‘the little brother’
t h e l i f e o f George Alexander By PETER YULE
The George Alexander Foundation Level 3, 111 Collins Street Melbourne Victoria 3000 Phone 03 9650 3188 Email firstname.lastname@example.org Web www.georgealexander.org.au ÂŠ The George Alexander Foundation ISBN 0-9945992-1-8 First published 2006 Revised and reprinted 2016 Design: The Designery Published by The George Alexander Foundation
‘the little brother’ t h e l i f e o f George Alexander 9 September 1910 – 6 February 2008
This short biography is based primarily on a 73-page autobiography written by George Alexander in the late 1990s, which told his story from his birth in London in 1910 to the formation of the Neta business in the late 1940s. The information in the memoir was supplemented by two interviews with George Alexander in September 2005 and archival research. It is noteworthy that all his statements of fact that could be verified from other sources proved to be entirely accurate.
GEORGE ALEXANDER’S USUAL RESPONSE TO PEOPLE WHO ASKED HIM ABOUT HIS LIFE was, ‘Oh, I’ve done nothing special. I’m just a pommy migrant who got lucky.’ The story in this booklet shows how modest was this statement and the man himself. George Alexander’s life story is an extraordinary tale of achievement in the face of great odds and it exemplifies the ethos that has helped build Australia. After a childhood of great hardship in England, he came to Australia in 1926 to make a better life for himself. Sent to work on soldier settlement farms in western Victoria, he faced the adversity of the depression years with resilience and resourcefulness. His skill with his hands and his interest in machinery led him to train himself as a mechanic and during the Second World War he worked as a production engineer in munitions factories in Geelong and Melbourne, as well as teaching engineering subjects at the Gordon Institute and RMIT. He worked hard and after the war he used his natural ingenuity to create a successful manufacturing business based on several of his own inventions.
Following the sale of the business in the early 1970s he spent the last third of his long and active life in ‘giving back’ to the community. He always had the attitude to money and possessions that you do not really own them, ‘you’re just minding them’. Consequently, his decision to set up a philanthropic foundation was an easy one. The George Alexander Foundation now has a substantial corpus and the income is devoted to enabling talented young people, who may be restricted by financial circumstances to obtain a good education and be in a better position to make the most of their abilities. By 2008 George Alexander Scholarships were given annually at 12 tertiary institutions with plans for further expansion. The George Alexander Foundation also makes grants to assist in sustaining the environment for the enjoyment of our and future generations. George Alexander was a private man who lived modestly and has never sought public recognition for his acts of generosity. He always resisted having his life story recorded and only agreed in the hope that it might help prompt others to become involved in active philanthropy.
chapter one: Childhood in England
CHILDHOOD IN ENGLAND 4
Esther Alexander, George Alexander’s mother
GEORGE ALEXANDER WAS BORN AT CLAPHAM MATERNITY HOSPITAL IN JEFFREYS ROAD, Clapham in south London on 9 September 1910.1 His mother was a maid in a large house near Regent’s Park and he never knew his father. As George said , ‘I doubt if in the rest of my life I was ever less welcome.’ For the first two years of his life he lived in the basement of a house near where his mother worked. When he was two years old George was put on a train – ‘in the luggage van care of the guards’ – and sent to Cove, a small village near Farnborough and Aldershot in Hampshire, about 50 kilometres south-west of London.2 Here he lived in Minley Road with his mother’s parents and unmarried sisters. His grandfather was a fuel merchant, who carried coal, coke and wood with his horse and cart. George remembered him as ‘a thick-set, kindly man’, who was ‘downtrodden in his own home’. He was illiterate and trusted his customers to count out the change from their purchases, though later George would go with him during school holidays and deal with the change. The family lived in a two-storey house with bay windows, a long garden and stables at the back for the horses. There was no indoor plumbing, and they relied on a well in the yard. On bath day a tub was taken from the shed, placed in the middle of the kitchen floor, filled with hot water and then the family took it in turns to wash. Across the road was a field, usually sown with grain crops and George recalled watching from the house as ‘the horse-drawn reaper circled the diminishing standing crops with the favoured locals standing, guns cocked, to shoot the startled hares as they scampered from their diminishing shelter.’
Clapham Maternity Hospital was founded in 1889 by Dr Annie McCall, one of the first women doctors in England. The hospital was staffed by women and was noted for its high standards of hygiene and nursing care.
The manor house of Cove was mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1087 and the village later became the centre of a major pottery industry. At the end of the eighteenth century there were over a dozen kilns in operation and the distinctive pottery, known as ‘border ware’ was exported across Europe. However, the industry faded in the 19th century and there was little trace of it by the time George Alexander lived there, except for the many ponds where water had filled the clay pits.
From his bedroom window, George could see aeroplanes from the nearby Farnborough airfield, the site of the first powered flight in Britain in 1908. He also recalled watching the Aldershot military tattoo with the ‘mock battles, cavalry charges, much firing of cannons and rifles’. During the First World War the Farnborough aircraft factory and the army town of Aldershot were bustling with activity and George recalled some of this – a Scottish piper in full regalia marching along Minley Road, and marching soldiers accompanied by ‘dreadful, fearsome tanks’. He also remembered that his aunts worked at the aircraft factory painting the rondos on new aeroplanes. At the age of five, George began school at the Cove County Council School. He enjoyed his school days and did well at his studies. He recalled that by his last year ‘I had got somewhat ahead of my peers in the curriculum’ and spent most of his time ‘helping the headmaster with his wireless experiments in the carpentry workshop’. He made his own Morse key and buzzer and then a crystal set ‘all of which except the crystal and cats whiskers had to be hand made’. With this ‘we got to hear voices … to the utter astonishment of the family.’ His grandparents were devout Anglicans, attending church several times every Sunday, and George sang in the church choir. He was also in the Cubs and then the Boy Scouts, where he was a patrol leader of Peewit Patrol and enjoyed studying for badges and learning about ‘Morse code, knots, stars, compass points, camp making and lots of other useful things.’ Although the area around Cove is now heavily built-up, in the first decades of the twentieth century it was largely rural and George had happy memories of ‘an idyllic lifestyle’, playing in the woods, walking through the fields and picking a carrot or turnip to chew on, helping with the haymaking, and, in winter, playing on frozen ponds and making icy slides. For entertainment at home he had a Meccano set: ‘It was in a solid wooden case and had lots of pulleys, cogs, rods, rails, nuts and bolts, with which I had made cranes, trucks and all sorts of wonderful things’. He left school at the age of 13 early in 1924. Although his headmaster suggested that he go to college, this was financially impossible and George himself was feeling that ‘so much had already been done for me’ and he was ‘desperate to be self supporting’. His ambition was to be a motor mechanic but his family could not afford the costs of the apprenticeship, so he found himself a job in a bicycle shop for one shilling and sixpence a week. After only a few weeks working in the bicycle shop, he was surprised when an uncle came to take him back to London, saying there was a good job waiting for him there. In London George found ‘Everything was so bewildering, coming from a quiet hamlet … no traffic but plenty of quiet, to this hubbub of buses with stairs at the back, taxis, cars, horses and carts, all in great confusion.’ He lived with his aunt and uncle in a terrace house at Norwood near Crystal Palace and spent all his spare time walking or bussing around London – ‘there was so much to see and wonder at, marvel at’. Less marvelous were the ‘dreadful pea soup fogs’ so thick that the only way to get about was by feeling the railings along the footpath. The job waiting for George in London was at a seed merchant’s, where he worked opening imported parcels of seeds and repackaging them for retail sale. One of his recollections of this period was that he was the only person entrusted to open the cases of tulip bulbs from Holland, which often had contraband cigars for the firm’s owner. The owner was a ‘typical Mr Pickwick, huge rotund body with a substantial gold chain drooping from the right hand vest pocket concealing a massive gold watch.’
Postcard of Royal Sovereign
George’s uncle worked for the Royal Sovereign Steamship Co., which ran pleasure steamers between 6
London and resort towns such as Margate, Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and, after working at the seed merchant’s over the winter of 1924-25, George began work as a deck boy for the summer season of 1925. The Royal Sovereign Steamship Co. and its associated company, the East Anglian Steamship Co., owned a fleet of paddle steamers including the Royal Sovereign and several vessels of the former Belle Line – London Belle, Clacton Belle, Southend Belle and Yarmouth Belle. The flagship of the fleet, the Royal Sovereign, built in 1893, was 277 feet, 891 tons gross, and licensed to carry 1200 passengers. It had collapsible funnels and masts so that it could pass under Tower Bridge without having to raise the spans. The ‘Belles’ were all smaller, the largest of them, London Belle, being 249 feet and 738 tons, and they could carry about 500 passengers. In the 1920s competition between the steamer companies was fierce and the financial position of the Royal Sovereign company was precarious, eventually going into receivership in 1928 and being wound up in 1932. In his first summer working on the paddle steamers, George was mainly involved in catering work – washing and drying dishes, carrying plates and walking the decks with a tray of lollies. He recalled wearing a blue and white striped jacket and yelling, ‘Chocolates, lollies, bon bons, ice-cream!’ sometimes extolling the virtues of particular favourites such as Pascall’s Fruit Bon Bons. He worked on the London Belle on the southern run to Ramsgate and Margate in Kent and the Royal Sovereign on the east coast run to Lowestoft and Yarmouth. Although George had clear memories of the paddle steamers, he recalled little of his domestic situation at the time and has no memory of what he was paid. He recalled being asked to pay one shilling to join the union and replying, ‘I’d like to ask my mother first’. This comment was met with much laughter and the retort that he would join the union or leave the boats. When the ships were laid up for the winter, George and his uncle were employed to scrape and paint the bilges of one of the vessels. ‘It was a job few would have wanted … kneeling, squatting and forever crawling in the cramped, wet confines of the bilges was a cold, miserable experience.’
George worked on the paddle steamers again in the summer of 1926, this season sailing to the East Anglian ports of Great Yarmouth, Felixstowe and Lowestoft, normally staying overnight at Yarmouth. During the summer he was promoted to run the stall on board, being responsible for maintaining stock levels, recording takings and ensuring stock sold and takings balanced. He also began to notice girls and to think about his
future. He recalled that on one trip to Yarmouth: I was able to separate a girl from her guardians and we took a boat trip a short distance up the River Yare. Naturally it tied up at a pub and, now a man of the world, I escorted my young lady to the lounge. I felt a trifle conspicuous as we were the only ones there and I suspect they had just opened. Undaunted, I inquired of her preferences and she wisely left the choice to me. I was, after all, a part-time waiter aboard ship. I approached the bar under the somewhat quizzical gaze of the barman and ordered two ports. I returned to the table where I approached my seated companion from the rear and slightly to the right with rehearsed skill, bending close and placing the drink within comfortable reach. After that, it’s disappointing that I can’t remember what happened the rest of the day.
Of greater concern was his future career. Working on the boats was a seasonal proposition and, as he saw from his uncle, the company offered no financial security. And his personal situation had changed. He no longer went home and had begun sleeping on board the ship – he would go ashore with the others, but then sneak back on board when the coast was clear. As the ships were moored for the night out in midstream, he would have to get a ride from the water police (who never questioned what he was doing going aboard a boat late in the evening). Very occasionally, George visited his mother, who was still working near Regent’s Park, where the staff all thought she was his aunt. Here he would enjoy a luxurious bath in ‘a huge bath [with] highly polished taps, and then the scented soap and soda based bath salts which made one all slippery.’ But afterwards he would take the bus back to the ‘slum-like dockland’ at Deptford where the boat was moored and wait for a police launch to pass, ‘then, fingers in mouth, hoping that my echoing whistle was heard and that … they would spin round and come in for me.’ Sometimes he had to wait in the dark for hours and then ‘it was a pretty dismal exercise boarding the darkened vessel. There were only the mooring lights, no other lights down below and one was never sure that someone else was not on board.’ There were occasions – possibly during industrial unrest (the British General Strike took place in May 1926) – that George spent several days on board. He recalled one hot day deciding to go for a swim, but he was swept downstream by the tide and was lucky to clamber aboard an anchored barge. He was eventually rescued by police who ‘couldn’t believe what they were seeing: a half-naked kid waving to them from a barge moored almost in the middle of the river off Deptford’. Over the summer George had many talks about his future with his immediate boss, Pip, the second steward, who was having a spell from the merchant marine. George knew there was no long-term future on the pleasure steamers; he was worried that he would be a burden on his mother and he wanted to be truly independent. Pip talked a lot about Australia, telling George that ‘there were animals there like nowhere else in the world and … people called out “Cooee”, the call sounding for miles.’ Inspired by this, George found his way to Australia House ‘on its sharp corner with window space on both sides’. He studied the windows at length, with its pictures of glorious countryside and particularly its maps, which showed that Australia ‘was so far away that I’d have little chance of coming back’. Eventually he walked in and asked, ‘I want to find out how to get to Australia.’
chapter two: The Big Brother Movement
THE BIG BROTHER MOVEMENT
THE BIG BROTHER MOVEMENT WAS SET UP IN 1924 ON THE INITIATIVE OF AN AUSTRALIAN
businessman, Richard Linton. The aim was to sponsor boys to emigrate to Australia by providing each boy with a ‘Big Brother’ in Australia, who ‘would act in every way as a foster father to him until he can place him out to suitable employment that will offer him a career in life.’ The Big Brother was then to keep a paternal eye on the boy ‘until he reaches manhood’.3 The ‘Little Brothers’ too had obligations. Each one had to sign an agreement ‘binding him to accept the instructions of his Big Brother and not to leave any employment without his permission. He was to work hard, not drink or gamble, avoid bad company, write to his parents once a month and … open a bank account and try to save a regular sum each week.’4 Unlike other child migrant schemes of the era, the Big Brother Movement did not concentrate on orphans or the underprivileged, but aimed to recruit ‘a better class of boy’. Richard Linton said, ‘that [only] boys of high standard, morally, physically, and of education … should … be sent under our auspices.’ The majority of boys selected for sponsorship by the movement came from middle-class and upper middle-class homes and had attended private schools. The first party of Little Brothers left England in October 1925 after a farewell from the Prince of Wales. On their arrival in Melbourne, the Argus described them as ‘probably the finest batch of new settlers, physically and mentally, that has stepped off an ocean liner in Melbourne.’ In the early days of the Big Brother Movement only about one in three applications for sponsorship succeeded. One of the successful applications was from George Alexander. He recalled that he had to fill in a lot of forms and persuade his mother to give her permission (which she gave only reluctantly). It says much for the vision of the Big Brother Movement that George’s potential was realized when his background and education were not that envisaged by the movement’s founders.
Quoted in Geoffrey Sherington, ‘A Better Class of Boy: The Big Brother Movement, Youth Migration and Citizenship of Empire’, Australian Historical Studies, no. 120, October 2002, p. 267. Ibid, p. 273.
George had just turned 16 when he sailed from Tilbury on 19 October 1926 on SS Moreton Bay. He
The big day arrived. Mum came dockside. I didn’t want her to because she looked so sad and lonely standing aside from the other noisy groups … Finally the call came ‘Visitors ashore’ and the deep booming siren stirred the stomach even more and we were away never to return. … At that time I would not have entertained returning, the steamer days were passed, finished, done with. It was always to be thus. Wherever I went, lasting roots were never put down, no correspondence would be entered into, it was always over and done with.
His only links with the past were a Bible given to him by an aunt and his discharge certificate from the Royal Sovereign Shipping Co. The Moreton Bay was one of the most modern ships on the England-Australia run and on George’s voyage, the 724 passengers included 31 boys sponsored by the Big Brother Movement.5 George, with his small suitcase packed with the bare essentials, was aware that he was different from the other boys, many of whom were from private schools and whose luggage included sporting equipment, evening wear and a few even had ‘western-style Colt six-shooters’. Rather than his fellow Little Brothers, George spent much of his time with a couple he met and particularly their ‘lovely daughter’, with whom he enjoyed a shipboard romance. George had left England with four pounds and he spent about half of that ‘on sharing ice creams and other treats with my girlfriend, falling in love was costly’. He spent another threepence on a ‘naughty photo’ (of a girl in a neck to knee bathing costume) in Port Said, so that he had the grand sum of £1 19s 9d
when he arrived in Australia. The Moreton Bay arrived at Fremantle on 18 November 1926. George went ashore and ‘At that time I became an Australian and abandoned all thought of ever returning’. He only left Australia once in the rest of his life and that was for a short trip to New Zealand. On Friday 26 November Moreton Bay berthed at Station Pier, Port Melbourne. The Little Brothers were officially welcomed and then went their different ways, mostly not to see each other again. George’s Big Brother was Frederick Hooke, a senior partner in the accounting form of Hooke & Graham, whose offices were at 31 Queen Street. Hooke lived in John Street, Hawthorn, and George spent his first night in Australia with him and his family: ‘We had as expected a question and answer evening, and I was asked to say grace before dinner and thanks after’.6 The next morning Mr Hooke dressed for work in top hat and tails (most accountants still worked on Saturday mornings), and took George to Spencer Street Station ‘where the train was waiting to take me to Koroit, to a soldier settlement and a new world.’ The Soldier Settlement scheme developed out of the belief that the nation owed ‘a debt of honour’ to those who had fought to defend it in the First World War, combined with the ideal of ‘closer settlement’ that had led to the Selection Acts of the 1860s and, in Victoria, the establishment of the Closer Settlement Board in the 1890s. Between 1918 and 1926 many large estates, particularly in western Victoria, were purchased by the board and subdivided into small farms. Generally the First World War soldier settlement scheme is seen
The Moreton Bay was built in Barrow, England in 1921. She was the first of five sister ships which included the famous Jervis Bay. Her details were -13,855 gross tons, length 530.6ft x beam 68.3ft (161,73m x 20,81m), one funnel, two masts, twin screw and a speed of 15 knots. She was sold to the White Star Line in1928 and then the Aberdeen & Commonwealth Line in 1933 but continued in the same service. After war service as an armed merchant cruiser and troop ship, she returned to the England-Australia run until she was scrapped in 1957. Frederick Hooke was senior partner of accounting firm Hooke & Graham of 31 Queen Street and a fellow of the Australasian Corporation of Public Accountants. He lived at 33 John Street, Hawthorn.
as a tragic failure. This was undeniably true for most of the settlers placed on marginal land in the Mallee, but in the fertile, well-watered Western District many farmers were successful. George Alexander had one of the few strokes of luck in his early life when he was sent to work for one of the most successful. In late November 1926 the Western District was green and lush after good spring rains and George would have seen busy scenes of haymaking as well as numerous flocks of sheep and herds of cattle as he passed through Geelong, Camperdown and Warrnambool on his way to Koroit. He recalled that he ‘couldn’t believe there could be such a long train line’.He was nervous about recognizing his new boss among the crowds at the station, but he was the only passenger to get off at Koroit and there was only one person waiting – James Cozens, his new employer. It was show day in Koroit and Cozens took George straight to the showgrounds. The local newspaper had anticipated that the show ‘promises to be the best for many years’ and George recalled that ‘the animals in their best show condition were something special’. The sideshows included Jimmy Sharman’s famous boxing troupe, a snake charmer and a fat lady as well as the usual swings, merry-go-rounds and dodgems, while the cattle exhibits were ‘the best ever seen in the district’. As usual, the prize for the best cow owned by a resident of Koroit was won by Father Galligan, the Catholic priest – George had arrived in the most strongly Catholic town in Victoria.7 James Cozens, George’s employer, was one of the most successful of the soldier settlers in the Koroit district. A dour man, he was a good farmer, who came from Yannathan in West Gippsland, and he had married into one of the wealthier local farming families, giving him a stronger financial backing than most settlers. Cozens’s farm was on the Warrong Estate (also known as Woodlands), which at over 20,000 acres was the largest soldier settlement estate in the Shire of Minhamite. Purchased from Andrew Baird in 1918, Warrong was subdivided into 62 blocks of between 100 and 900 acres – the variation being due to the varying quality of the land, all blocks being valued at between £2000 and £3000. The land was a combination of fertile, but poorly drained, mud flats, barriers of bluestone boulders (from the lava ‘river’ that flowed from Mt Rouse to the sea at Port Fairy), and some gently rolling old volcanic countryside. The Warrong Estate was extremely run down when subdivided for soldier settlement and the settlers arrived to find their blocks unimproved, unfenced and infested with rabbits. Most of the settlers opted to set up as dairy farmers, but for the first few years their income came largely from rabbiting. James Cozens’s farm, ‘Willatook Park’ was at Willatook, the small settlement at the heart of the Warrong Estate, about 10 miles north of Koroit. Cozens was probably the only settler in the district to have a car – a
Maxwell – and, after their visit to the show, they drove to George’s new home. George recalled: I was shown to my quarters, a clean weatherboard hut, ten foot square, a bare wooden floor, a tin roof unlined as were the walls, the bed a wire base with a thin kapok mattress and pillow and two army blankets. The table was a packing case with one side removed and there was a chair and a small kerosene lamp. In view of the sleeping conditions I had known I had no complaints. This was heaven.
Reports of the Koroit Show are in the Koroit Sentinel, 27 November and 4 December 1926.
Willatook Park in 2005.
Cozens had a herd of about 30 dairy cows (quite large for the time) and a four-station milking machine, again unusual as most local dairy farmers still milked by hand. George realized he was fortunate to have been sent to a farmer who was relatively well off, with the nicest house on the settlement, well-kept fencing and established windbreaks. George was paid 12 shillings a week, with one weekend off a month and two weeks unpaid holidays each year. The hours were ‘to start at dawn and work as long as you could see what to do’. Every day there was 12
milking in the morning and evening, and during the day there were jobs such as fencing and haymaking. George’s first job was to run a fence from the house down to the Moyne River about 700 yards away. He found he enjoyed jobs involving building or machinery more than milking. He taught himself about the farm machines, especially the engines. Most of these were simple kerosene combustion engines’ and he was surprised ‘how reluctant most of the farmers were to investigate mechanical equipment’. The Cozens’s had no children and George found that ‘they had not the least idea of what a 16-year-old doing hard work could eat’. The servings at meals were meagre and he was ‘so often hungry I’d steal eggs from the hen house, put a hole in each end and suck out the contents’, take cream from the separator or even eat the oats and molasses used for feeding calves. At first George found the evenings long and boring. To fill in the time he began to make things for the Cozens and neighboring farmers. He made a Coolgardie safe for Mrs Cozens – there was no refrigeration or even an ice box in the farmhouse – and went on to make tank stands, stock troughs, gates and many other things. He even made an honour board for the Willatook hall, which is still there today. Later he took a course in ‘Station Book Keeping’ and ‘my evenings were passed close to the kerosene lamp finding out about double entry bookkeeping.’ Community life at Willatook centred around the local school (set up in 1922), which was also the community hall and, on Sundays, the church. George went to church with the Cozens and enjoyed the singing, as he
knew all the hymns by heart from his time in the church choir at Cove. He recalled: I had not lifted my voice in song for so many years and my chest swelled to see heads furtively turning to see whence came this new voice. This joy was mine for several Sundays but there came a time when the next-door farmer … sidled up to me as we chatted after church – and with a purpose. ‘Gidday, George, how ya goin?’ ‘No worries’, I replied. ‘Listen, son, what about knockin’ off that singin’ a bit. It sounds a bit crook. Did ya voice break on the way out?’ … The next time I went to church was when I married.
Life at Willatook was quiet for a teenage boy. There was the occasional dance at the local school, with one farmer playing the fiddle and another the drums. Sometimes a couple of local lads would come to George’s hut where they would wrestle or practice judo. George learnt to ride and ‘ sometimes he would steal away quietly at night, ambling along for miles.’ After about 18 months at Willatook, George felt it was time to move on. He did not enjoy dairy farming and there was not enough handyman work to keep him busy. He had saved up most of his pay – there had been little to spend it on in Willatook – and he wrote to the Big Brother Movement to ask if he could try wheat farming.
Willatook School in 2005.
Scooping water channels in the Mallee in the 1920s. George recalled that he did this by himself, holding both the reins and the scoop handles. (Reproduced courtesy of Museum Victoria.)
chapter three: The Depression Years
THE DEPRESSION YEARS
FOLLOWING GEORGE’S REQUEST, THE BIG BROTHER MOVEMENT FOUND HIM A POSITION with another soldier settler on a wheat farm near Marnoo in the Wimmera district of Victoria. Located about 50 kilometres west of St Arnaud on the road to Horsham, Marnoo is in a well-established and highly productive wheat-growing region. George was sent to work for a young couple, who had a wheat farm on a soldier settlement estate and a further two hundred acres that they share farmed. His first impression was the investment in machinery and horses required to run a wheat farm. His new employer had eight light draught horses, two or three ponies, a pony cart, spring cart, wagon, an eightfurrow plough, a header and a harvester. The farmer needed George to harvest the crop on the share farm, as it was too far away to come home each night, so, while they waited for the crop to ripen, George set himself to learn how to handle a team of horses and operate the header. Soon after arriving at Marnoo, he was asked to kill a fattened sheep. He had not done this before and did not much like the idea, but he found out that the farmer also had no experience in butchering. The meat was needed for the provision box while he was away harvesting, and he ‘got by and eventually saw it suspended from a tree branch’.
George remembered the provisions and equipment he had to take with him: Bags of chaff, oats, bales of new jute wheat sacks, hanks of jute string the correct length to sew a bag (five stitches, two turns round the ears, with just enough left to make off), some ointment should a horse get a sore shoulder (no first aid kit), fencing wire to hang the chaff bag mangers on, a 6’ by 6’ tent, wire mattress with fold-up legs, bedding, card table, hurricane lamp, frying pan, billy, small and large saucepan, a cast iron, oval-shaped boiler they said could be used as an oven, cutlery for one, axe, crow bar, shovel, dual purpose hacksaw for cutting meat and metals, just about everything that wasn’t nailed down … a ten pound bag of rolled oats was part of my rations, plus spuds, bacon, tomatoes, onions, carrots, eggs, bread, butter, tinned milk, sugar and condiments, vinegar and a side of the wether … Why the vinegar? Seeing that it was summer they thought the meat might go off just a bit and what you did was wipe it down with the vinegar and you wouldn’t notice a thing.
A veritable convoy set off for the share farm: Two pairs of horses for the wagon, the boss in the seat and two ponies tied behind. One pony pulled the jinker and the other pony, clipped to the bit, ran alongside. I was on the header with three horses and one leading behind making eight in all.
They arrived and set up camp. After yoking the horses to the header, the farmer took the seat for the first cut: I was told to make sure that as the day changed we weren’t blowing wheat out with the chaff, or leaving too much chaff with the wheat. The hopper became full and was emptied into the bags. We made bag dumps as the hopper filled, going to them several times, then starting another. I was then introduced to the rammer, a sheet metal tube with a top on it like a large canned fruit tin funneled down to fit the tube. The idea was to fill the bag so that it could be just tied off, making one ear and putting in five stitches, then to push the tube to the bottom, filling it with wheat and ramming it up and down in the bag, refilling it as the grain emptied. What a clever idea, but, Oh!, what hard work, one had to keep lifting and working at the bag all the time.
Once he had the hang of it, the farmer returned home, leaving George to camp at the share farm until the job was done. There was no house in sight and no way of getting in touch with the farmer. The pattern of his days was set by the horses – harnessing them in the morning to be ready to start as soon as the dampness had gone from the grain, resting in the middle of the day (not for George, though, there were wheat bags to ram!), feeding, combing and brushing them in the evening.
He soon had the team well trained – after about a week he could get off to check the cogs and the link chains and then hop back on board while the horses kept plodding along. But the days seemed endless, with no company and rarely any passing traffic along the road, and the nights were worse as he had nothing to read except some old newspapers. He would amuse himself by shooting mice with a .22 rifle, or, if it was light enough, he would sew wheat bags. When enough bags were filled, the farmer came to help George load them to cart to the station. They used a ‘bag loader’, which used horse power to catapult the bags into the arms of someone standing on the wagon, who would stack them. He learnt after a while that the basic principle of loading wheat bags is ‘to keep them moving’. It took a full day to load the wagon and the next morning they set off to the depot. George was amazed at the enormous stacks of wheat bags, all built by hand – no machinery – ‘and that was the good old days’. Finally, after many wagonloads, the share farm harvest was finished and George returned to the home farm to help harvest a crop of oats. He recalled that ‘the boss drove the reaper and I tagged along stoking, seeking a little job satisfaction in keeping the stooks in a line and about the same number of sheafs in each. When they had carted the sheafs home, George had to build the stack (as the farmer did not know how) and he found this to be a different art from building a stack with grass hay. At the end of the harvest, George left Marnoo as there was nothing for him to do on the farm. If George’s first assignment had shown him the best of the First World War soldier settlement scheme, his next one showed why it is generally seen as a disaster. In the autumn of 1929 he was sent to work at Liparoo in the Mallee. George took the train to Annuello, south of Robinvale, where he was met by his new employer, Albert Booth, a small, wiry man, who had served in the Navy during the war. They climbed in the jinker and headed west into the setting sun to Booth’s 900 acre wheat farm. The farm was in semi-desert
country near the south-east corner of the Hattah National Park, and George observed that it ‘might well have wisely been included in it, as there appeared to be little hope of it ever becoming even marginal wheat country’.8 The country had been subdivided for soldier settlement immediately after the war when wheat prices were high; but prices fell steadily during the 1920s and land that was marginal with prices high was a hopeless proposition when prices were low. Booth and his wife lived in a typical soldier settler’s house (with a room for George) on an area of red clay pan among the sandhills and Mallee scrub. There was a storage cellar dug into the clay to avoid the heat, and a shed with a blacksmith’s forge, which George found the most attractive feature of the farm. As the rainwater tanks were empty, drinking water was brought from the Murray in a Furphy tank, which was parked by the back door. The morning after he arrived, George began work. His first task was to prepare some fallow land for
sowing. The team of Clydesdales was a ‘mixed lot, not at all well cared for’ and they were, Swung into position in front of a plough with eight big curved discs instead of mould boards. This was a stump-jump plough invented and made in Melbourne for this type of country, where there was so much small scrub that it wasn’t practical to clear all the stumps and roots before tilling. The boss took the reins [to introduce me] to multi-furrowed stump jump ploughing. Off we go, with me tagging along with the spring cart picking up the odd stumps that were being pulled out. It was a long circuit. When we got back to base, he asked, ‘Do you think you can manage?’ So I was on my way – he saw me to the first corner and left me to it. We were supposed to be preparing fallowed land that had been worked to a depth of 4” some
months before but sadly the earlier working had blown away and we were in fact turning virgin soil. That was why so many roots were coming out and it was such a rough ride. The discs jumped the stumps all right, but the wheels didn’t. Often a wheel would be in sand drift that had piled up around a stump and I’d find myself out of my seat crashing onto the chains, yelling a pleading, entreating, anxious, ‘WOA!!’ knowing those knife-edged discs would fail to jump over me. I soon found that the team knew that I hadn’t ridden that one and would be stopped before I’d hit the ground. I always went round to the leaders and made a fuss of them.
In recent years the George Alexander Foundation has given money to the Bookmark Biosphere Project based at Calperum Station in South Australia. This project aims to develop new approaches to the environmental problems of the Riverland and Mallee regions of South Australia and Victoria.
A stump jump plough with a tandem six-horse team in the Mallee in the 1920s. George worked with an eight-horse team. (Reproduced courtesy of Museum Victoria.)
Each morning George took the team out to the paddock. He spent the morning ploughing and then while the horses had their lunchtime rest, he would go over the new work picking up stumps and stacking them
– they were excellent fire wood, much better than coal. The days were long, hot and so dusty. There was not a drop of moisture in the soil – nothing whatever to start growth, but this paddock was the only potential source of income for the year. One just had to hope that it would rain in time to start growth and then follow up a few weeks later with a good soaking. It took some weeks to complete the ploughing. Ideally we would have been sowing at the same time to make the best use of any slight moisture content, but that would require another eight horses … The acreage was too big for horse-drawn implements – horses couldn’t work day and night.
The field was eventually sown, but sadly to no purpose as rain did not come and the crop failed. Much of the farm was still uncleared and George helped Booth with rolling and burning the Mallee scrub. He recalled that the clearing was done with a bullock team hitched to a home-made roller, which once was a boiler for a stationary steam engine. It was about six feet in diameter and, say, nine feet long. Two railway sleepers formed spokes in each end, a lengthened wagon axle protruded through and was secured to these. Remarkably a tree had been found with a more or less straight trunk and a
branch conveniently angled out to span the width of the boiler to which could be fixed other lumps of tree to form the bearings. The butt end was supported on a caster made up from a flat-tyred steel wheel off some other farm equipment. It was an incredible achievement with the limited tools of those days. All the holes for the fixing rods had to be hand done with augers, or a brace and bit. Larger holes were opened up with a red-hot steel rod. The offset design enabled the bullocks to amble along on the rolled section, the roller being in the unflattened brush. This again was a very slow process as the power source was slow moving and could work only about three hours a day as they had to be let free to feed on whatever they could find out in the scrub which was precious little, then they had to be found again the next day … When found they were led to the nearest dam then meandered slowly back to the roller. The way they moved into their special places and stood while the heavy wooden yokes were fixed was something to see … a biblical scene indeed. With a good deal of shouting and waving of the extra long whip, they were away. Once moving they hung in and strained in unison at the harder brush or tree, bending down, lunging, even slipping to the ground, with the effort they put in. There was but the one way to go and that was forward. At time we’d have to get to work with an axe before they could get going again. It became my job to go ahead nicking the thicker stems and the occasional trees. Choices had to made. If I didn’t cut deep enough I’d slow or stop the team and this was a no-no. Once this heavy thing was moving it had to keep moving.
After being rolled, the scrub was left to dry and then burnt, with the fires burning for days as the protruding roots were gathered up during the night and added to the blazes.
There were frequent sand storms as the wind raised the ploughed soil across the Mallee. When they saw these great clouds of rolling sand coming from the west, they would either take refuge in the house, or head for the Murray River a few miles to the east. After the storms the house would be thick with fine sand, like red talc. After several months with Booth, George had ploughed and sown the fallow field and then the newly cleared land, but there had never been the slightest sign of rain. All they could do was sit and watch the sky. He spent some time working for other settlers in the district and then came back to sink dams for local
farmers in the expectation that a new channel would bring reliable water to the district. Dam sinking was quite a challenge for the youth, the man and the horses. We used the new and I suspect experimental scoop [which George had helped make] with a six abreast team. They made a wonderful sight as they wheeled, turned and climbed, hurrying on the down slope and straining on the up. The excavating was done with a figure eight movement that meant, when, say, doing a right hand turn, the horse on the right hand end of the line was marching on the spot and the others had to accelerate at varying speeds to maintain a straight line.
After some time George mastered the complicated techniques of dam sinking with a horse-drawn scoop and Booth then hired him out to work on the channels. These were dug using a scraper pulled behind a two-horse team. He also helped form feeders from the channel to farm dams using a homemade device called a ‘delver’. It only rained once while George was at Liparoo. He remembers that the Booths told him to go behind the stables so they could strip down and lather up for a wash, but the rain stopped before George was able to
have a wash. Most evenings George whiled away his time playing cards or reading, but there were occasional dances and other social events. Once George borrowed the pony and jinker to take the new schoolteacher to a dance at Cramenton, about 20 miles from Liparoo. It was late when they left to go home and they both fell asleep, with George confident that the pony would take him home. He was startled when he woke to find that it was daylight and the horse and jinker was in a strange farmyard, with a farmer, his wife, and several children inviting them in for a cup of tea. It turned out that Mr Booth had bought the pony from this farmer and the pony had chosen to take them to his old home rather than his new one. At another dance George was told that three local youths planned to rough him up. He had no idea why this was, as he had not met them before. The upshot was that they challenged him to a fight in the local hall. George was extremely fit from his farm work, while his challenger, ‘Nugget’ was bigger but slower. They fought for twelve rounds before Nugget had had enough and threw in the towel. The wheat crop on Booth’s farm failed completely, but George recovered some of a sparse crop of oats for the horses using a small machine that winnowed as it headed. However, after about eleven months George realized there was no future farming in the Mallee and he and Booth agreed he should return to Melbourne. Booth took him to the station, but said he could only pay him £5 and would send him the rest of his wages when he could. George was not surprised that he did not receive a penny more: ‘I’d got much the same as the farmer – I’d been fed and watered’.9
Albert Booth survived on his block through the depression years, partly by going shearing for several months each year and eventually bought his brother’s block next door. A detailed account of Booth’s farming activities is in the files of the Closer Settlement Board in the Victorian Public Record Office, VPRS 5714, unit 2160.
Smithâ€™s Motors (now Brooksâ€™ Motors) in Commercial Road, Koroit. Photo taken in November 2005.
chapter four: Motor Mechanic
GEORGE ARRIVED BACK IN MELBOURNE IN THE AUTUMN OF 1930. THE NEW YORK STOCK Exchange had crashed in October 1929 and the world economy was spiraling into depression. The Big Brother Movement stopped sponsoring new migrants in early 1929 and its Melbourne operations may have ceased altogether.10 George could not recall whether he had lost touch with his big brother, Mr Hooke, or why he did not contact him, but on arriving in Melbourne he had no job, nowhere to stay and precious little money. While he could afford it, George stayed at the YMCA, but he soon had to leave. He met an artist and for a while he hawked hand-painted brooches around Flinders Street Station, in exchange for dossing on the floor of the artist’s room.. George recalled soliciting customers: ‘Lady, buy your lovely daughter a genuine hand-painted bird or flower brooch and get one for yourself. Only sixpence each’. He also spent many days looking in shop windows for ‘Help wanted’ signs, riding out to suburban shopping centers on tram running boards, but there were no jobs. He was always hungry. He recalled going into cafés and ordering soup at
nine pence a plate: They’d bring my soup, I’d polish it off and put the bowl on another table and look hungry, which wasn’t hard to do, because I was hungry, really hungry. There were several waitresses or even the same one would come past and ask, ‘Haven’t you had yours?’ at which I’d look at the empty table, shrug my shoulders, or say something like, ‘It doesn’t look like it’, and await the second bowl. Some times I think they knew.
His artist friend ‘shot through’ and George slept for a while in a cellar in Spring Street, where his spare shirt and second pair of boots were stolen. In desperation George eventually approached his Big Brother, who let him stay at his holiday cottage in the Dandenongs provided George cut and stacked wood for him. He stayed there about a month and, on his departure Mr Hooke gave him a copy of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary ‘inscribed in tremulous handwriting’. George recalled that it was the first gift he’d received since leaving England and he kept it for the rest of his life. After that he wrote a few times to Mr Hooke, but they never met again.
The Big Brother Movement remained active in New South Wales and sponsored many boys in the 1950s and 1960s.
During the Depression a large number of ‘Little Brothers’ returned home to England, but George never even considered that as an option.11 He got in touch with James Cozens, his first employer in Willatook,
and returned there in late 1930: How glad was I to be home in my 10ft x 10ft hut and quite happy bathing behind the hedge with one foot at a time in a kero tin … The cows were no longer smelly … I regarded 40 minutes or so winding the separator at the steady 45 turns per minute a pleasant exercise (I still speeded up a little at the end to get my fingerful of real thick cream). The hours slashing Scotch thistle were no longer arduous, even though at weekends the distant laughter of the tennis players on the court near the school plagued my ears. In fact, nothing was a burden now that I had learned that to have work was the most important thing and right now was a time to hang on to a job and make yourself as useful as possible – give it a go at all times. I was never out of work again.
The shed George built at Willatook Park. Photo taken in November 2005. George was pleased that the ridge is still straight.
While helping with the morning and evening milking, George’s major project for Cozens was to build a shed. Cozens had been skeptical of George’s ability to do this, so ‘to convince him I got some white cardboard … no more than 18” square and drew on it to scale every plate, stay, stud, rafter, and ridge truss … I cut and folded the detailed cardboard into a model of his shed, complete with a bill of materials.’ Cozens took this to the local timber merchant, who said it was ‘spot on’. To carry out the job, George bought his own tools and then worked every day, except when he was needed to take livestock in to market. After finishing the shed there was not enough work for George on the Cozens’ farm, but he was offered work by a neighbour, L.E. Richardson, who had a small block and was far less well established than Cozens. At Richardson’s, George slept in a shed with a dirt floor, on a bed made of four forked sticks driven into the ground, with chaff bags threaded over the side rails. Again he had to bathe in a kero tin, but there was nowhere to hide so he had to wash at night. He negotiated his first pay rise since arriving in Australia – he was now to receive 15 shilling per week, with one weekend off each month. His main task again was milking and during the day he had bluestone boulders to remove from around the farm yard, a small paddock to sow with corn and other chores. He recalled ploughing the paddock with a single furrowed plough pulled behind an old grey horse and then sowing the seed by pushing a one-wheeled sowing machine down every fourth furrow ‘What a come down from the tandem six and eight furrows I had last driven.’
Sherington estimates that about one-third of Little Brothers in Victoria had returned to England by the mid-1930s. ‘The Big Brother Movement’, p. 281
About this time George bought a motorbike, and he went in to Koroit for his licence test. The local policeman told him to ride up to the pub and back, but George was showing off a bit and fell off when he did his U-turn too quickly. The policeman still gave him his licence, together with the advice ‘Don’t come back into town for a while till you’ve learnt not to fall off ’. The motorbike gave him greatly increased independence and he began to spend most of his free time at Smith’s garage in Koroit. Through the garage he got his first car, a dilapidated Citroen with a tiny seven horsepower engine, which he spent many hours repairing and rebuilding. He began to stay in town on his free weekends and helped in the garage without pay whenever they were busy. In 1931 George turned 21 and he went into Warrnambool to have his photograph taken to send to his mother, but that was a rare contact. George and his mother were not good correspondents and they gradually lost touch. From the early 1930s he had virtually no contact with his family in England. After a few months it became clear that there would not be enough work for him on Richardson’s farm. As the Depression worsened, the small dairy farmers on the soldier settlement estates no longer had the cash to pay farm hands and George realized there was no future for him in farming. He still held his boyhood ambition to become a mechanic and decided that he would move into Koroit 23
and see if he could get work at the garage. He took a room at the Commercial Hotel for £1 a week and spent his days serving petrol, helping the mechanics attend to breakdowns and taking cars for test runs. At first this was unpaid, but after a while he made himself indispensable and began to be paid for some of his work.
George Alexander aged 21. Much to George’s embarrassment, the photographer blew up this portrait and put it in his shop window in Liebig St, Warrnambool.
Two large jobs helped him turn his work at the garage into a fulltime job. When the wooden floor of the garage collapsed under the weight of a truck loaded with fertilizer, George offered to rebuild it, which involved restumping the entire floor. For this he was paid 25 shillings a week, leaving him 5 shillings after paying his rent. Soon after he had finished this job a local farmer crashed his truck into a tree, putting the chassis out of line. The garage could not spare the time for the major repair job involved, so George said he could do it. He had recently bought a copy of Dykes Automobile Encyclopedia and with the help of this and some hydraulic tools he managed to do the job. After that he was taken on full-time by the garage.
Smith’s Motors (now Brooks’ Motors) in Commercial Road, Koroit. Photo taken in November 2005.
George recalled that the garage was a wonderful place to gain skills and experience and he had some interesting experiences there. One of the regular customers was Reg Ansett, who used to stop by when driving his big Buick from Hamilton to Warrnambool. The garage owner always used to demand cash up
front from Ansett, as he felt sure he would go broke. Another story George remembers was the time, A well-heeled grazier drove straight into the workshop, unwound his lanky form from out of the magnificent Cadillac, and in a stentorian, authoritative voice said, ‘Cut the arse off the back of this and make a truck out of it. Don’t forget demountable side rails. Oh! and give me a bit of a hood over the front seat.’ And he was out the door where his wife was waiting in a newer Cadillac. The one he left wouldn’t have been more than two years old, but looking in the rear seat it was obvious that many a ewe, calf and pig had been hog-tied in there, hay bales, fertilizer, barbed wire, you name it, had traveled in there. No attempt had been made to conceal the fact.
Next door to the garage was a blacksmith’s shop, and the smithy would often borrow George when he needed a striker. George enjoyed this as he loved the ring of the anvil. By this time George had bought himself another car, a French Amilcar. He bought it from a farmer, who had never used it, and George found it in a shed covered in fowl manure. He soon cleaned it up and became a ‘bit of a lair’ in his sporty car that was ‘about as fast as anything on the road’. As he became older and financially more secure George began to develop more social interests. He joined
the local bowls club and played the occasional game of golf. He also joined the Masonic Lodge in nearby Port Fairy (Koroit, being a largely Catholic town, had no lodge of its own). This expanded his circle of friends, filled a couple of evenings a month and gave him his first experience in public speaking. And then there were girls. He suddenly realized that his flannel shirts, heavy, round-nosed shoes, uncreased trousers and self-cut hair were ‘not quite the in thing’. He bought new clothes and went to a barber, who introduced him to ‘perfumed Vaseline.’ Soon he had met Ethel Murnane, who he married on 16 April 1938 at the Sacred Heart Church in the Melbourne suburb of Preston.
chapter five: Making Munitions
MAKING MUNITIONS WHEN HE AND ETHEL BEGAN CONTEMPLATING MARRIAGE, GEORGE FELT HE SHOULD get a better paid job. He arranged an interview with Aikman & Co., a general engineering firm in Geelong 26
and was offered a position with a ‘big lift’ in pay. George moved to Geelong where he lived at the Bush Inn in Corio Street until he was married. Aikman & Co. was a long-established engineering firm. At that time it was run by a father and son team and it is still in business today as Aikman’s Engineering Pty Ltd. The firm undertook a wide range of work – ‘whatever needed fixing they would have a go at it.’ They did maintenance work on the machinery in woollen mills and other factories in Geelong, particularly the woollen mills, repaired windmills, ships’ pumps and occasionally even ship’s engines, as well as building up an automotive repair business. Soon after beginning with Aikman’s, George passed the exam to become an “A” grade mechanic at the nearby Gordon Institute of Technology. After qualifying George was asked to teach aspiring motor mechanics in evening classes at the Gordon. This involved much preparation work but George was eager for more money and experience so he was glad to take it on. In order to further develop his skills, he also went to evening courses in oxyacetylene and arc welding at Commonwealth Industrial Gases in Footscray. Following their marriage in April 1938 George and Ethel shared half a house with a middle-aged couple in East Geelong. This was a fifteen minute bicycle ride to George’s work or to Geelong Station. George and Ethel enjoyed going to the races, watching VFL football matches at Corio Oval, playing cards with friends and going for Sunday drives. George joined a local Freemasons’ lodge, where he met ‘a complete cross section of the local commercial world’ and did ‘much watching and listening’. At this stage of his life George ‘had no specific aims or ambitions apart from a general urge to secure a future other than on the workshop floor’. He felt that the chances of promotion at Aikman’s were slight, as senior positions were a family preserve, and thought seriously of pursuing a teaching career at the Gordon Institute as he had enjoyed his part-time work there. However, as with so many people, these sorts of decisions were taken away from him and the course of his life greatly changed by the Second World War.
On 3 September 1939 at 9.15 p.m. George and Ethel Alexander were among the millions of Australians who sat by their radios to hear the Prime Minister, Robert Menzies, announce that Australia was at war with Germany. George recalled that ‘in the next few days the able-bodied were made to feel that they should enlist [because] the mother country needed us’ and he decided to volunteer for the navy. He never had a head for heights, so he hoped his card would be marked ‘not to be sent aloft’. However, his application to join up was rejected because he did not have a birth certificate. Soon after, the government introduced regulations preventing people in essential industries from enlisting and George found that he was in a ‘reserved occupation’, unable to move employment without permission. Aikman’s Engineering soon began to get contracts for war work, although some of them led George to wonder about the efficiency of the war effort. In order to gain one contract, the firm had to have a welder with an aircraft-welding certificate, so George upgraded his qualifications and Aikman’s got the job. George had visions of working on the Wirraway project or some other crucial war work. The plans and materials for the job arrived, with demands for meticulous accuracy and precise welding. George found that he was constructing steel tripods, on which were mounted bearings, a shaft to carry a large steel reel, a ratchet wheel, a pawl to stop the reel reversing and a handle to wind with. He was gravely disappointed to find that his careful work was not for some secret weapon or some vital aircraft component, but for winding in the cables used to pull target drogues for aerial gunnery practice – there was absolutely no need for them to be built to aircraft standards. Other war contracts were equally unsatisfying and George began to make enquiries about other employment. Meanwhile he continued his after-hours work at the Gordon Institute, where he taught automotive engineering, machine shop theory and practice, mathematics and science. He also enrolled in several courses in foremanship and management and soon found himself teaching in these areas as well. Through contacts he made at the Gordon, George learnt that an engineering company in Footscray was looking for a manager for a new munitions annexe. He went to meet the factory owner, a Mr Glover, and was offered the job, again at a greatly increased salary. George gave notice at Aikman’s and soon began work at Footscray. The Alexanders were still living in Geelong, so he had to leave home in time to catch the 6.00 a.m. train to Melbourne. In the evenings he caught the 5.15 p.m. train to get him home in time for a quick snack before cycling into the Gordon for his classes. Soon after starting at the munitions annexe, George ran into a problem that could have had far-reaching repercussions. His move from Aikman’s had not been properly cleared with the manpower authorities and the Footscray manpower office wanted to send him to the Maribyrnong munitions factory to work as a capstan lathe operator. George went to see ‘a mousy little man with a most objectionable brusque manner’, but he could not sway him, even though George was highly qualified in other areas and knew nothing about operating a capstan lathe. It was not until one of the departmental heads at RMIT intervened, that the manpower authorities relented and George was able to remain at the munitions annexe. The annexe was a ‘repetition engineering factory’, making a variety of products for the war effort, including the brass base of the primer for artillery shells. It was crucial that these products were made to the most exacting standards and there was an on-site government inspector responsible for ensuring this. There were two offices overlooking the work area, one for the secretary and the other for the manager – it was the first time George had his own office, even if it was only 10’ x 10’. When George started there were almost 30 staff –7 men and over 20 women. He was very much on his own as the owner of the business only called in once a week to see how things were going.
George recalled that when he started, morale among the workers was low. Their union was strongly communist and, until Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, it was opposed to the war. The workers at the
annexe had several strategies to avoid working. I soon found out that some of the younger women did not take their job seriously … one or two would deliberately create a fault in their machine just to get me back to fix it, then indulge me with their loneliness problems …
More serious were the frequent blown fuses that would cause production delays of three to four hours. Nobody could work out why this happened so frequently until one morning George was in a position where he could see most of the workers and he saw The girls at their machines standing at the ready, hands on the starting buttons or levers, staring at the clock on the office wall. [In] the other workshop too the men had their eyes on the clock. All were watching the second hand ticking off the seconds, then in one combined movement they switched on. Result – a loud explosion out at the street pole. Giggling the women took off to the sanctuary of the lunch-room and the men tried to look surprised. One or two had the decency to look sheepish when I assembled all in front of the office and told them just what I thought of their efforts to help their boy friends, husbands and mates overseas.
After removing some of the worst troublemakers, George gradually built up morale, largely by improving production methods and redesigning machinery to make it easier to use, while after June 1941 the union
suddenly supported the war effort. However, George recalled the irony of teaching management skills at night, while he was having great trouble putting them into practice during the day. George found that the tooling as supplied by the Directorate of Ordnance Production was poor and he
worked hard to improve it. He recalled boasting to Glover how much I had improved their tooling and what rubbish it was. I couldn’t understand how a big government organization could release such tools. Some little time later I went through the same spiel with Frank Syers’ secretary, only to be told that Glover had been seconded as an ex-Rolls Royce tool maker to the directorate and they were all his designs. He never let on.12
Production figures at the munitions annexe steadily improved, but he was still surprised when he was asked to become a director of the company that owned the business. At the same time his annual salary was increased from £800 to £1000. George was excited that he was finally a ‘thousand pounds a year man’ and he rushed home and told his wife that ‘I’ve cracked it!’, to which Ethel replied in doleful tones, ‘Oh! George, what have you cracked?’ By this time George was finding the constant travel and the evening classes at the Gordon were ‘getting beyond a joke’. He and Ethel moved to 26 Moorhouse St, East Camberwell, where they rented a downstairs flat in an old two-storied house. Although he still went to Geelong one night a week to teach a class on foremanship, the move to Melbourne saved many hours of travel.
Note to the author, January 2006.
The Moorhouse Street house saw George’s first move into buying and selling property. After they had lived there for a few years their flat came up for sale and George bought it for £3000. In 1956 he sold it for £7000 and bought a house at 143 Wattle Valley Rd, Camberwell, where he and Ethel lived until they moved to Queensland in the 1970s. Soon after moving to Melbourne, George transferred from the Gordon, where he had started a foremanship course, to enrol in a part-time course at what was then called the Melbourne Technical College (now RMIT University).13 He studied Industrial Management I and II in 1943 and 1944 and Executive Training in 1945. For his final thesis, George received the John Storey award of 25 guineas for the best thesis on industrial management. As at the Gordon, as soon as he had finished his course he was asked to teach, which he did for three or four years. Most of his students were older than him, but he frequently had to correct their English as well as teach the subject. By the end of the war George had obtained great experience in practical engineering as well as valuable academic qualifications.
RMIT has had numerous name changes since its foundation in 1887. Originally known as the Working Men’s College, it became the Melbourne Technical College in 1934, to which was added a ‘Royal’ moniker in 1954. In 1960 the name was changed to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, which became a university in 1992.
The drawings of brass hose fittings from George Alexanderâ€™s patent application, 24 August 1948.
chapter six: Neta
N E TA
George Alexander (centre) with Lou Murray (left) and Percy Green (right) at Lennon’s Hotel in Brisbane in 1957. The occasion was a meeting of the hardware trade to farewell Percy Green and welcome Lou Murray as Neta’s Queensland agent. Murray represented Neta for 25 years and George recalled that it was a very happy relationship.
WITH THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR IN SIGHT, THE MUNITIONS ANNEXE BEGAN to diversify into civilian production. Nuts and bolts were in short supply, so they began producing them, as well as other repetitive engineering work. There was plenty of work, George was a director of the company
and on a good salary so he might well have stayed at the firm indefinitely, but for a bright idea. Soon after the end of the war, Flexible Plastics Pty Ltd (a subsidiary of Moulded Products Ltd, later known as Nylex) released a plastic garden hose. Since the 1920s Pope’s had had a virtual monopoly in Australia on rubber garden hoses, and they believed that plastic garden hoses would never be a commercial success, largely because there were no suitable fittings for them. George had the perception to see the need, the inventiveness to imagine the solution and the technical skill to design and make the new product. Essentially, George Alexander designed a complete system of brass hose fittings suitable for plastic hoses, from the fitting to connect the hose to the tap to the nozzle to control the spray. He took out numerous patents to protec the key elements of the system.14 George regarded the nozzle he invented as a major step forward. Previously nozzles were cross-drilled and made in three pieces or more pieces, but George’s nozzle was much simpler, being made in two pieces and not cross-drilled. The nozzle allowed a more powerful and more uniform water flow than earlier nozzles and was also more readily adjustable.15
The hose nozzle designed by George Alexander
The patent application was lodged on 24 August 1948 and the complete specification was accepted on 1 June 1951, being patent no. 141,400. My thanks to Samantha Hoy for locating the patent documents. The patent for the nozzle was lodged on 12 March 1954, patent no. P 25735.
By 1960 George had taken out 16 patents covering not only hose fittings, but also fittings for flexible and rigid plastic tubes, flexible conduits and other things. Many of these products were manufactured by Neta. George Alexander was both inventive and entrepreneurial. He believed that his inventions had great commercial possibilities, so in 1947 he left his secure job with Glover’s and set up a factory in Burwood Road, Hawthorn, to manufacture his hose fittings. He had savings of £3000 and he sold some shares in the business to friends to raise the balance of the money he needed (although he bought back these shares as soon as he could because he wanted to plough profits back into the business rather than pay dividends). George called the business ‘Neta’, because everyone he showed the fittings to told him, ‘Those are the neatest hose fittings I’ve ever seen’. As with most new businesses, Neta Industries Pty Ltd faced many challenges in its early years. Perhaps the most serious was due to the poor quality machinery initially installed. The machines had come to Australia as part of Germany’s reparations after the First World War and then had been used by Colonial Spark Plugs for 25 years. As well as being worn out, they were designed for working with steel, not brass. George blamed this mistake on naivety, although the extreme shortage of machine tools in Australia in the post-war years must have been a major factor. After trying for six months to make these machines functional, he was forced to take out a loan to buy replacements. This time he was careful to get the best available machines. After the initial difficulties, the business prospered. Neta’s products were in great demand as new suburban homes were built in the post-war boom years. Further, there was no real competition, both because of the patent protection (which lasted for fifteen years) and because Neta had sophisticated equipment and 32
could manufacture components far more cheaply than rival firms such as Popes and Ogdens. George met Mr Pope soon after Neta was set up and Pope said he would, ‘send George broke within two years’, but Pope failed while Neta prospered. George engaged a small advertising agency to promote Neta products and they thought up several slogans that are still remembered today such as ‘You need Neta’ and ‘the Neta man’, but George himself came up with the most memorable slogan, the ‘Happy Pappy’. In the early years of television he recalled paying £3000 for a 30 second advertisement and thinking it was bizarre that advertising can be a bigger cost than manufacturing for many products.
One of Neta’s ‘Happy Pappy’ advertisements.
As Neta’s business grew, George bought several more factories near the original premises as well as some surrounding houses. While hose fittings continued to be made in the original factory in Burwood Road, one new building became a general engineering workshop and another was a plastics factory. The business expanded into new areas, generally successfully, although occasionally George found his thinking ahead of the market. He recalled trying to sell flow control valves to the Melbourne & Metropolitan Board of Works, but he was told that the board’s job was to sell water, not to conserve it. George was well ahead of his time
in foreseeing that Australian cities would face serious water shortages in the future and water conservation would become a critical issue. Even as the business expanded, the management remained lean and George stayed closely in touch with every aspect of the firm’s business. There was no sales manager, only sales representatives around the country who were paid a percentage of sales. Most of the workers at Neta were local people. George always made the union organizer very welcome, but few of his workers joined. He paid just a little more than the union wanted and gave wage rises ahead of the Arbitration Commission judgements, so he never had any staff problems. Although George sought no public recognition or advancement, his engineering and business skills and the success of Neta inevitably led to numerous approaches for his services. He was invited to stand for the Hawthorn City Council with the promise that he would become mayor, but he was not interested in municipal politics. At the time that industry was preparing for the introduction of the metric system, he accepted an invitation to contribute to the Standards Association. George recalled that when polythene pipe was introduced, he insisted that they should measure the pipe by the size of the hole not the size of the outside of the pipe. He and others who shared this view ‘had a hell of a job’ convincing them but eventually succeeded and the standard was introduced as advised. In the early 1960s, the owners of Harris Brothers, a large supplier of butchers’ shop equipment, whose premises were near the Neta factory, talked George into becoming a foundation member and number one ticket holder for the Hawthorn Football Club Social Club – the club’s Glenferrie Oval was just over the railway line from the factory. He did not go to many games, but he remembers that on one Saturday he offered to give the club ten dollars for every goal that Peter Hudson kicked that day – and George sat in the stands with the committee watching Hudson kick ten goals and thinking that he would rather be over the railway line at his factory. After moving to Melbourne, George became a member of Yarra Yarra and later Huntingdale Golf Clubs and played bowls at the Auburn Bowls Club, where he became a committee member. He enjoyed playing bowls for many years, but he also spent many hours fixing the drains. His work was vindicated many years later when the Auburn Bowls Club escaped serious damage when flash floods hit the area in January 2004. In 1972, when George turned 62, he felt it was time to sell Neta and retire. The purchaser was one of Neta’s long-standing competitors, Ogden Industries, which had developed into a diversified conglomerate. George recalled that he sold the business for ‘something over $1 million’, which was ‘exactly what I thought it was worth’. For a short time George was a director of Ogden, but he resigned when he and his wife decided to move to Queensland. Neta has had an erratic history since 1972. Ogden Industries eventually collapsed and Neta was among its subsidiaries to be acquired by the Email-Lockwood division of Email Limited.16 In the late 1990s Email sold many of its subsidiaries (before itself being taken over and dismantled) and Neta was bought by the Queensland-based PPI Corporation. Although its products are manufactured overseas, Neta is still widely recognized as one of Australia’s leading garden watering system and irrigation suppliers, and still distributes the brass hose fittings that George Alexander invented.
Ian Potter’s first capital raising on the stock exchange was for Email in 1935 and he was a director of the company for many years.
chapter seven: The George Alexander Foundation
you have, ‘you’re just minding them’. He felt that this belief ‘frees up your thinking about how you deal with money’ and it was central to the development of his philanthropy. He never attached himself to anything he owned and believed that once you accept that ‘you’re only minding it’, the decision to give money away becomes easy. As his inventiveness and hard work paid off with the success of Neta, George’s financial position became secure and he developed an interest in sharing his wealth. During the 1960s he made several donations to the institutions where he had studied and taught, the Gordon Institute and RMIT. These donations were for specific items of equipment. It was through Roger Darvall, the general manager of the ANZ Bank and a Governor of the Ian Potter Foundation that George became interested in developing a structured form of philanthropy. Roger Darvall told George, ‘You’re foolish just to give your money away – there is a better way to do it.’ Once money is given away, it is gone forever, but if it is used as the capital base for a foundation, then it can be a gift that lasts indefinitely. George was inspired by this idea of using his money constructively rather than frittering it away with small gifts or giving it all away with one grand, but short-lived, gesture on his going. Roger Darvall made the further suggestion that the governors of the Ian Potter Foundation could become trustees and administrators of the George Alexander Foundation. George did not want to be involved in deciding who should receive gifts from his foundation, so long as he was satisfied that the money was given wisely. The arrangement he made with the Ian Potter Foundation not only assured him that his money was used creatively, but also minimized administration costs. George expected that the Ian Potter Foundation would have teams of accountants and administrators and was surprised to find that Pat Feilman ran it almost on her own. The George Alexander Foundation was established in June 1972. Again on the advice of Roger Darvall and Pat Feilman, it had broad philanthropic aims that would allow the trustees to respond to changing circumstances. On 16 August 1972 George Alexander came to a meeting of the governors of the Ian Potter Foundation. He explained to the governors the practical difficulties he had found trying to give money to charitable causes without the formal machinery of a foundation and thanked them for their help in resolving his
The original logo for The George Alexander Foundation.
T H E G E O R G E A L E X A N D E R F O U N DAT I O N
GEORGE ALEXANDER HELD THE VIEW THAT YOU DO NOT REALLY OWN THE POSSESSIONS
dilemma. He was always grateful as the work of the George Alexander Foundation would not have been possible otherwise. The initial gift to establish the George Alexander Foundation was $30,000.17 Regular gifts over the following years built the corpus of the foundation up to $250,000 by August 1975 and $1 million in 1987. The first gift made by the George Alexander Foundation was a $700 grant to Mr J Bailey of the Preston Institute of Technology to travel to England to examine management development programs for small business owners. Other early gifts were to the National Heart Foundation, Swinburne College of Technology and the Melbourne YMCA. George Alexander never sought to control where his money was given, but he was often consulted for his views on particular projects. For example, he remembered being asked whether he thought his foundation should make a donation to help send an apprentice wardrobe mistress on a tour of Russia with the Australian Ballet. George’s thought was that it would be an awful job trying to keep all those girls happy and he was all in favour of helping. In the early years of the George Alexander Foundation, gifts tended to supplement those of the Ian Potter Foundation and were made across the wide fields of scientific and medical research, education, social welfare and the arts. Significant grants from the George Alexander Foundation were made to the Royal Children’s Hospital Research Foundation, the Melbourne Zoo, the Queen’s College Library Appeal, the Australian Foundation for the Prevention of Blindness, the Mission to Streets and Lanes and a wide range of other worthy 36
causes. As George became part of the Queensland community, the governors responded by making grants from the foundation with more of a Queensland focus. Thus, from the mid-1980s the George Alexander Foundation gave substantial support to the Blue Nursing Service at Beenleigh, and the Queensland branches of Lifeline, the YMCA and similar organisations. While Queensland focused, these grants were still made across a wide area and the emphasis tended to be toward the general field of social welfare. When George moved to Queensland, his intention was to retire from business and live a quiet life. However, his entrepreneurial spirit was too strong and the opportunities he saw in Queensland too tempting, and within a few years he was heavily involved in real estate investment on the Gold Coast. At first he and Ethel lived in the Thornton Tower in the heart of Surfers Paradise and George learnt about real estate sitting in a display unit talking to people. Soon he began to buy and sell high rise units on the Gold Coast, showing a talent for buying when the market was low and selling when it was high. On occasions he bought properties just to help a friend and happened to end up making money when they were sold. Other business ventures followed including an investment in a sand mine, which came about when the owner, who was a friend of George, ‘got in a spot of bother’ and George helped him out. In the early 1980s George was asked to become involved in a subdivision to the north of the Gold Coast. This proved highly successful and George built on the subdivision and lived there. In 1986 George employed a young student named William Owen-Jones to help around his garden. They got on well and William became George’s closest friend and constant helper, with George enjoying the role of mentoring a young protégé. After William completed a Commerce degree at Griffith University and had spent some years working as an accountant, George asked him to take on the role of managing director of George’s private companies to help him manage his various assets. In 2006 George said, ‘I decided that the assets needed to be kept working, even if I wasn’t directly involved. William has helped generate real profits
The money was initially invested in treasury notes and then moved to a first mortgage investment at 9 per cent interest.
that have contributed to the increase in the capital of the foundation, and it is something that I hope he will continue to be involved in, and gain enjoyment from, long after I have moved on.’ George believed that philanthropy is something that needs to be encouraged and he hoped that his example would show others that it can be enjoyed while they are still around to see it happen. He said that, ‘It’s not clever to hold on to it until the last minute, and I am sure you cannot take it with you when you leave.’ In his last years, George often told people that, ‘I have sat on my backside for the last quarter of a century and still made money’. His astute investing meant that he was in a position to steadily increase his gifts to the foundation. In 1989 he gave over $1 million, instantly doubling the foundation’s capital, and his subsequent gifts, together with investment growth, saw the capital rise to over $15 million before his death in 2008 with annual distributions exceeding $750,000. George enjoyed ‘seeing it working’ during his lifetime and hoped that his example would encourage others into the spirit of bold philanthropy. George Alexander was always a generous man but he did not look for praise or acknowledgement. He never brandished his wealth around, but lived modestly and always maintained the careful habits engendered by the privations of his early life. His friends recall that he could walk into a pub and nobody would think that he had any money at all – his wealth had no impact on his dress or behaviour. Like others of his generation who became wealthy late in life, George never got used to spending money. He did not like travelling. After his sole overseas trip (to New Zealand) he told his friends he had not enjoyed it because it felt too much like frivolous spending. The closest to extravagance George ever came was the house he built for himself at Coomera, the northern Gold Coast suburb that he did much to develop. Although it was a large house, it had only one
bedroom but a five car garage. The garage was used primarily as a workshop because George always had some project or another that he was working on. He retained his love of engineering and metal work and he was forever building or modifying pumps, water pipe fittings and so on. In old age, George gained great pleasure from his dog and his goldfish. He had two huge tanks of goldfish and his Jack Russell terrier ‘To and Fro’ was a constant companion. He taught the dog many tricks and it seemed to live on a very similar diet to George!
George built himself a large house in Coomera, with a five-car garage but only one bedroom, (1998).
George was an early and competent internet user and enjoyed pretending to put on bets with internet bookies. He also had two televisions in his living room and constantly channel surfed between them. In 2001, following the appointment of Dorothy Scott as executive secretary of The Ian Potter and the George Alexander Foundations, Dorothy and George worked together to re-orient the giving of the George Alexander Foundation. Previously the guidelines for grants by the George Alexander Foundation were almost identical to those of The Ian Potter Foundation, but George and Dorothy agreed that the George Alexander Foundation should ‘focus solely on the environment and the education of talented young people’.18
George Alexander Foundation board minutes, 6 December 2001.
The new orientation of the foundation reflected George’s own enthusiasms. His years working on farms, together with Neta’s involvement in water supply, had given him an awareness of rural Australia’s environmental problems. Although he had little time for the ‘wild and woolly greenies’, he believed that much could and should be done to repair the damage that has been done to the environment since 1788. In particular, he was keen on programs to help farmers develop sustainable farming methods. Similarly, the enthusiasm to help young people receive an education was a reflection of the struggle that George had faced to educate himself. Focussing on these two areas allowed the George Alexander Foundation to make more substantial grants, be more creative in its giving, and really make a difference. As George said, when he and Dorothy analysed it, the areas he was most interested in were the environment and ‘rewarding and encouraging bright young kids’. And this had the added bonus for George of ‘saving me from the whingeing and crying of the bleeding hearts’, which he had always found an unwelcome aspect of being involved in philanthropy as ‘so often one would be misled into funding the unworthy’. George always maintained that the executive and governors of the Foundation should make the decisions on how gifts were allocated. A letter from William Owen-Jones to Dorothy Scott in May 2002, summarised George’s position. George had been approached directly about a prospective grant, but ‘he wanted to make it clear that he has no intention of becoming involved in the grant-making process (having abdicated that responsibility to your office!). His preference remains for grant seeking to be managed by the Secretariat, and any of his business contacts to be managed by Barkala [his main company].’ However, he occasionally made suggestions on the foundation’s projects, with William concluding his letter, ‘Finally, with respect to the foundation’s “environmental” objectives George is still interested in stirring up some action regarding a decent 38
project that helps create a coordinated approach to addressing any issue relating to the management and care of Australia’s precious water resources.’19 Following the introduction of the new guidelines, the major education initiative was the establishment of the George Alexander Foundation scholarship programs at Griffith University in Queensland and RMIT University in Victoria. The scholarships at Griffith University were awarded to first year students to assist with their residential college fees, with recipients being chosen for ‘their academic merit, leadership capability, and their potential contribution to the community’. The RMIT scholarships were awarded to ‘undergraduate students of good academic standing who have the ability and will to succeed in higher education, but who require financial support to fulfil their course requirements.’ To launch the new emphasis on environmental education, two major gifts were made to Sovereign Hill in Victoria and to Landcare in New South Wales. In June 2000, Sovereign Hill was given the pastoral property ‘Narmbool’ near Ballarat and it later acquired an adjoining block of natural bushland. The George Alexander Foundation made a substantial gift for a ‘Landventures’ bush camp program on Narmbool for secondary students in years 7 to 9. This program combined environmental field studies and practical conservation work with tuition in modern farm management and wool production. The Foundation’s grant to Landcare helped set up a display caravan for public education about land care. The project aimed to encourage the understanding of land and water degradation issues in more remote locations by disseminating land management information to farming communities in a practical, grassroots strategy. The display caravan was featured at regional shows, agricultural field days, special days at sale yards, and at primary and secondary schools, in many isolated parts of rural NSW.
Fishers Bush Camp at Narmbool. 19
William Owen-Jones to Dorothy Scott, 2 May 2002.
George Alexander recieving his Order of Australia (AM) from the then Governor of Queensland Quentin Bryce in 2004.
George Alexander’s generous philanthropy was recognised in the Australia Day honours for 2004, with his appointment as Member of the Order of Australia (AM) for service to the community through philanthropy, particularly in the areas of higher education, social welfare and the environment. George had always been conscious that he had never taken out Australian citizenship (which was not necessary for a British subject), but after receiving the award he commented, ‘Now I feel like a real Australian.’ George was 94 years old when he received his AM, but he said that he always felt young inside. He did not fear old age and always had an optimistic view of life. Nonetheless, as he grew older he became increasingly withdrawn and his always low tolerance for fools became even lower. The main reason for this was his failing hearing, which made conversations increasingly difficult and led to him becoming uncharacteristically introverted – though he always said that he wasn’t becoming introverted, but rather ran out of friends as they all died before him. George never lost his sense of humour and was always quick to make a joke. If he felt that someone was trying to take advantage of him or presume on his generosity he could be quite caustic. In other situations his humour was gentler. Like many elderly people he often woke during the night and would often write down his thoughts. In September 2004 the Foundation had asked for his thoughts on the design of a certificate to be given to scholarship winners and at 3.30 a.m. one morning he wrote a note for William Owen-Jones:
George’s middle-of-the-night thoughts on the design of a certificate to be given to scholarship winners (2004).
Always modest and self-effacing, George was reluctant to talk about his past because, as he said, he could not believe that anybody would find it of interest. Fortunately he was persuaded to write the story of his early life and to talk, if still reluctantly, about Neta, his move to the Gold Coast and the establishment of the George Alexander Foundation. The main reason he agreed to his life story being told was to show the deep sense of satisfaction that he found in giving during his lifetime and to encourage others to develop a spirit of philanthropy. George’s wish was to leave his entire estate to the Foundation, with the exception of a few legacies to friends and those who had helped him. In 2004 he decided that he would like to make most of these gifts in his lifetime, so he gave money to some, helped another buy a house, forgave some debts he was owed, and so on, with the result that most of these legacies could be taken out of his will. George died on 6 February 2008 of complications following a fall. He was 97. His life was recognised with obituaries in the Age and the Brisbane Courier-Mail, and with the naming of a major thoroughfare in Coomera, the suburb he did much to establish to the north of the Gold Coast. William Owen-Jones tells the story that there was some debate whether the road should be called ‘George Alexander Drive’ or ‘George Alexander Way’, but it was agreed that ‘George Alexander Way’ was more appropriate because he always did it his way.
George Alexander had bequeathed to the Foundation the Barkala Group of companies together with two properties he owned personally. The property portfolio comprised 14 Queensland properties, which were a mixture of commercial offices, factories and warehouses, office units, some vacant land and his personal residence. The net equity position of the portfolio was $20.9 million (that is, the value of the properties at the date of George’s death less borrowings secured by the properties). George’s death coincided with the onset of the global financial crisis, leading to a sharp downturn in the value of many of the properties. Consequently, the Foundation’s trustees revalued the portfolio, but even so the bequest more than doubled the corpus from $15.5 million at 30 June 2008 to $32.6 million at the end of July 2008. The management of the estate was not without complications. The fall in property values on the Gold Coast, together with the fact that some of the properties were encumbered by debt led the trustees to decide to sell down the property portfolio. Further, the trustees were uneasy acting as property developers, taking on debt, and running businesses. In addition, a change in the law in 2011 mandated that a charitable
Although George was 94 years old when he received his AM, he said he always felt young inside, (1998).
foundation had to distribute four per cent of its corpus each year, making it untenable to hold properties that were not generating an adequate return. Taken together, these factors meant that George’s wish that his business enterprise should continue as a ‘going concern’ proved impossible to fulfil. Properties were sold, debts paid off and the bulk of the Foundation’s assets are now in equities. William Owen-Jones’ role as manager of the business came to an end in late 2011 and he has moved on to a successful career on the Gold Coast as an accountant and Gold Coast city councillor. George Alexander’s bequest has enabled the George Alexander Foundation to take a longer term view of its commitments. In 2007, commitments for grants totalled $695,680 and covered four years, with the majority of the commitments covering two years. The following year, grant commitments jumped to $2,172,000 and covered five years, with 38 per cent committed for beyond two years. Following George’s death, the strategic focus of the Foundation’s activities was concentrated almost exclusively on the scholarship program. The rationale for this decision was that the Foundation’s grants would have a greater impact focused in one area. There was also a change of emphasis in the scholarship program, which in the early years had tended to focus on disadvantaged students, to follow more closely George Alexander’s wish that the Foundation concentrate on supporting ‘the best and brightest’, especially those from rural and regional areas. George was inspired by the idea of the Foundation’s scholars making a major contribution to society through their skills and leadership abilities. Up to his death, about two million dollars had been invested in scholarships, with a further two million dollars already committed. The program had been expanded from the original two universities, Griffith and RMIT, to include tertiary institutions in every state except Tasmania: Deakin University (Geelong & Warrnambool), Australian Catholic University (Ballarat), RMIT University & TAFE (Melbourne), Swinburne University (Melbourne), Gordon Institute of TAFE (Geelong), Charles Sturt University (Albury-Wodonga, Wagga Wagga, Bathurst, Dubbo), Griffith University (Gold Coast & Brisbane), Murdoch University (Perth), Charles Darwin University (Darwin), and the University of South Australia. The establishment of a program at the Gordon Institute in Geelong was particularly gratifying given the role that the Gordon had played in George’s own education. One scholar at
the Gordon wrote: Receiving this scholarship has literally changed my life!! In more ways than I can express. I have been able to stay in school and undertake my studies, building fundamental skills and abilities which will lead to full time sustainable employment opportunities. I was able to meet the requirements of the course and have the appropriate equipment and materials to achieve academic success.20
Similarly, George was pleased to be told not long before he died that a scheme was to be established at Murdoch University in 2008 to help students from rural areas gain a university education. The scheme was prompted by the recognition that the high cost of living in Perth had become a significant barrier to higher education for students from rural areas. To encourage rural students to enrol at university and realise their full academic and leadership potential, the scheme paid scholarship winners the full cost of their accommodation close to Murdoch University’s Perth campus. One of the initial group of scholarship winners said, ‘As a rural student it is a huge step to come to Perth to do my studies, not only in terms of leaving my home town and friends but also the great costs involved. [The Foundation’s] help with my accommodation cost is a major contribution.’21
Each of the scholarship programs was designed to fit the needs of the respective university and its students, but there was a strong common theme. Driven strongly by George Alexander’s own life experience, all programs sought to reward those with academic ability, leadership skills and commitment to community involvement. Examples of the different structures of the programs were provided by the longest-established programs at Griffith and RMIT. From 2008, all George Alexander Foundation (GAF) scholars at Griffith University became members of the Griffith Honours College, to provide them with a network of academic and social support as well as travel, further education and ambassadorial opportunities. At RMIT, additional funding was provided to assist with a Mentoring and Leadership Program aimed at helping students reach their academic potential. However, while each university’s program differs, and the courses undertaken by GAF scholars span the full range from Aviation Engineering to Zoology, they are united by the common theme of helping young people make the most of their abilities. Possibly more than in any other area, carefully targeted assistance to talented young students has the potential to give benefits far outweighing the cost of the initial investment. Driven by this principle the GAF scholarship program continues to grow and has become one of the most significant scholarship programs in Australia, a fitting tribute to the vision and contribution of George Alexander. George Alexander always liked the idea of philanthropy as ‘planting seeds and hoping that they grow into pretty big trees’ and this concept motivates the gifts made by his foundation. George Alexander was quiet, modest and self-effacing, though at the same time he was a man of strong views and he was not afraid of expressing them. His talents and hard work brought him financial
success, but he always took the view that he did not own the money, he was just minding it, and he saw the establishment of a charitable foundation as a way of ensuring that the money could continue to help people for generations to come. A self-made man whose experiences inspired a wish to help others, his life was an uplifting example of success against great odds.
An extract from a letter dated June 21, 2007, from George to Jan Hirst, then CEO of the George Alexander Foundation, shows his approval of the development of the scholarship program.
Peter Yule is a Research Fellow of the History Department of the University of Melbourne. He has written widely on Australian economic and social history. Among his books are Ian Potter: Financier and Philanthropist, The Royal Children’s Hospital: A History of Faith, Science and Love (winner of best print publication, 2000 Victorian Community History Awards) and Carlton: A History (winner of best collaborative/community work, 2005 Victorian Community History Awards). He is currently working on a history of Australia’s Collins class submarines.
F U R T H E R I N F O R M AT I 0 N
About the Author
The George Alexander Foundation The Ian Potter Foundation Ltd is trustee for The George Alexander Foundation. The Foundation was established by Mr. Alexander in 1972 to provide grants for public charitable purposes in Australia. Reflecting the Founder’s special interests The George Alexander Foundation has an emphasis on helping talented young people, especially those experiencing economic disadvantage, to achieve educational and employment goals. Under the terms of the deed of the George Alexander Foundation and the taxation laws, The George Alexander Foundation can only make grants to organisations with both deductible gift recipient (DGR) and tax concession charity (TCC) status. George Alexander encourages all those interested in helping others to take action so that they can enjoy seeing it happen in their lifetimes. For further information on how this can be done, contact Philanthropy Australia. Philanthropy Australia Level 10, 530 Collins Street Melbourne Victoria, 3000 Phone: 03 9620 0200 Fax:
03 9620 0199
Email: email@example.com Website: www.philanthropy.org.au
This biography provides an insight into George Alexander, who having made his fortune, decided to set up a philanthropic foundation to help...
Published on May 11, 2016
This biography provides an insight into George Alexander, who having made his fortune, decided to set up a philanthropic foundation to help...