Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brown, Sir Harry Percy (1878–1967)

by M. J. Howard

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

Sir Harry Percy Brown (1878-1967), engineer, public servant and company director, was born on 28 December 1878 at Hylton, County Durham, England, son of George Brown, a former superintendent of the London Telegraph Office, and his wife Sarah Emma, née Dawson. Educated at Bede College, Durham, and Durham College, Newcastle upon Tyne, he entered the Post Office and advanced quickly. On 28 September 1904 he married Emily Aldous in the Anglican Church of St Andrew, Leytonstone. In 1913, as an adviser to the Indian government, he introduced management by telephone of rail traffic and dock-handling in Calcutta. Next year Brown was made responsible for the technical planning and management of all telephone and telegraph plant in Great Britain. In 1916 he was placed in charge of 'emergency communications' for home defence. This work, which entailed a high degree of inventiveness and improvisation, won him an M.B.E. in 1918.

On the invitation of the W. M. Hughes government, Brown arrived in Australia late in 1922 to act as technical adviser on a three-man Postal Advisory Committee that had been commissioned to draw up a 'reconstruction' programme for postal and telegraph services. His early work so impressed W. G. Gibson, the postmaster-general, that by December he had manoeuvred the retirement of the secretary of the department, J. Oxenham, and secured Brown's accession as secretary and director. The appointment was initially controversial. The installation of an 'import', on a salary (£2500) well above that of any other Federal public servant, drew criticism from within the Post Office, from the press and from the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party. Dissatisfaction subsided within six months, however, and the next five years proved a triumph for Brown as the department underwent a period of rapid and overdue development. Allowing for the underlying economic boom and for the decisions taken before his arrival, Brown clearly gave marked impetus to this expansion.

His first undertaking was to strengthen central administration. Previously the State offices had been the main organs, but in his first four years six major sections were created at central office, Melbourne — telegraphs and wireless (1923), telephones (1924), postal services (1924), correspondence, records and staff (1926), chief inspectors' (1926) and research (1927). He also shaped new patterns of staff promotion: the pre-eminence of the career generalist was diminished by the near-abolition of the senior positions of chief clerk and clerk. It was later said that Brown tended to give undue weight to technical qualifications in administrative appointments.

The first engineer to be permanent departmental head, Brown had a personal impact on postal technology. After initial lethargy from departmental engineers, in 1925-31 he pushed through the linking of all State capitals by 'carrier wave' channels, an apparatus conveying multiple circuits on each trunk line. He similarly spurred on mechanized mail-handling, the system completed in 1930 at the Sydney General Post Office being the most extensive in the world.

Brown attached as much importance to public relations as to administration and technology. To raise morale, and hence efficiency, a personnel branch was set up at central office. The interest taken by him in staff matters was intense and never condescending. The same thought was given to his market, the public. Subscriber surveys, advertising campaigns, and press releases were used on an unprecedented scale. These measures had considerable success in improving the poor image of the department. Brown himself received a prominence in the press extraordinary for a Commonwealth public servant.

As he did with the postal and telegraph services, Brown played a key role in the growth of wireless broadcasting between 1923 and 1928. A very active intermediary in the negotiations between industry interests and the minister, he was later credited with the formulation of the 'dual system' of 'A' and 'B' class stations enacted under the Wireless Agreement Act, 1924, and the wireless telegraphy regulations. While he probably did not instigate the 1928 decision of the government to purchase the assets of the 'A' stations — at the time he was actively representing Australia at conferences in Washington and London — he was, as chairman of the Wireless Broadcasting Advisory Committee, the central figure in the planning of the 'National Broadcasting Service' in 1929-30.

After the establishment of the Australian Broadcasting Commission in July 1932, the Postmaster-General's Department continued to have responsibility for the technical side of the national service, something which Brown prized. The department also retained its wide powers over the commercial ('B') stations and Brown, though he always preferred and was renowned for his methods of conciliation and persuasion, was not afraid to deploy these powers. At least three times — in 1931, 1936 and 1938 — he was a willing party to acts of political censorship, which he believed were necessary in times of 'crisis'. He also viewed with some dismay the growth of newspaper-controlled radio stations; in 1935 he helped to frame regulations to limit the number of stations owned by one licensee, a measure which, later weakened by Cabinet, proved of little consequence.

In the field of posts and telegraphs, Brown throughout the 1930s maintained his exacting managerial standards and his flair for public relations. The impact of the Depression could not be warded off, but the department's net profit for the years 1933-39 was an impressive £18 million. His most auspicious initiative in this period was his plan in 1935 for a daily air mail service to all Australian capitals without surcharge, a scheme which was eventually compromised in Cabinet. In 1938-39 he sat on the Defence Communications Committee, completing arrangements for the wartime control of communications.

On 3 October 1939 Brown's resignation was announced, seemingly precipitated by proposals to transfer to the A.B.C. some of the department's technical powers in broadcasting and to devolve some of the administrative functions of the director-general. In December he took up the appointment of chairman and joint managing director of the British General Electric Co. Pty Ltd, a position he had earlier declined.

In May 1940 Brown returned to the Commonwealth public service in the new wartime position of co-ordinator-general of works, his company 'releasing' his services as a war gesture. His task was to advise the Australian Loan Council on the degree of civil and military urgency of the major capital works planned by the State governments. Based on consultation with State officials, his submissions and arguments before the Loan Council facilitated the necessary reduction in civil works expenditure in 1940-42.

In August 1943 the Loan Council decided to retain Brown's services as executive of the National Works Council, planning post-war works to provide employment during demobilization and reconversion. To this end he submitted three reports, collating £150 million worth of projected works. In this phase perhaps an equally important service was his persuading State bodies to place all resource orders to war production authorities through him. In contributing to resource co-ordination he had been able to draw on his experience in rationalizing supply and distribution in the P.M.G. in 1926-27, and from his long membership of the Commonwealth Stores Supply and Tender Board.

Brown's pre-eminent reputation brought him extra wartime tasks. In 1940 he submitted a report on the standardization of State power-supply systems. From July to November 1941, he acted as part-time director of war organization of industry, under a minister but without a department. He was a member of the Treasury's advisory committee on financial and economic policy, and early in 1943 he investigated charges against the New South Wales director and the deputy director of the Allied Works Council. In 1944-45 he wrote a report which provided the framework for the post-war Snowy Mountains hydro-electric scheme.

Following a serious illness in August 1945, Brown resigned from the public service. He remained, however, a co-opted member of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research until 1952, this arrangement stemming from his formative membership of the Radio Research Board in 1927-39. He did not retire from his post with British General Electric until 1953, having presided over the establishment of local manufacture of small-horsepower motors and light industrial products.

Physically and intellectually robust, Brown was a great and powerful public servant. Gracious and high-minded by nature, he was capable of shrewdness with ministers and sternness with critics. He cherished the Empire and voted conservatively all his life. He had settled religious beliefs. Radiating his conviction of the personal rewards of public service and of the ultimate good of scientific advance, he aspired to social leadership, but his standards were not as lofty or as stern as those of his contemporary, Lord Reith. For all his polish and discipline, Brown was very much at home in the Australia of the inter-war period. He had been appointed C.M.G. in 1934 and was knighted in 1938. Survived by two sons and a daughter, he died in Sydney on 5 June 1967. His estate was valued for probate at $145,817.

Select Bibliography

  • S. F. Kellock, ‘Sir Harry Brown in public administration, war work and commerce’, Public Administration (Syd), Sept 1967
  • Post Master General's Dept, Annual Report, 1921-39
  • Commonwealth Co-ordinator General of Works, Report, 1944-46 (National Library of Australia)
  • National Works Council, Report, 1944-51 (National Library of Australia)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 3 Dec 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Jan 1934, 22 Dec 1942, 24 Mar 1943, 23 Aug 1945
  • H. P. Brown papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

M. J. Howard, 'Brown, Sir Harry Percy (1878–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/brown-sir-harry-percy-5384/text9113, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 12 December 2018.

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

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