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Clarkson, Sir William (1859–1934)

by B. N. Primrose

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Sir William Clarkson (1859-1934), naval officer, was born 26 March 1859 at Whitby, Yorkshire, England, son of James Nicholson Clarkson, draper, and his wife Mary, née Dixon. Educated at a private school in Whitby, he was articled to the shipbuilding firm of R. & W. Hawthorn of Newcastle upon Tyne and later worked there as a marine engineer.

In May 1884 Clarkson joined the South Australian Naval Service as an engineer lieutenant, coming to the colony in H.M.C.S. Protector. On 24 August 1887 he married Louisa Clarissa Hawker at Christ Church, Adelaide. Serving under Captain W. R. Creswell, he shared his enthusiasm for the development of an Australian naval force. Clarkson was a staff engineer aboard the Protector during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900-01, then transferred to the Commonwealth Naval Forces. Promoted engineer commander in October 1905, two years later he was selected to visit Japan, the United States of America and the United Kingdom to study naval dockyards and ship construction. In 1908-11 he remained in the United Kingdom overseeing the building of destroyers for the C.N.F. which became in 1911 the Royal Australian Navy Fleet Unit.

Clarkson was promoted engineer captain, C.N.F., in July 1910 and on the establishment of the Royal Australian Navy in 1911 was appointed third naval member of the Australian Naval Board; he held this post until his retirement in 1923. He was responsible for the construction and engineering of ships, for ships' repairs, and for control of naval dockyards and bases. In 1913 he was appointed C.M.G. and on the outbreak of World War I became controller of shipping for Australia as well as director of transports. He was promoted engineer rear admiral in 1916 and created K.B.E. in 1918; that year the Interstate Central Committee was established to operate coastal shipping requisitioned for Imperial service, and he was appointed chairman and controller. These responsibilities made him well known, but his work as third naval member was his most important. In 1918 he was without peer in Australian maritime affairs.

By the end of the war Clarkson had contributed much towards providing Australia with a considerable naval shipbuilding capacity. The royal commission on navy and defence administration in 1918 lamented the effect on Clarkson's naval duties of the many other activities with which he was entrusted, yet recommended that in a reconstituted Naval Board he be appointed business member with wider naval responsibility. Cabinet later refused to accept the commission's recommendation that he concentrate solely on his naval duties.

In 1919-22, under Clarkson's guidance, the R.A.N. developed a modernization programme, including construction of ships, submarines and a fleet air arm. The level of naval construction and engineering expertise over which he presided (relative to overall industrial development and to the complexity of naval ships) has not since been equalled. Clarkson was promoted engineer vice admiral in November 1922 and transferred to the retired list. On the formation of the Commonwealth Shipping Board in August 1923, he was appointed chairman, serving until 1927.

Survived by his wife and their two sons, Clarkson died at his home in Darling Point, Sydney, on 21 January 1934 and was cremated with full naval honours. His estate was sworn for probate at £14,511. He was remembered by his fellow officers as a dignified and reserved person who was held in high regard not only in Australia but in the United Kingdom. In senior technical circles at the Admiralty and on the Clyde, he was respected for his appreciation of modern engineering development. His acceptance by the Admiralty was no mean feat for an ex-colonial and R.A.N. officer during the period.

Select Bibliography

  • F. M. McGuire, The Royal Australian Navy: Its Origin, Development and Organization (Melb, 1948)
  • G. L. Macandie, The Genesis of the Royal Australian Navy (Syd, 1949)
  • R. Hyslop, Australian Naval Administration, 1900-1939 (Melb, 1973)
  • J. P. S. Bach, A Maritime History of Australia (Melb, 1976)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1922
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 22 Jan 1934
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22-23 Jan 1934
  • H. J. Zwillenberg, Citizens and Soldiers: The Defence of South Australia, 1836-1901 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1971)
  • MP178/2 2215/18/2, 2286/3/34, 39, MP472 8/20/2556, MP446/201/344 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. N. Primrose, 'Clarkson, Sir William (1859–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/clarkson-sir-william-5673/text9583, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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