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The book that never was: the biography of Sir Robert Gibson.


Before he set off to London to attend the Imperial Trade Conference in September 1930 the Labor Prime Minister, James Scullin, had a somewhat extraordinary meeting with Sir Robert Gibson, the then Chairman of the Commonwealth Bank Board. The meeting concerned Gibson's possible reappointment as Chairman of what then was in effect Australia's central bank. With party pressure falling in upon him, Scullin was worried that Gibson would veto any attempts at socialist monetary experiments. These schemes had been broadly mooted by the Treasurer, E. G. 'Red Ted' Theodore and his backers. Theodore, however, was, following the Mungana scandal, on the backbench and played no part in Scullin's scheme to secure Gibson for another term because of the psychological assurance the Scot gave the financial community both here and in London. Scullin, however, wanted Gibson to be sympathetic to Labor's monetary plans. Gibson was not interested in this conditional offer. Scullin then said Gibson could have his job back but only on the condition that he sign and present an undated letter of resignation from the board. At this point Gibson, a small, sparingly-built figure rose from his chair, lent over and shouted in Scullin's face 'Mr. Prime Minister, you can go to hell!' Gibson headed for the door before Scullin called him back and allowed him another seven year term as Chairman. That decision would have a large bearing upon how Australia coped with the depression.

This story may be apocryphal but the anonymous correspondent who wrote it swore to its validity. Interestingly it appeared in The Scotsman, Edinburgh's daily newspaper, about the death of a son of Scotland who had done exceedingly well for himself in the antipodes.

This paper celebrates the life of a businessman and central banker who, in the depression years, outshone and prevailed over both Theodore and Jack Lang. One member of the Scullin Cabinet, the fiery radical Frank Anstey recalled that 'with his seven year tenure in his pocket he was more than ever Prime Minister and the elected government was only the tube through which he issued orders'. (1) The puzzle then is why Gibson has not received the coverage and attention that he deserves. While there has been a brief memoir of Gibson by Schedvin, no biography of him exists. Just after Gibson died in 1934 the Commonwealth Bank, with the support of Gibson's Melbourne-based business and banking associates, was intent upon commissioning a short biography with University of Melbourne historian Sir Ernest Scott (1867-1939) assigned to undertake the task. (2) At the same time one of Gibson's daughters, Phyllis, wrote a doting, but incomplete, memoir of her father. (3) The draft was never completed nor circulated but it led to an interesting sequel.

After the Second World War another daughter of Gibson's, Margaret 'Peggie', enlisted the support of others, including a committee of high-powered individuals, for a full scale biography to be undertaken. However, like the Scott undertaking, this also came to nothing. Drawing upon his and the family papers held at the Latrobe Library and at the Reserve Bank archive, this article re-examines the life of Gibson and why it was that his biography, even a memoir, was never written despite him being exalted in high temples of finance and politics during the interwar era and hailed at one stage as the genius of Australia's recovery. Joe Lyons, for instance, said of him 'No man played a greater part than Sir Robert Gibson in the rehabilitation of the Commonwealth'. (4) Indeed of all the personalities involved in the high drama of Australia's economic predicament and reconstruction during the depression years Gibson has been given sparing, and usually hostile treatment. This paper will briefly attempt to answer this and propose that it resulted in the nonappearance of Gibson's biography.

'A Falkirk Bairn': the life of R.G. Gibson

In his sixty-nine years Robert Gibson's greatest success was to rise from being a local bedstead manufacturer to become Australia's central banker during the height of the depression. He was not of course a central banker but an obituary argued that his technical and engineering training gave him a sense of exactness and precision for the task ahead. (5) However it belied an array of extensive early work and passionate commitments to public service over a number of years and over a range of different tasks. A young man of enterprise, Gibson was marked by considerable individuality and granite determination. There was no doubt that Gibson was a self-made man. However he was to find his metier when it came to fashioning anti-depression policy in the 1930s. With hindsight Gibson was to end up out of his depth in the most difficult of times.

Robert Gibson was born near Falkirk, Scotland on 4 November 1863. He was a son of John Edward and Harriette nee Hicks of Glasgow. Gibson left school at fifteen and entered his father's business, known as Camelon Iron Company where he served an apprenticeship as a draughtsman. He then studied art and design at Glasgow's Haldane Academy (later the Glasgow School of Art) before returning to his father's business. In his twenties Gibson became the manager of the London office of Camelon. Marrying Winifred Moore, the young couple left London on the same day bound for far off Australia. Two of Gibson's brothers had already emigrated there and prospered. Gibson arrived in Melbourne in 1891 with a small pool of capital but a vast experience of the iron trade. He began a long stint of thirty-three years as a designer, draftsman and manufacturer, roles which were increasingly interspersed by public duties. In 1897 Gibson founded the Austral Manufacturing Company which produced metal bedsteads. He also founded the Lux foundry in Brunswick which manufactured stoves. Gibson prospered and in 1909 established his family home in a Toorak mansion on a seven-acre property bordering the Yarra River near Heyington. 'Yarradale' as it became known was sold in 1928 after all seven children, two boys and five girls, grew up.

It was through Gibson's commercial activities and his membership of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures that he first came to national prominence. He became Vice President of the Chamber in 1916 and then President in 1922. During the First World War Gibson, who had a son that served at Gallipoli, officiated as a Commissioner with the Repatriation Department. He held an executive position upon the issue of coal distribution in Australia in 1916 and served on the Military Exemptions and Luxuries Board. He was knighted in 1920 as a mark of his services to the community especially his charity work for returned servicemen. Gibson was appointed as the Chairman of the Federal Economies Commission which inquired into the finances of various public departments.

Gibson had represented employers in various industrial disputes as far back as the 1908 engine drivers' dispute. This culminated in Gibson defusing the 1929 timber workers' dispute after five days of gruelling negotiations which left him exhausted. The Secretary of the Timber Workers' Union would later recall that Gibson was 'the whitest [sic] and kindliest man I have ever met, inside or outside the Labour movement'. (6) It was reported that the eulogistic references made of Gibson over his role in conciliating that dispute moved him to tears. The fact was that Gibson was quite unwell. He was, as his physician Dr Julian Smith later recalled, a highly-strung individual addicted to coffee and cigarettes who dismissed the notion of having two square meals a day. His goatee beard and fingers were stained from incessant smoking. He also suffered from insomnia.

The hyperactive Gibson was also the Chairman of the Commonwealth Oil Refineries and served as a director on four large private companies. A member of the Council of the University of Melbourne, Gibson was involved with the new breed of experts, the economists, and was on the council of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand. Another appointment was to be on the board of the Victorian Electricity Commission where he served alongside Sir John Monash. He also held a controlling interest in his own two companies which his two sons now managed. All these important offices paled into insignificance compared to the work and prominence he achieved as Chairman of the Commonwealth Bank Board. That office probably contributed to shortening his life because Gibson would find himself at the centre of a financial and political storm. Margaret Gibson would later recall how her father liked a political cartoon depicting him as a little Dutch boy with a finger holding up the dyke against a sea of troubles. (7)

Into the maelstrom: 'Depression dictator' or 'financial genius' (8)

In 1924 Gibson was appointed to the board of the Commonwealth Bank at its inception appearing as a representative of the manufacturing sector. Gibson reminded Prime Minister Bruce of his limitations but the latter was impressed by the Scot's business acumen. Gibson made a strong impression with the other board members because on 11 October 1926 he was elected chairman of the board following the retirement due to ill-health of the previous chairman, Sir John Garvin. Very quickly Gibson asserted his authority over both the Governor, Sir Ernest Riddle, and the board.

At the time, the board of the Commonwealth Bank monitored the note issue and Australia's capital borrowings. However, the Commonwealth Bank did not truly function as a central bank partly because the trading banks need not keep reserves with it and, in fact, regarded it as a competitor. Moreover, the bank board did not possess the expertise and knowledge needed for the art of central banking. (9) This would become very apparent once Gibson was at the helm. He would later remark that 'the art of central banking may be complicated, but the essential functions are easy to understand'. (10) Gibson was suspicious of expert advice, particularly from economists even though he had hired Leslie Melville as the bank's first economic adviser. This dogmatic streak would make for 'tragedy' in shaping Australia's economic policy response to the depression. (11) The Bruce government had made amendments to the Commonwealth Bank Act, one of which made the board of directors free from political interference, but it was unaware of the science of central banking. This antagonised the Labor Party which felt that proper central banking was negated if it was removed from political persuasion. Having businessmen on the Board meant that banking and monetary policy was now the captive of vested interests. Melbourne was then the financial and business hub of Australia with a throng of English-owned banks on Collins Street. The general managers of these banks had Gibson's ear. One of them, Edmund Godward, found Gibson 'overly susceptible to praise and not adverse to flattery'. (12) There were other obstacles to the Commonwealth Bank operating as a central bank. It was, for instance, unable to exert control over the exchange rate or even gauge the depth of Australia's external reserves or 'London Funds' held by Australian trading banks.

The Federal Treasury's standing and authority within the economy was even weaker. It was elevated a little when the Australian Loan Council was established as a statutory body by the Financial Agreement Act 1927; the Treasury was to act thereafter as the Council's secretariat and it was from there that it started to gain some traction upon the setting of monetary policy. Gibson would more often than not find himself at odds with the premiers who sat on the Loan Council.

The twenties had seen a frenzy of Commonwealth and State loan undertakings from the London capital market used for land settlement, infrastructure and economic development. The loan proceeds financed a huge appetite for imports which left, in turn, the Federal Government awash with customs duty revenue. In his study of the economic philosophy underpinning the Bruce government, Richmond linked the administration's optimism with 'development' schemes to a grand imperial vision. (13) However, the scale of the undertakings greatly concerned the City from the likes of the liberal economist J. M. Keynes to the ultra-orthodox Sir Otto Niemeyer, a high official at the Bank of England. While aware of London's concern about Australia's borrowing Bruce remained unrepentant; it was a sparse population, not debt, which was Australia's besetting problem. (14) The success of Bruce's program was judged in terms of per capita income, rather than the aggregative performance of the economy. Debt servicing costs were met from the proceeds of fresh borrowing. While there were some institutional checks the prevailing psychological mood was one of unbridled optimism. In her memoir Phyllis Gibson recalled that her father and Sir Montagu Norman, Governor of the Bank of England, were in constant communication about the state of Australian borrowing. There is no hard evidence of this but certainly Norman and Niemeyer were wary of the proclivities of Australian politicians and it was probably from Gibson's communications.

When Bruce was defeated in the 1929 federal poll--an election fought over industrial relations reform--he wrote an interesting letter to Gibson:
 Australia has got to realise that only by facing realities and
 getting down to hard work can our problems be faced. For the
 moment the people have refused to face hard facts, and they have
 chosen the easier path of merely changing the government. I am
 afraid such experience will only show to them that they have made
 a mistake. When they do I am certain there will be a tremendous
 return of feeling in our favour. (15)

As Cain identified, Bruce was perfectly happy to be out of office with Australia's mounting structural and economic problems set to boil over. (16) The inevitable task of economic re-adjustment, along with the transfer problem of annually paying some thirty million pounds in interest abroad, would be inherited by the Scullin government.

Within days of the Scullin government coming to power the paradigm of 'development' came to an end. Gibson informed Scullin that the short term borrowing of overseas funds could no longer be sustained and that he would veto any further floating of Treasury bills until commitments were given towards achieving budgetary equilibrium. London had already closed its capital market to long-term Australian borrowing. This cessation of borrowing imparted a huge deflationary impulse through the economy. (17) Servicing Australia's huge overseas loan portfolio would now have to be drawn from local resources. Apart from the cessation of capital inflow, the depression in Australia itself was triggered by continuing and marked falls in Australia's two major exports--wool and wheat--which merely compounded the deep-seated structural economic problems. The loss in export revenue, together with the cessation of borrowing, translated into a loss in national income of some 10 per cent in one year alone. (18) The October stock market crash on Wall Street merely compounded problems. Scullin asked the London-based Anglo-Australian financier, W.S. Robinson, and eminence grise to the Labor Government, to make secret representations to the Bank of England about deferral of an impending loan. Robinson was given short shrift by representatives of the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, Sir Ernest Harvey, 'Please don't ask for that perforce I must refuse'. (19) Australia had become the 'bad boy of the Commonwealth' and needed to do some penance. (20) The official who brought the house of orthodox economics down upon Australia's head was Niemeyer. Scullin authorised his visit tempted by the possibility that the Bank of England might accommodate Australia with a loan to cover her liabilities to English banks. Gibson insisted though that one of the conditions of Niemeyer's visit was that he was to have the first interview with him and have constant access to him. Gibson accompanied Niemeyer to Sydney to visit the Commonwealth Bank and then to Canberra to meet with federal politicians. He remained ice cool at these sessions even though his wife was seriously ill back in Melbourne. Niemeyer was concerned at both the age and health of Gibson, noting how his lack of financial knowledge was compensated by a certain 'native wisdom'. (21) Niemeyer noted too that Gibson's nominal superior, Sir Ernest Riddle, 'had no mind of his own and no guts'. (22) Niemeyer would later tell Lady Gibson that of all the Australian officials he had met, her husband had been the 'most outstanding figure of all' (23) and in another instance 'Australia could never repay Sir Robert Gibson in thousands what he had saved the country in millions'. (24) Niemeyer got on well with Gibson and at one stage when his host was under pressure sent him the Rudyard Kipling poem 'If'.

The high point of Niemeyer's fact-finding tour was his infamous address at the Melbourne conference of commonwealth and state leaders where he told his audience that the 'cold facts must be faced'. Niemeyer told the Melbourne gathering how tariffs, in league with the arbitration system and excessive government borrowing, were supporting unsustainable living standards. Real wages had to be quickly reduced; the therapy was couched in phrases like restoring 'equilibrium' and 'equal sacrifice.' It could be said that all the Australian governments, while agreeing that budgets had to be pruned, exercised a policy of passive resistance to Niemeyer's advice in the expectation that something would turn up.

In a missive to Montagu Norman, Niemeyer vented his frustration: 'They are occupied half the time saying that the present difficulties are not their fault but somebody else's--either Bruce's or the London Markets or the general perverseness of the world and the other half in trying to find ingenious ways by which somebody else should help them out'. (25) Even Gibson 'staggered' Niemeyer by prophesising--correctly as it turned out--that Britain would go off the gold standard within six months. (26) Gibson also chided Niemeyer for his pessimism arguing that he did not give the Australian people enough credit to pull through. (27)

Niemeyer and Gibson did agree however that parity with sterling was sacrosanct and that Australia should not contemplate devaluation. They both saw little logic in Australia having to pay more to service its debt or imports. It was held that the primary producers, too, would extract little benefit because of the higher costs inflicted by the devaluation. While the Niemeyer mission failed to force a quick economic readjustment, one positive outcome was that communication links were formalised between Australian and British central banks. Niemeyer saw this as an alleviating factor and a cause for some optimism so long as the perception was not sown that the Bank of England was manipulating Commonwealth Bank Board policy. (28) Much later, Alfred Davidson, general manager of the Bank of New South Wales, then Australia's largest private bank, would, amongst others, suspect that the Commonwealth Bank's views on monetary policy were well under the sway of 'a certain influential section of London opinion'. (29) Gibson would strenuously deny that there was dictation, only conferral.

The first six months of 1931 were to prove tumultuous and stressful for Gibson. For a few months he was accompanied by a plain clothes police escort whilst performing his public duties. (30) In January Gibson told the premiers that while Treasury bills would be issued to cover their budget deficits they would not be tolerated much longer. By April Gibson issued a warning where 'a point is being reached beyond which it will be impossible for the Bank to provide further financial assistance for the Governments in future'. That decision to wrestle control of the public purse away from an overspending government brought forth a riposte from the reinstated Theodore:
 The attitude of the Board ... can only be regarded by the
 Commonwealth Government as an attempt on the part of the bank to
 arrogate to itself a supremacy over the Government in the
 determination of the financial policy of the Commonwealth, a
 supremacy ... never contemplated by the framers of the Australian
 Constitution. (31)

Essentially the Commonwealth Government and the central bank were at loggerheads over not just remedial economic policy but also the day-to-day running costs of governance.

Besides a Labor caucus increasingly intent upon monetary experiment, Gibson also had two other forceful individuals to contend with. The first was Davidson. Contrary to his peers at the time, Davidson was an economically enlightened banker, free from orthodoxy and enjoyed the company of economists. (32) He had already, for instance, established his own economic intelligence section within the Bank of New South Wales which would allow his bank to, as he put it, 'be in a position to influence events'. (33) Australian economists, led by D. B. Copland from the University of Melbourne, were emphatic that the 'spreading the loss' economic remedy be implemented. This was the logic that persuaded the Arbitration Court in January 1931 to cut real wages by 10 per cent. In the same month, economists triumphed again by persuading the Wales to use its power in the foreign exchange market and shed parity with sterling.

Other banks, including the Commonwealth Bank, lamely followed suit and a new exchange rate regime came into play. (34) Spluttering in rage Gibson was quite 'apoplectic' at Davidson's actions since he regarded parity with sterling as sacrosanct. (35) Many in financial circles regarded devaluation as inflationary since it would raise exporters' costs. Copland dismissed this, arguing that devaluation checked the extent to which cost levels had to be adjusted in order to balance domestic costs and international prices. (36) Gibson believed that preserving Australia's financial architecture and international standing was a greater concern than securing domestic economic activity.

Economists warned that a return to parity would bedevil the chances of economic recovery. With Davidson, they urged the Commonwealth Bank to fulfil its central bank duties by assuming responsibility for the exchange rate. The Commonwealth Bank, in one fell swoop, took responsibility for the exchange rate. While economists welcomed this, they were horrified by Gibson's decision to revalue slightly the currency.

Gibson had also to contend with Jack Lang. As Premier of New South Wales Lang wanted a moratorium on paying British bondholders their interest payments until at least the economic crisis was over. This was anathema to Gibson and other federal leaders who strongly supported the upholding of contracts and honouring of Australia's debt. This was also the reason why Gibson was prepared to veto Theodore's attempt to introduce a fiduciary issue of currency because it meant expanding the money supply. The vociferous reaction to Theodore's proposals reflected the widespread fears, not just among bankers, that linked currency expansion with inflation. Gibson was invited to the Bar of the Senate to present the case against Labor's amendment to the Commonwealth Bank Bill which would have reconstituted the governance of the central bank for that expedient to be pursued. So momentous and compelling was Gibson's testimony before the Senate that it disrupted proceedings before the House of Representatives.

A week earlier, on 22 April 1931, the New South Wales Savings Bank (GSB) closed its doors for the last time after a succession of runs upon it. The run was prompted by irresponsible comments by politicians from both sides who were critical of Lang's management of the New South Wales economy. Frank Cain is critical of Gibson for doing little to prevent the GSB from folding even when the New South Wales government approved the take over by the Commonwealth Bank. (37) However the latter was only prepared to investigate the possibility of this. This was enough for the run to turn to mass panic. Cain argues that Gibson deliberately prevaricated about rescuing the GSB to put more pressure upon Lang. One further piece of evidence that Gibson was out to destroy Lang's government was reported by Eric Campbell, the founder of the New Guard. He encountered Gibson on a Sydney street who urged that the New Guard 'did something' about Lang. When Campbell asked him what he had in mind Gibson shrugged 'That's up to you'. (38) The bank's closure obviously caused massive damage to the New South Wales economy and sounded the death knell of Lang's premiership. It was a different story however when depositors began to doubt the credibility of the Commonwealth Bank and began to withdraw their money from there too. Just a few days after his Senate appearance, Gibson made an ABC radio broadcast on the evening of 3 May 1931, assuring depositors that the Commonwealth Bank could not default. Gibson assured listeners that the Commonwealth Bank was in a sound condition and, with the backing of the federal government, could take any measure to safeguard it from default. This included increasing the note issue if need be. And with that the run came to an end.

Gibson gave tepid approval to the stabilisation policy which became known as the Premiers' Plan. While it had some element of experiment, the presence of Gibson at the helm gave the financial and business community some degree of psychological assurance. A political cartoonist of the day pictured him like the Rock of Gibraltar.

Dissent, decline and death

The next year, 1932, saw Gibson made a Knight Grand Cross Commander of the Order of the British Empire, the first time this imperial honour had been awarded to an Australian. He was effusively congratulated by his peers. The nascent economic recovery and the dismissal of Lang from office might have suggested an easier time for Gibson but it was not to be the case. It was again mostly all his own doing. Gibson wanted to rein in the public spending of the states. The issue of funding, that is, retiring short-term government debt by raising public loans, was to prove the next source of acrimony between the Bank and the state premiers. The sniping attacks by economists and Davidson upon the exchange rate and now funding, together with the states stonewalling on reducing their deficits, brought Gibson to the end of his tether. Feeling his authority slipping away, Gibson wanted a public loan of some twenty million floated with over half of the proceeds intended for funding. At a Loan Council meeting the new Premier of New South Wales, Bertram Stevens accused Gibson of behaving like a banker to borrowers caught short and imposing humiliating conditions upon them. Intending to put Stevens in his place, Gibson, in a bravura performance, thundered that he was 'the horse and cart and the dog under the cart' as far as the Australian financial system was concerned. (39)

But Gibson's public loan proposal also met with the disapproval of the Assistant-Treasurer, Massy-Greene, who told his predecessor Bruce that '(Gibson) is very strong for carrying through a big funding operation only. Personally I regard this as a mistake. I think that it would be considered in many quarters as a further deflationary move'. Massy-Greene was further of the mind that the Bank board should have much less say in determining the extent of the states' loan programs. He felt a more liberal view of financing state deficits with Treasury bills was in order since these deficits were bound to continue for some time. (40)

In late 1932 Gibson launched another bid to 'rehabilitate' the exchange rate but it did not gain support amongst his Bank board colleagues which was an illustration of his fading influence. The Bank board had been informed by Melville that London opinion about the global economy was dismal and that consequently export prices were likely to remain precarious in the near future. (41) This persuaded the Board to override Gibson's wishes and keep the exchange rate steady. In the November 1932 Loan Council meeting Stevens again clashed with Gibson over financing more public works and allegedly called him an 'an old fool ... and more a bedstead manufacturer than a banker'. (42)

With Gibson under fire from several quarters Copland reported that 'The general feeling ... is that the Old Man of the Bank ... cuts a sorry figure'. (43) Yet Copland would later pay tribute to Gibson for his financial stewardship. (44) It was, for instance, Gibson's reassuring presence with the capital market that also allowed Australia to resort to the use of Treasury bills from July 1931 onwards to finance government budget deficits. During the last four years of his life Gibson had fallen seriously ill on a number of occasions. It was the product of the stress he was under and inattention to his own health. Both Cain and Schedvin suggest that Gibson's illness and medication may explain his dogmatic views on funding and the exchange rate, that is, he would be rigid and unresponsive to new ideas to do with monetary management. (45) However, his views on sound finance, parity with sterling and that monetary management be removed from the ambit of politicians were widely held by political conservatives and bankers.

Gibson's death on 1 January 1934 was marked by several eulogies and tributes. He had shunned publicity while alive because, as he told one journalist, it would be 'distinctly harmful to my work'. (46) When the news of his death was broadcast Lady Gibson received letters of sympathy from contemporaries of her husband. In England Niemeyer was moved to write immediately upon receipt of the news. Montagu Norman said of him: 'It is one of my greatest regrets that I never knew Sir Robert personally, in my opinion he was the greatest financier in a key position through the far flung Empire'. (47) The Melbourne businessman Herbert Brookes told Lady Gibson that her husband's name 'will be remembered and quoted when his contemporaries have joined the choir invisible and been forgotten'. (48)

Gibson was given a state funeral and buried at Box Hill cemetery on 3 January. The Commonwealth Bank closed for the afternoon as a sign of respect. Among the pall bearers of bankers and business associates was Scullin. When federal parliament reconvened, motions of condolence were read by Lyons, Scullin and Jack Beasley. There was a hint of controversy with all three speeches suggesting that the nature of the crisis meant that some of Gibson's policy decisions had been forced upon him. Beasley was more provocative asking 'whether the policy he pursued was at all in the best interests of the country'. (49) A death mask of Gibson had been taken by the sculptor Paul Montford on the understanding that the bronze bust, commissioned by the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, would stand in the King's Hall at Parliament House. When it was unveiled by Lyons he paid tribute to the memory of Gibson:
 Australians did not yet realise, perhaps, just what it meant to
 have him at the head of the Commonwealth Bank--what confidence
 pervaded as long as he was at the pilot at the bridge. His great
 knowledge of financial matters was of incalculable value to the
 nation, and his anticipation of world events in banking and other
 matters was uncanny. (50)

The Book that Never Was

Gibson's successor, Sir Claude Reading, along with businessmen, bankers and politicians were keen on honouring the man by commissioning a biography. The initial suggestion came from Gordon Shain, the manager of the Commonwealth Bank in Melbourne who had obviously been close to Gibson. He wrote a memorandum arguing that the project would be in the national interest and that 'a proper chronological record of events should be made'. (51) Shain initially suggested that Professor Oliphant, a classics scholar at Melbourne University, be entrusted with the project and went to the extent of considering the technical details of the venture including locating a publisher, suggested length, costing and print run. (52) Shain reported to Reading that Lady Gibson approved of the idea and that there was a relative in Edinburgh who could help fill in the gaps on her husband's early life. Shain also reported that a maximum of twenty-five of Gibson's closest associates and friends be recruited to take financial responsibility for the venture by each donating twenty-five pounds to the outlay. (53) It became quickly apparent that financing the venture would not be a hindrance.

It was the authorship issue and the orientation of the memoir that caused concern. Herbert Brookes was unhappy with the choice of Oliphant and suggested some university economists as an alternative. However Shain dissuaded him of the book adopting an economic approach. (54) Shain still felt that Oliphant was the man for the job even though he had no knowledge of finance or economics. Indeed Shain felt that the book being 'not immersed in financial or economic theories' would make it more accessible to the public. (55) Shain was soon after sent off to Britain to further his career development. Over the summer of 1935 the businessman and Bank board member, Alex Bell, of whose company Gibson had once been a director, suggested to Reading that a small committee be formed to oversee the project. The authorship issue was still not resolved because Bell now suggested that Professor Ernest Scott of the University of Melbourne would probably be better than Oliphant or the other names that had been put forward, namely the Melbourne economist Gordon Wood and his Adelaide counterpart, Edward Shann. Bell closed his letter saying after the 'plan of the work is decided the writer would require to do a good deal of research'. (56) By April 1935 Bell reported to Reading that Scott had indicated his willingness to undertake the work and that the matter 'was now in safe hands'. (57) Reading signalled his pleasure stressing that 'whoever does it shall be capable of doing it justice'. (58) Reading's confidence was misplaced however since Scott, noted for his prodigious work rate, did not for some reason make much headway with the work. Schedvin claims this was attributable to a lack of papers. (59) Macintyre further suggests that by 1935 Scott's 'scholarly vitality' was gone and he was eager for retirement which came the year after. (60)

It appears that the attempt, some thirteen years later, in June 1947, to re-float the idea of a biography of Gibson was sparked when Ben Chifley began his ill-fated campaign to nationalise the private banks. Gibson's name had been taken in vain by Arthur Calwell in a speech in the House of Representatives. The inspiration for this venture came from Sir Robert Gibson's youngest daughter, Margaret 'Peggie' Gibson. Assisted by some clergymen and Shain, who had now risen to Deputy Governor of the Commonwealth Bank, a small committee of high profile gentlemen was assembled to lend her guidance and support. Among them was Justice Sir Owen Dixon of the High Court of Australia, Sir Harold Clapp, Chairman of the Victorian Railways and business associates of Gibson who had pledged their support to the earlier attempt at a biography. It was hoped that Shain would, along with Peggie, contribute much to the writing. However, the primary carriage of authorship, at least in the early stages, was to be borne by Peggie who started collecting material for book. This entailed soliciting contributions from all of her father's contemporaries. The idea was to have those who had associated with Gibson in public life contributing their impressions of the man. The volume would also contain examples of Gibson's poetry, photography and art work. Gibson had one surviving brother living in the Scottish Hebrides known to Peggie as 'Uncle Willie' who was willing to contribute to a history of the family. He encouraged Peggie in her quest but was wary that it might be too big a venture.

To invite contributions from all who had dealings with her father, Peggie wrote letters to all those that had lived and participated through the drama of the depression years. Among the people written to were Davidson, Theodore, Scullin, Niemeyer, R. G. Menzies, W. M. Hughes, Norman, Harvey, R. G. Casey, Bruce, Lang and lesser known bankers and public officials. While some reacted favourably to the idea, the general response was very disappointing. Niemeyer replied that he had a 'bright and admiring memory' of Gibson and promised a memoir that would never eventuate. (61) Norman told Peggie that he had 'wracked my brains to remember anything about him which would be worth reporting to you. To my shame there was nothing; my mind was a complete blank'. (62)

William Hughes told Peggie he could remember little. (63) Menzies, whom Peggie almost pestered, wrote back to her doubting 'That a conversation with me would give you anything at all new'. (64) Theodore replied that most of his parliamentary papers had been destroyed. Scullin's response to Gibson was even more dramatic. Peggie received a letter from Scullin's secretary informing that he was suffering from high blood pressure and that his doctor had warned that any mental effort recalling events would be serious. (65) Another letter of the same ilk came from Davidson who replied that he wanted 'to live quietly'. (66) R. G. Casey, who had been an Assistant-Treasurer when Gibson was Chairman of the Commonwealth Bank board, was more helpful. He recalled that her father was particularly helpful and generous with his time. (67) Peggie Gibson also wrote to Bruce quoting the letter he had written to her father in 1929. Bruce told Peggie of his 'most intense admiration' of her father but could add little detail beyond that. (68) These responses, which Peggie passed on to the committee, were dispiriting but she pressed on. From communications with her uncle it appeared however that the task was proving a mental strain for her. Like her father she suffered from insomnia and nervous agitation. She told Padre Stewart that she was 'prepared to hand over this biography' to an expert as she was not in good health. (69) She told the same clergyman that she was 'embarrassed' at how publicised the project had become. (70) She told the Reverend Alan Watson of the mental duress of undertaking the job and, on another occasion, of 'there being too many spokes in the wheel at the moment'. (71) She told a friend 'I suppose eventually this may be taken out of my hands, however it needs to be seen what will eventuate'. (72) Things apparently came to a head towards the end of 1948. After receiving an apparently troubled letter from his niece, Uncle Willie responded with good sense. He told Peggie that if Shain, who had just announced his retirement from the Commonwealth Bank, did not take up the task of writing the biography then the 'whole proposition' should be abandoned. He argued this because if the biography bore Shain's name it would have 'a very potent value' in countering those who wanted to nationalise Australia's private banks. If the biography was further delayed the 'psychological moment' when the book would have had the most impact would be gone. He went on to tell Peggie that her father would be 'deeply distressed' if she did not drop the project after that opportunity had passed: 'He is the last man to desire that it should materialise at all unless it is to serve some useful purpose for his adopted country'. (73)

The letter had a telling impact since Peggie dropped the matter or at least make no more reference to it thereafter. Once again an attempt at a biography of Gibson came to nothing. It is not too puzzling to answer why so many of Gibson's contemporaries were reluctant to put their recollections of him on paper. With the 'new economics' of Keynes now in high tide, Gibson's reputation had become stained. The Royal Commission on Banking and Monetary Systems which issued its findings in 1937 had already criticised the Commonwealth Bank's unenlightened approach to monetary management for making the depression more protracted. In their evidence, economists had attacked the Commonwealth Bank board and, by inference, Gibson for his stand on funding and opposing another devaluation in 1932. When Giblin's account of the history of the Commonwealth Bank was published in 1951 it also gave an unflattering appraisal of Gibson's economic stewardship. Sir Robert Gibson, Giblin wrote, 'had a clear and confident but somewhat imperfect vision of central banking problems in Australia'. (74) By 'imperfect' Giblin meant not only Gibson's fixation with inflation and parity with sterling but also his overt lack of understanding of the integration between central banking with government finance. Giblin also made explicit reference to the autocratic powers of Gibson which reduced the staff of the bank, or those on the Board, to 'the status of a rubber stamp'. (75) It was, in short, a damning judgement though Giblin softened the blows given that the history had been commissioned by one of Gibson's underlings, H. T. Armitage. Then there was Peggie's approach to the study. She gushingly told Sir Harold Clapp that the book would 'make available to many a true and honest picture of the most outstanding man that I have ever been fortunate enough to be associated with--and to think that man was my own father'. (76) The last act in this saga came in 1969 when Peggie donated the remainder of her father's papers to the Reserve Bank which had now become Australia's central bank.


After three attempts Sir Robert Gibson's biography is yet to be written. This is probably how this dour Scot would have wanted it. The fact is, however, that this controversial figure deserves more than the cursory treatment he has been given in the literature. This article has tried to redress this and also answer the question why Gibson's biography was never written. The closing irony perhaps is that there is now enough archival material to warrant a biography

University of Ballarat


(1) F. Anstey 'The Scullin Labour Government 1929-1932', Historical Studies 18 (72), April 1979, p. 378.

(2) G. Shain to Lady Gibson, 15 February 1935, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Mss 10823, Latrobe Library (Lat.)

(3) 'Sir Robert Gibson G.B.E.: as I remember him', 4 February 1935, by P. M. Gibson, Gibson Papers, Box 6, Lat.

(4) 'Unveiling of Memorial by Lyons', Victorian Chamber of Manufacturers Gazette, 16 (5) May 1935, p. 5.

(5) The Banker, vol. 97, February 1934.

(6) The Scotsman, 5 January 1934.

(7) C. B. Schedvin 'Sir Robert Gibson' in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Melbourne, University of Melbourne, 1981, vol. 8, p. 656.

(8) The first label was uttered by Jack Lang while the acclaim came from Joe Lyons.

(9) This was a key finding in L. F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank, Melbourne, 1951.

(10) 'Important People: Sir Robert Gibson', by Hugh Adam, The Herald 1932, Gibson Papers, Box 2, Lat.

(11) C. B. Schedvin, The Great Depression in Australia, Sydney, 1970, p. 85.

(12) E. Godward to G. Cowan, 15 December 1932, Bank of Australasia, D/O Correspondence, ANZ Group Archive.

(13) W. H. Richmond, 'S.M. Bruce and Australian Economic Policy 1923-9', Australian Economic History Review, 23(2) 1983, p. 257.

(14) I. M. Cumpston, Lord Bruce of Melbourne, Melbourne, Cheshire Press, 1989, p. 74

(15) S. M. Bruce to Sir R. Gibson, n.d., but probably 1929, Gibson Papers, Box 1 Lat.

(16) Frank Cain, Jack Lang and the Great Depression, Melbourne, 2005, p. 90

(17) Schedvin, Depression, p. 4

(18) D. B. Copland, 'The Australian Problem', Economic Journal, Vol. XL, December 1930, pp. 638-649.

(19) W.S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly: the memoirs of W. S. Robinson, 1876-1966, Melbourne, Cheshire Press, 1967, p. 147

(20) L. G. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank, p.81.

(21) Cain, p. 104

(22) Cain, p. 134

(23) Sir O. Niemeyer to Lady Gibson, 1 January 1934, Gibson Papers, Box 1, Lat.

(24) Manuscript by Phyllis Gibson p. 50, Gibson Papers, Box 6, Lat.

(25) Sir O. Niemeyer to Sir M. Norman, 1 September 1930, BE: G1/291. Bank of England Governors' files (Bank of England Archives).

(26) 'Recollections of Sir Robert Gibson' by Sir Harold Clapp, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(27) Newspapers obituaries of Sir Robert Gibson, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(28) K. Tsokhas, 'Sir Otto Niemeyer, the bankrupt state and the federal system', Australian Journal of Political Science vol. 30, 1995, pp. 28-9.

(29) A. C. Davidson to W. S. Robinson, 12 August 1938, BNSW: GM 302/574, Westpac Archive

(30) T. Blamey to R. Gibson, 12 May 1931; T. Blamey to R. Gibson, 22 July 1931. The plain clothes detective was withdrawn on 22/7/1931 after the emergency had passed. Gibson Papers, Box 1 Lat.

(31) E. O. G. Shann and D. B. Copland, The Crisis in Australian Finance 1929-31: documents on budgetary and economic policy, Sydney, 1931, p. 48

(32) R. F. Holder, Bank of New South Wales: a history, vol. 2, 1894-1970, Sydney, 1970.

(33) 'Intelligence department' BNSW: GM 302/281 Westpac Archive.

(34) Holder, pp. 680-686.

(35) Torleiv Hytten, autobiography 1971, University of Tasmania Archives, p.60. Gibson was perhaps more enraged at the Bank of New South Wales usurping the Commonwealth Bank than by the action itself, for he told Ricketson that he had been in favour of a 10 per cent devaluation but the increase in tariffs obviated this Staniforth Ricketson diary, 29 April 1931, J. B. Were Stockbrokers. Leslie Melville (see p. 186) told the author in a 1997 interview that sometimes there could be 'two Gibsons' one uttering public views, the other private ones.

(36) D. B. Copland 'Reflections on Australian currency policy' Australian Quarterly September 1932, p. 116

(37) Cain, p.183.

(38) E. Campbell, The Rallying Point: My story of the New Guard, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, p. 138.

(39) Staniforth Ricketson diary, 26 October 1932.

(40) W. Massy-Greene to S. M. Bruce, 4 October 1932, National Archives of Australia, M104 item 1, 1932.

(41) S. Cornish, 'The Keynesian Revolution in Australia: fact or fiction', Australian Economic History Review vol. 38, no. 2, 1992, pp. 43-68.

(42) The Sydney Truth, 5 November 1932

(43) D. B. Copland to C. Janes, 2 November 1932, Faculty of Economics and Commerce, University of Melbourne Archives, Box 15.

(44) D. B. Copland 'Australian Recovery and Government Policy' Harvard Business Review 15(1), 1936, p. 16.

(45) Schedvin, Depression, p. 85 and Cain, p. 134.

(46) Sir R. Gibson to W. F. Whyte, 21 August 1931, Gibson Papers, Box 1, Lat.

(47) 'Memories of Sir Robert Gibson' by Sir Harold Clapp, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(48) H. Brookes to Lady Gibson, 8 January 1934, Gibson Papers, Box 4, Lat.

(49) Hansard, no. 141, 28 June, 1934.

(50) Victorian Chamber of Manufacturers Gazette 16 (5), May 1935.

(51) 'The late Sir Robert Gibson G.B.E' Governors and Senior Personnel, GRG-35-1, Reserve Bank Archives (hereafter RBA).

(52) G. Shain to C. Reading, 25 September 1934, GRG-35-1, RBA.

(53) G. Shain to C. Reading, 6 December 1934, GRG-35-1, RBA.

(54) G. Shain to C. Reading, 6 December 1934, GRG-35-1, RBA.

(55) G. Shain to C. Reading, 6 December 1934, GRG-35-1, RBA.

(56) A. F. Bell to C. Reading, 7 January 1935, GRG-35-1, RBA.

(57) A. F. Bell to C. Reading, 4 April 1935, GRG-35-1, RBA.

(58) C. Reading to A. F. Bell, 5 April 1935, GRG-35-1, RBA.

(60) S. Macintyre A History for a Nation, Melbourne, 1994, p. 147.

(61) Sir O. Niemeyer to P. M. Gibson, 19 July 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(62) Sir M. Norman to M. P. Gibson, 29 May 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(63) W. M. Hughes to M. P. Gibson, 1 July 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(64) R.G. Menzies to M. P. Gibson, 19 November 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(65) M. P. Gibson to J. Scullin, 17 June 1947, and response 19 February 1948, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(66) A. C. Davidson to M. P. Gibson, 31 January 1948, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(67) R.G. Casey to M. P. Gibson, 22 June 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(68) M. P. Gibson to S. M. Bruce, 24 June 1947, and response 11 July 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(69) M. P. Gibson to A. Stewart, 5 September 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(70) M. P. Gibson to A. Stewart, 16 September 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(71) M. P. Gibson to Rev. A. Watson, 16 November 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(72) M. P. Gibson to C. Kellaway, 18 June 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(73) W. M. Gibson to M. P. Gibson, 27 December 1948, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.

(74) Giblin, Central bank, p. 353.

(75) Giblin, Central bank, p. 353.

(76) M. P. Gibson to Sir H. Clapp, 28 August 1947, Gibson Papers, Box 3, Lat.
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Date:Dec 1, 2006
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