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Becker, Sir Jack Ellerton (1904–1979)

by P. A. Howell

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

Sir Jack Ellerton Becker (1904-1979), entrepreneur, was born on 4 October 1904 at North Unley, Adelaide, only son of Percy Harold Becker, clerk, and his wife Mabel Martha, née Gully. Jack attended public schools and was apprenticed to a jewellery manufacturer. Capitalizing on the craze for popular music, he taught himself to play the banjo and other instruments. From the age of 16 in his spare time he gave lessons so profitably that he was able to visit the United States of America.

From 1926 Becker worked as a salesman at Allans Ltd's music shop in Adelaide. On 1 November 1928 at St Augustine's Anglican Church, Unley, he married a fellow employee Gladys Sarah Duggan. He promoted the formation of fife bands in fifty-three schools, selling them instruments made to his design. The English music firm, Boosey & Hawkes Ltd, gave him their South Australian agency. In 1932 he quit Allans and founded the Adelaide Drum and Fife Band, comprising the top two hundred schoolboy players. It performed several week-long seasons in Adelaide's largest theatres, gave wireless broadcasts, and toured Melbourne and Sydney in 1936-37; some parents resented having to pay for the expensive uniforms that Becker ordered.

In 1932 he had named his studio the Adelaide College of Music. For part-time teachers, he engaged soloists from leading dance bands and from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. He formed huge banjo, saxophone and other ensembles, including 'the world's largest' boys' military band. As the conductor, he stood, massive and broad-shouldered, resplendent in a scarlet uniform with gold aglet, brass buttons and white gloves. Avowedly to raise money for patriotic and other causes, but also to publicize his college, Becker established the Music League of South Australia which mounted On Parade, an annual extravaganza involving one thousand players. The first production, in December 1939, set the pattern: seats for all nine performances sold in advance, and, after Becker claimed most of the proceeds to cover expenses, there was a modest surplus for charity.

The sale of Adelaide College in 1942 gave Becker his first fortune. His earlier diversification into pastoralism had failed, and wartime controls limited his profits when he sold the twenty-four blocks he had bought at Torrens Park in 1941. Thenceforward he speculated primarily in rural land which was ripe for closer settlement or suburban subdivision. Learning the results of David S. Riceman's work on mineral deficiencies in the soil at Robe, in 1943 Becker bought 7000 acres (2833 ha) of the well-watered but barren Ninety Mile Desert (Coonalpyn Downs) in that region and invited Riceman to conduct experiments there. Riceman found that the addition of traces of copper and zinc had significant effects. Becker sold the land for forty times his purchase price. The commissioner of taxation demanded a cut, but the High Court of Australia held that the land had not been bought for profit-making by resale.

More gainful speculations followed near Adelaide, with Becker's solicitor and accountant devising complex tax-avoidance schemes. Becker's most dramatic coup was facilitated by Premier Playford's tardiness in giving the South Australian Housing Trust adequate funds to buy land for the satellite city of Elizabeth. In 1957, shortly after Becker had bought 1266 acres (512 ha) there for £149,000, the trust was finally empowered to begin to acquire it. Becker haggled and received £853,000. Despite admitting that he had known the land was likely to be designated as urban, he persuaded the High Court that his purchase had been for pastoral purposes; the taxation commissioner's demand for £350,000 was dismissed with costs.

In 1960-61 the Australian Academy of Science was in financial difficulties. Its president Sir John Eccles secured Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies's agreement to recommend Becker for a knighthood—if he came to the rescue. Following long negotiations, the tycoon contracted to give £200,000 over ten years. This arrangement settled the academy's debts and created an invaluable endowment fund. Having severed connexions with their only child because she had married a naval stoker against their wishes, the Beckers also undertook to make the academy their principal and residuary legatee. Becker was appointed a fellow (1961) of the academy and knighted in 1962, and the academy's Canberra headquarters was named Becker House. The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization's scientists and Sir Mark Oliphant were appalled, but Eccles had brooked no opposition. There was much chaff about Sir Ellerton's honours being obtained on hire purchase; wits asked if the laurels could be repossessed because his instalments were often in arrears.

In l971 the Beckers retired to Pembroke, Bermuda, where they built a villa with grounds containing an artificial waterfall and a garden gnome. Sir Ellerton died there on 9 May 1979 and was buried on the island. His daughter, an impoverished, invalid pensioner, received nothing. Lady Becker died on 3 January 1985. Since then the academy has received a further $3 million from the estate. A perfectionist and 'a great hater', obsessional in his quest for wealth, status, objets d'art and luxurious living, Becker had retained few friends. His one 'generous' action was a tax-deductible purchase of privilege.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Cockburn and D. Ellyard, Oliphant (Adel, 1981)
  • A. D. McCredie (ed), From Colonel Light into the Footlights (Adel, 1988)
  • K. Preiss and P. Oborn, The Torrens Park Estate (Adel, 1991)
  • Australian Women's Weekly, 31 Dec 1975
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 5, 1982, and for bibliography
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 Aug 1972
  • Herald (Melbourne), 9 Sept 1975, 21, 23, 24 Nov 1981
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide), 13 May 1979
  • Music League of South Australia pamphlet collection (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Becker, Sir Jack Ellerton (1904–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/becker-sir-jack-ellerton-9466/text16651, 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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