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Corbett, Arthur Brownlow (1877–1970)

by S. A. Prentice

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

Arthur Brownlow Corbett (1877-1970), engineer and administrator, was born on 18 February 1877 at New Shoreham, Sussex, England, son of George Frederick Corbett, collector, and his wife Susan Ellen, née Kerr. Arthur was educated at Ardingly College, Sussex. The family migrated to Queensland in 1890 where he attended Christian Brothers' College, Brisbane, and passed the junior public examination in 1892. After completing his indentures, in March 1899 he joined the Post and Telegraph Department as a junior clerk and was based at the General Post Office, Brisbane. Enlisting in the 5th (Queensland Imperial Bushmen) Contingent, he reached South Africa in April 1901 and was promoted sergeant on 10 July. The contingent fought in the Cape and Orange River colonies and the Transvaal before returning to Brisbane in April 1902. Employed by the Postmaster-General's Department next month, Corbett served in the accounts branch at the G.P.O. prior to becoming an assistant-engineer, electrical engineers branch, in December 1913. At St Stephen's Catholic Cathedral, Brisbane, on 4 October 1905 he had married a clerk Evelyn Mary Byrne.

In 1914 Corbett carried out the first survey of telephone requirements for the city. He was subsequently district engineer (1914-15) at Rockhampton and engineer-in-charge (1915-25), metropolitan line construction, Brisbane. In 1924 he was commissioned to investigate the possibilities of introducing mechanical mail-handling to the Brisbane Mail Exchange. Built locally from Corbett's plans, the original machine for sorting packets and newspapers was installed in December 1925. He then designed and commissioned the installation in Melbourne and Sydney of larger systems which were the forerunners of more advanced machinery. In January 1926 he transferred to Melbourne as inspector, central staff. Promoted superintendent of mails in Sydney in 1927, he introduced a simplified process of mail-sorting. He was an enthusiastic modernizer who also reorganized mail branches, introduced staff-training schemes and proposed amendments to postal regulations. Known to his staff as 'ABC', from 1933 he was deputy-director of posts and telegraphs, Queensland.

In April 1939 Corbett was appointed director-general of the new Commonwealth Department of Civil Aviation which was located in Melbourne. His technical and administrative abilities were regarded as vital qualifications for the reorganization of a previously confused and problem-ridden branch of the Department of Defence. He promptly divided D.C.A. into seven sections. During World War II he arranged for the conversion of all available civil aircraft to military use, personally supervised an airlift of servicemen from Papua and took an early interest in postwar planning. His term was extended repeatedly before he retired in August 1944. He then established a plantation at Montville, Queensland. In 1945 he chaired the provisional executive formed to create a State branch of the Liberal Party.

An associate member (1923) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia, Corbett had published a paper on the mechanical handling of mails in its journal in 1933. He was a member of Rotary and of the Queensland branch of the Professional Officers' Association. In 1938 he was appointed M.B.E. Survived by his daughter and three of his five sons, he died on 20 March 1970 at Kangaroo Point and was buried in Toowong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Butler, Flying Start (Syd, 1971)
  • R. L. Whitmore (ed), Eminent Queensland Engineers (Brisb, 1984)
  • Brisbane Courier, 14 July 1933
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Mar 1939, 18 Jan 1941, 4 Apr 1945
  • private information.

Citation details

S. A. Prentice, 'Corbett, Arthur Brownlow (1877–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/corbett-arthur-brownlow-9825/text17375, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 November 2018.

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

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