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Basser, Sir Adolph (1887–1964)

by Andrew Lemon and Martha Rutledge

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

Sir Adolph Basser (1887-1964), optician, jeweller and philanthropist, was born on 26 June 1887 at Kraców, Austria-Hungary (Poland), son of Jewish parents (Leo) Wolf Basser, a stall-owner, and his second wife Lea, née Glaser. Named Abraham, he left school at 15, continued his education with private tutors and was trained in optometry in Berlin. Styling himself Adolph, he migrated to New South Wales in 1908 and joined his half-brother Isadore at Lithgow. Basser became a travelling salesman, peddling spectacles to settlers in isolated areas. He was subsequently to explain his success: 'I didn't watch the clock, I worked very hard. But I am not a worrier'.

By 1910 he was practising as an optician in Challis House, Sydney, with another half-brother Solomon (d.1918). On 18 December 1912 Adolph married Miriam Nelson with Jewish rites at her father's Darlinghurst home. Naturalized next year, he was 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall and stockily built, with black hair and brown eyes. After an informer had accused him of being an 'enemy subject', Basser was cleared by military intelligence in 1916. Late that year he moved with his wife to Darling Point. Both dabbled in real estate; Miriam had owned land since 1910 in Clarence Street. About 1916 he transferred his business there. By 1921 he had established Deller & Basser Ltd, manufacturing jewellers, in the same street and was also to register under the Opticians Amendment Act of 1931.

Basser formed a proprietary company to buy out one of his major customers, the large Sydney manufacturing jewellers, Saunders Ltd, in December 1928. He kept his office in its three-storeyed, corner building in Railway Square. As managing director, he expanded the business rapidly. During the Depression he bought the stock of other jewellers, held a sale and made a handsome profit. In 1931 he acquired a rival firm, William Farmer & Co. Ltd, and opened branch stores, designed to display 'the finest jewellery and gifts', on the corners of Liverpool and Pitt streets in 1933 and King and Pitt streets in 1935. The business flourished after World War II and in December 1948 Saunders Ltd was registered as a public company. Its Wollongong branch was opened by the premier J. J. Cahill in April 1957. The company merged with Angus & Coote (Holdings) Ltd in 1960 and Basser became a director.

From 1916, when his horse had won at the Kensington pony track and he had collected £200, Basser's great love was racing. In the decade following World War II he spent lavishly at yearling sales and bought more than forty horses. He paid 2600 guineas for the yearling which he later raced as Delta. Trained by Maurice McCarten and ridden by Neville Sellwood, Delta won £48,169 in prize-money and twenty-two races, including the Victoria Derby (1949), the Victoria Racing Club St Leger (1950), and in 1951 the Australian Jockey Club Metropolitan and the Melbourne Cup. Basser reputedly won £50,000 in bets on Delta in the cup, and divided the £10,000 prize between McCarten and Sellwood. A careful punter, Basser stuck mainly to his own horses, such as Empire Link (winner of the Queen Elizabeth Stakes in 1953) and Indian Empire (for which he paid 4000 guineas, the top price at the Melbourne yearling sales that year).

Keenly interested in scientific and medical research, in 1950 Basser gave £50,000 to the Royal Australasian College of Physicians. He endowed the Adolph Basser Trust with £100,000 in 1953 and next year gave £50,000 to the University of Sydney to build its first computer; he later doubled both gifts. Appointed C.B.E. in 1955, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of science by the University of Sydney the same year. A string of large donations followed, chiefly to hospitals, and to medical, scientific and educational bodies, including £25,000 each to St Vincent's Hospital, the National Heart Foundation and Mount Scopus College, Melbourne, £40,000 to found Basser College, University of New South Wales, and £20,000 to Beth Rivkah Girls' College, Melbourne.

As well as his more spectacular benefactions, Basser helped many individuals and small projects, and supported Jewish, Christian and non-denominational causes, among them the Sir Moses Montefiore Jewish Home, the Children's Medical Research Foundation, the Sydney Opera House and the Federation of New South Wales Police-Citizens Boys' Clubs (of which he was made a life governor in 1957). He also provided a fountain for Chifley Square, Sydney, and a £100 prize for the best contribution to Quadrant. Each year from 1952 he bought a £1000 Legacy badge which he had made into cufflinks. When he went south for the Melbourne Cup he contributed annually to the Lord Mayor's Fund for Metropolitan Hospitals and Charities.

Quiet, well-dressed and bespectacled, Basser was a modest figure at the many ceremonies that marked his benefactions. 'It gives me happiness to give away money', he said in 1960, in his marked Polish accent, on donating £25,000 to establish a library at the Australian Academy of Science, Canberra. A 'sprightly man', noted for his 'gentle manner' and the 'twinkle in his eye', Basser enjoyed an occasional game of golf or bowls, and 'was partial to a drop of Scotch'. He belonged to Tattersall's, the Australian Jockey and Manly Golf clubs, and to the Royal Automobile Club of Australia. Every two years he took a sea cruise to unwind and also to meet his scattered relations.

Knighted in 1962, Basser suffered a stroke that year and retired from public life. He died on 20 October 1964 at his Edgecliff home and was cremated with Methodist forms; his wife and son survived him. Basser's estate was sworn for probate at £610,416; he left his racing trophies to his godson John Sellwood and made bequests to his relations in Australia, New York, London, Berlin and Israel. Sir Adolph's portrait is held by Basser College.

Select Bibliography

  • C. H. Bertie, Days of Moment in Australia, 1788-1938 (Syd, 1937)
  • D. Barrie, The Australian Bloodhorse (Syd, 1956)
  • B. Ahern, A Century of Winners (Brisb, 1988)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Nov 1951, 2 July 1953, 13 Feb 1954, 6, 15 May, 15 Dec 1955, 18 Feb 1956, 4, 28 Apr, 27 Aug, 20 Sept 1957, 5 Feb, 4 Sept 1958, 22 June, 2 July 1959, 2 Feb, 12 Mar 1960, 2 June 1962, 2 Sept 1963, 21 Oct 1964
  • Bulletin, 9 Oct 1957
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 2 June 1962
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1964
  • Sydney Jewish News, 23 Oct 1964
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 8 Sept 1985
  • naturalisation file, A1 25/20670 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Intelligence file, ST 1233/1, item N 3084 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Andrew Lemon and Martha Rutledge, 'Basser, Sir Adolph (1887–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/basser-sir-adolph-9447/text16611, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 September 2014.

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

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