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Anderson, Sir Robert Murray (1865–1940)

by G. P. Walsh

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Robert Murray McCheyne Anderson, n.d

Robert Murray McCheyne Anderson, n.d

Australian War Memorial, H00019

Sir Robert Murray McCheyne Anderson (1865-1940), businessman and administrator, was born on 6 August 1865 at The Mint, Sydney, third son of Robert Anderson, sergeant of police and native of Aberdeenshire, Scotland, and his wife Margaret, née Hewson. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, he matriculated in 1882 and joined the Bank of New Zealand. After service in New Zealand, he became manager of the George Street, Sydney, branch. He was commissioned in the 2nd Infantry Regiment in December 1886, promoted lieutenant in 1891 and captain on 27 April 1894; next day he resigned his commission but remained in the reserves. With his brother H. C. L. Anderson he was a founding member of the United Service Institution. On 6 August 1891 he had married Jean Cairns, daughter of Robert Amos of Elizabeth Bay.  

In 1897-1900 Anderson was city treasurer and then town clerk of Sydney. Always eager for new challenges he entered commerce and, as a partner in (Sir) Allen Taylor & Co., became prominent in the timber and shipping industries. In 1904 he visited the United States of America, England and South Africa for the firm. His business and administrative acumen soon attracted the attention of the Commonwealth government. In 1911-12 he was a royal commissioner on the sugar industry, and in 1915 advised (Sir) George Pearce, minister for defence, on the reorganization of the paymaster's branch, and reported on the business management of the Postmaster-General's Department and of the Department of Home Affairs.

On 8 December 1915 Anderson was commissioned as colonel and appointed deputy quartermaster general of the Australian Imperial Force in Egypt. He was instructed to remedy abuses in the contract and supply system, set up a canteen organization and infuse strict business management into the A.I.F. abroad. In Egypt he closed loopholes for petty corruption in the ordnance and fodder accounting systems, and instituted proper auditing and control of stores. He also did valuable work connected with rest camps in the Middle East and the Anzac Hostel in Cairo. On 1 August 1916 he was appointed commandant of Administrative Headquarters in London. In this capacity he represented the Department of Defence, dealing directly with the War Office, and was Lieutenant-General Birdwood's link with A.I.F. training depots in England. Aided by an expert staff, within two months Anderson organized a complete financial readjustment with the War Office by setting a fixed rate per soldier, instead of the complicated system of accounting for every item of clothing and equipment. In December he was promoted brigadier general and in January 1917 was appointed C.M.G. and K.C.M.G. in May.

A fiercely Australian patriot, Anderson became involved in a dispute with his superiors over the composition of the Imperial Mounted Division and the question of appointing Australians to high command outside the A.I.F. Though his will did not prevail, more protection of Australian interests was certainly needed at the time and his interference was not without certain good effects. He was impatient with bureaucracy and 'officialese', on one occasion telling the secretary of defence 'There is time to go round with an oil can … another to go around with a spanner'. He expressed to Sir John Monash his distrust of permanent soldiers, who would 'close up their ranks very solidly against the outsider, specially if that outsider possesses outstanding abilities'. Charles Bean claimed that Anderson could be aggressive if thwarted and that his 'reign at headquarters was not altogether a happy one, since though gifted with a keen sense of humour and quick intelligence, he lacked the faculty of retaining the complete confidence of his colleagues'.

In June 1917 Anderson returned to Australia via France and Egypt; he was ill for several months after being shipwrecked on his way home. In 1918 he went to New Zealand where he chaired a royal commission on Defence Department expenditure; later that year he was appointed an adviser to the Commonwealth Treasury.

After the war Anderson advised the New South Wales government on financial and commercial matters, although 'all my sympathies are Federal'. In 1920-22 he was in England on business and promoted Commonwealth migration. From the mid-1920s he was again prominent in the Sydney business community. He was deputy chairman of Mount Kembla Collieries Ltd, chairman of the Australian Mutual Fire Insurance Society Ltd, a director of the Australian Gaslight Co. from 1927 and deputy chairman in 1932-39. His clubs were the Union, Sydney, and the Gresham, London, and he was vice-president of the Highland Society of New South Wales.

About medium height and build, with large luminous eyes, Anderson had an attractive personality. With great drive which owed much to a very able and strong-minded mother, he loved a business or administrative challenge and to use his abilities to the full. He had a shrewd and wide insight into human nature and the affairs of business. As a royal commissioner and investigator he was particularly thorough, yet quick and accurate, and his reports are notable for their acuity and directness. Anderson died of paralysis agitans at his home at Double Bay, Sydney, on 30 December 1940 and was cremated with Presbyterian rites. Three sons and four daughters survived him and inherited his estate, valued for probate at £42,921.

A graduate of the University of Sydney (B.A., 1890), Lady Anderson took an active interest in women's and children's welfare: she was an office-bearer in the Women's Club, represented the National Council of Women at conferences and was a founder and first president of the Rachel Forster Hospital for Women and Children. She died after a long illness in December 1928.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929)
  • G. E. Caiden, Career Service (Melb, 1965)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1914-17, 4, 341, 5, 339
  • Appendix, Journal (House of Representatives, New Zealand), 1918, 2, H-19c
  • Sydney Mail, 21 Apr 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Jan 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Dec 1928, 1 Jan 1941
  • Fisher papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Allen Taylor & Co., Letter-book (Australian National University Archives)
  • MP133/1, 153/8, 729/4, 324/4, 943/1,2, M62/52 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Anderson, Sir Robert Murray (1865–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anderson-sir-robert-murray-5021/text8353, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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