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Bassett, Sir Walter Eric (1892–1978)

by J. S. Hardy

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

Walter Eric Bassett (1892-1978), by Norman Wodetzki

Walter Eric Bassett (1892-1978), by Norman Wodetzki

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2265

Sir Walter Eric Bassett (1892-1978), engineer, was born on 19 December 1892 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, son of Walter Bassett, salesman, and his wife Caroline, née Loxton, both English born. Young Bassett was educated at Wesley College and at the University of Melbourne (B.E., 1916; M.Mech.E., 1927). Commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force on 30 September 1915 and posted to the 5th Field Company, Engineers, he embarked on 23 November 1915 for Egypt and served on the Western Front. On the night of 4/5 August 1916 at Pozières, France, he won the Military Cross for constructing machine-gun emplacements in captured trenches and for digging a communication trench while under heavy fire. He transferred as lieutenant to the Australian Flying Corps on 19 April 1917 and served with No.40 Squadron. Wounded in action on 1 June, he was evacuated to England and declared permanently unfit for service. After his appointment terminated on 28 January 1918, he studied aeronautics. He returned to Melbourne with a seriously damaged hip which necessitated the use of one or two walking-sticks for the rest of his life.

On 25 January 1923 Bassett married with Methodist forms Flora Marjorie 'Marnie' at the university residence of her father Sir David Masson. Bassett had joined the staff of the university's engineering school in 1919: he lectured in mechanical engineering and aerodynamics, and organized the building of the first wind tunnel in Australia. Enjoying the right of private practice and a growing reputation as an engineer, he was consulted by an increasing number of architects about projects which required the heating and ventilation of such buildings as St Paul's Cathedral chapter house, Frankston Orthopaedic Hospital, and the Melbourne and Williamstown town halls.

In 1928 Bassett began a full-time consulting engineering practice, W. E. Bassett & Partners. During the Depression his office designed and supervised the construction of steam, heating, hot-water and ventilation services in St Vincent's, the Austin, Epworth and Mercy hospitals, Melbourne, and in the Wangaratta hospital, as well as in office buildings and stores for G. J. Coles throughout Australia, and in many smaller city buildings. Among his early designs was the full air-conditioning of the Bank of New South Wales's new headquarters in Melbourne, using a 50-ton R carbon dioxide machine. Later, the first centrifugal machines to be used in Australia were the Bassett-designed installations in Parliament House, Adelaide, and in the head office of the Courier-Mail, Brisbane. He completed industrial commissions for Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd and Ford Motor Co. Ltd, and at MacRobertson's Pty Ltd where a 650-psi (4.4 megapascals) boiler was installed. By 1939 the practice had opened offices in New South Wales.

During World War II Bassett was chairman of the Army Mechanisation Board and a member of the Commonwealth Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. His practice was involved in work for the Department of Aircraft Production, the Allied Works Council, various munition buildings and the new military hospitals located in each State. For the Royal Australian Air Force, he designed and installed six low-pressure chambers to enable personnel to be trained for high-altitude operations. He was commissioned by Commonwealth Serum Laboratories to assist with the installation of a bottle-fermentation plant for penicillin production.

The decade 1945-55 marked a period of postwar recovery. Bassett's office was responsible for building services in country hospitals and in numerous factories that sprang up or were relocated in the outer suburbs. He also provided large, high-pressure, hot-water boilers for General Motors-Holden's Ltd and the bagasse incinerator boilers for the Queensland sugar industry.

His practice had employed a staff of two in 1928; by his retirement in 1971, the staff numbered two hundred and fifty, located in nine offices, with three associate companies overseas. Bassett retained control of 'things technical and things business', but, to ensure the continuity of a professional organization, he allowed junior engineers with ability to progress to senior level and partnership, regardless of their 'parents or finance'. Thus the firm prospered through the post-1955 boom years. Bassett remained an active consultant until his death.

A member of the engineering faculty of the University of Melbourne until 1957, Bassett won its Kernot medal in 1948. He contributed to the establishment of a degree course in aeronautical engineering in Sydney and to the establishment of the Aeronautical Research Laboratories at Fishermens Bend, Melbourne. In 1958 he joined the interim council of Monash University: through its building committee, he had much to do with the original planning; he was to be a member of its first council and its engineering faculty until 1973; the main lecture theatre in the engineering school bears his name. Bassett was awarded honorary doctorates of engineering (Monash University, 1970) and of laws (University of Melbourne, 1974).

Knighted in 1959, Bassett was active in professional and community affairs. A foundation member and president (1942) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, he had received its (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal for 1958. He was an honorary member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (from 1973) and a member of the Gas and Fuel Corporation of Victoria Ltd (1951-75). His company directorships included Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd (president 1969-74), Renison Ltd (chairman 1958-68), the Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd and several fertiliser companies. Sir Walter was a trustee and sometime chairman of the Museum of Applied Science in Melbourne, and an honorary consultant and member of the finance committee of the radio telescope at Parkes, New South Wales. In 1963 he was elected president of the Melbourne Club. He was also foundation president of the Copper Producers' Association of Australia.

Bassett was a forceful and decisive character who found it hard to tolerate foolishness, but was forgiving of ignorance. The uninformed he set out to educate, lucidly and patiently. He had an uncanny knack of grasping the salient problems and of solving them at the outset. A formidably competent person, he succeeded in his work, and in his recreations which included sailing, fishing, golf and woodwork. His life, perhaps more than that of most men, was a joint affair. In the Bassett home he and Marnie created an environment of singular quality—warm and hospitable, stimulating and interesting. He died on 8 March 1978 at Toorak and was cremated. His wife, daughter and a son survived him; his elder son was drowned in World War II. J. Carrington Smith's portrait of Sir Walter is held by the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. E. Tweddell (compiler), W. E. Bassett and Partners (priv pub, Melb, nd)
  • R. Proudley, Circle of Influence (Melb, 1987)
  • Institute of Engineers, Australia, Journal, Jan 1959
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, July 1970, June 1978
  • Times (London), 21 Mar 1978
  • University of Melbourne Archives.

Citation details

J. S. Hardy, 'Bassett, Sir Walter Eric (1892–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bassett-sir-walter-eric-9449/text16615, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 25 November 2014.

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

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