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Axon, Sir Albert Edwin (1898–1974)

by W. I. George

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sir Albert Edwin Axon (1898-1974), engineer, businessman and university chancellor, was born on 21 December 1898 at New Farm, Brisbane, only child of Herbert Fisher Axon, a mercer from England, and his Irish-born wife Florence Emily, née Parker. Bert was educated at the Normal State School, Brisbane, and Brisbane Grammar School (1912-16). Outstanding in football, gymnastics and rowing, he was a prefect in his final year and topped the open scholarship examinations for entry to the University of Queensland. He completed first-year engineering, then enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 11 April 1918; transferring to the Australian Flying Corps in June, he became an air mechanic, but reverted to the infantry in October. World War I ended while he was in a troop-ship in the Indian Ocean; he returned via New Zealand and was discharged in Brisbane in December. In 1919 he resumed his university course and graduated in mechanical and electrical engineering (B.E., 1923; M.E., 1928). Axon next worked in England, Switzerland and the United States of America, studying the design, manufacture and testing of electrical generating and transmission equipment. In 1920 he had elected to spend a year with the City Electric Light Co. Ltd, Brisbane: he was to maintain that this experience, together with his time in workshops overseas, helped him in finding practical solutions to many of his clients' problems.

On his return to Brisbane in 1926, he joined the consulting engineer A. E. Harding Frew and took charge of the firm's electrical and mechanical department. On 5 June that year Axon married Hilda Harris Withecombe in the Congregational Church, Eagle Junction. In 1929 he set up as a consulting electrical and mechanical engineer, advising authorities in Queensland and New South Wales; he later added two assistant-engineers to his staff. He was one of four members of a royal commission in 1936 to inquire into all matters concerning electricity in the State. Their report recommended a move towards public ownership of electricity undertakings through a State Electricity Commission, with generation and distribution being controlled by various area boards. Axon was a part-time member of the commission in 1938-47.

In 1948 he established A. E. Axon & Associates. During the years when towns had separate electricity authorities, the firm handled the design and supervised the installation of power stations and distribution systems. After this work was transferred to the S.E.C., Axon and Associates diversified into the design of electrical installations, lifts, mechanical services, and air- conditioning for hospitals, office buildings and factories; they also evaluated sugar-mills and electrical industries, and in 1937 formed a partnership with (Sir) Walter Bassett in Melbourne to design mechanical services for Queensland.

On 14 February 1942 Axon began full-time duty in the Australian Army Ordnance Corps with the rank of major. In July he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force and in December was appointed a deputy-director, Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Queensland Lines of Communication Area. Promoted temporary colonel next year, he was released at the request of the Queensland government in September 1944.

Axon had a long association with the University of Queensland. Actively involved with the Men Graduates' Association from 1926, he was a member of the senate in 1935-66 and chairman (1956) of the buildings and grounds committee. He was elected chancellor in 1957 and held that position until ill health forced his retirement in 1966. His nine years in office saw accelerated expansion within the university, considerable expenditure on the development of the St Lucia site and sweeping changes in the methods of administration.

As principal of his firm (which by 1957 had four associates), Axon remained prominent in the business world. Chairman of Queensland Cement & Lime Co. Ltd, he was a delegate to the Cement and Concrete Association of Australia and a member of its council; he was also chairman of the South Brisbane Gas & Light Co. Ltd (later Allgas Ltd), and a director of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation (1959-64), Walkers Ltd and Union Trustee Co. of Australia Ltd. In 1959 he was appointed K.B.E.

Active in the Institution of Engineers, Australia, he had been a committee-member (1929-37) and chairman (1936) of its Brisbane division and a councillor (1937-40). In 1960 Axon was awarded the institution's (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal and was elected an honorary fellow in 1966. He belonged to the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers of America. The universities of Melbourne and of New England conferred honorary doctorates on him in 1961, as did the University of Queensland in 1972.

Blue eyed and fair haired, Axon was of middle height and robust build. Although he was dogged, honest, unassuming and sympathetic, he did not tolerate fools and 'could be plain spoken when his patience was tried'; in spite of his gregarious nature, he never lost an air of authority, though he was seldom entirely at ease on formal occasions. He was devoted to his mother who had encouraged him in his youth and who participated in some of the chancellor's public functions. Hilda, a graduate of the university, had taught mathematics and sport at Somerville House, Brisbane, before her marriage; she fulfilled the responsibilities of a chancellor's wife graciously, and worked effectively for the Women Graduates Association and Women's College.

During his later years Sir Albert suffered from Parkinson's disease. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died on 17 February 1974 in Brisbane and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $233,865. Axon's portrait by John Rigby is held by the University of Queensland.

Select Bibliography

  • R. L. Whitmore (ed), Eminent Queensland Engineers (Brisb, 1984)
  • M. I. Thomis, A Place of Light & Learning (Brisb, 1985)
  • M. I. Thomis, A History of the Electricity Supply Industry in Queensland, vol 1, 1888-1938 (Brisb, 1987)
  • University of Queensland Gazette, May 1959, p 11, vol 61, 1966, p 1
  • staff files and selected documents of family records (University of Queensland Archives).

Citation details

W. I. George, 'Axon, Sir Albert Edwin (1898–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/axon-sir-albert-edwin-9400/text16521, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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