, and this determination shaped his life and the world around him.
As tribute to this great man, The Tailor and R.M.Williams OUTBACK magazine have put together an exclusive and exceptional experience, just for you.
It’s an opportunity for you to live those same adventures you imagined, see the real outback and walk In RM’s Footsteps, visiting the important places from RM’s life, and meeting the people and experiencing the culture and in both comfort and style.