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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Chapman, Laurie Lachlan (1890–1978)

by F. J. Kendall

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

Laurie Lachlan Chapman (1890-1978), public servant, was born on 20 April 1890 at Wodonga, Victoria, second surviving son and sixth child of Alexander John Chapman, mail guard, and his wife Rosella Josephine, née Hickey, both Melbourne born. Educated at Moreland State School, Laurie won a scholarship to Stott and Hoare's Business College, then joined the Victorian Railways as a temporary clerk on 2 March 1906. Six-day shiftwork prevented his playing sport and his mother encouraged him to enter the public service which offered permanency and regular hours. He studied accountancy at night, but never completed any formal qualification.

Appointed clerk in the audit office, Department of the Chief Secretary, in October 1907, Chapman was promoted to the central correspondence office in 1911; owing to his ability at shorthand, he served as private secretary to successive ministers. This contact with prominent politicians led him to conclude that 'most had feet of clay' and he 'soon lost all fear or awe of them'. Under 'a talented but indolent' superior, he performed the work of two, and gained an unrivalled knowledge of the political and public service processes involved in the administration of the statutes.

On 11 May 1916 at St Mary's Catholic Church, West Melbourne, Chapman married Elsie Maud Lenehan. A tall athletic figure, he exuded authority and commanded respect in company. He was a talented cricketer who captained the Elsternwick club in the 1920s and the Public Service XI through the 1930s.

The major influence on him was his mother, a 'tiny, tempestuous, very practical, unsentimental and dominant' person and a 'severe disciplinarian who believed children should be seen and not heard and obey the ten commandments'. To his own children, Chapman was a good provider, respected and fair in his dealings, but with little time to give affection. He was also an accomplished classical violinist.

Chapman's appointment as under-secretary on 8 April 1932 made him the State's most powerful public servant, with control over twenty varied branches and one-third of Victoria's public employees. His sound advice to governments, his ability to use his wide knowledge, his capacity to reconcile those with strongly divergent views and his acumen in initiating or accepting change made him unassailable. Not until he retired did the position of under-secretary lose its pre-eminence. (Sir) Daryl Lindsay, director of the National Gallery of Victoria, found him 'a warmly human person' with a 'dry sense of humour'. As government nominee (1947-55) on the Trotting Control Board and chairman of the Racecourses Licences Board, Chapman incurred the wrath of several Country Party members in 1954 for his tight control of the sport and was described as the 'Czar of racing in Victoria'. L. W. Galvin, his last minister, paid tribute to his integrity and to his administration which was 'in keeping with the highest traditions of all Public Services in the British Empire'.

Appointed to the I.S.O. in 1949, Chapman retired on 19 April 1955 and devoted himself to racing, angling and maintaining his skill at billiards through his membership of the Green Room Club. He died at his Brighton home on 8 December 1978 and was buried in New Cheltenham cemetery; his wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Lindsay, The Leafy Tree (Melb, 1965)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970?)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1954, p 2770
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Dec 1954
  • Chapman papers, including short autobiographical notes (privately held)
  • Museum Victoria, official files and minutes of Building Trustees (Museum Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

F. J. Kendall, 'Chapman, Laurie Lachlan (1890–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 13

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