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Crawford, Sidney (1885–1968)

by Susan Marsden

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

Sidney Crawford (1885-1968), businessman and philanthropist, was born on 4 November 1885 at Warrnambool, Victoria, son of James John Crawford, a brewer from South Australia, and his New Zealand-born wife Ruth, née Harding. James's father Edward had operated a large brewery at Hindmarsh, Adelaide, in the 1840s, but James was poor and his children sold rags, bones and papers. The experience may have strengthened Sidney's determination to gain education, wealth and influence, as well as contributing to his growing social conscience. A scholarship to Surrey College, Surrey Hills, Melbourne, at the age of 14 provided an opportunity to escape from poverty. After being employed by the English, Scottish, & Australian Bank Ltd, he worked as a manager at Tarrant Motors, Melbourne.

On 23 February 1917 Crawford enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and became a motor transport driver, serving in France in 1918, mainly with the 4th Australian Motor Transport Company. He was discharged in Melbourne on 27 October 1919. At St Philip's Anglican Church, Abbotsford, on 10 September 1920 he married English-born Elsie Mary Allen. In 1922 they moved to Brighton, Adelaide, where he promoted junior and intermediate Legacy clubs.

That year he founded Adelaide Motors Ltd and in 1930 was appointed to the State's first Transport Control Board. Four years later he established Commercial Motor Vehicles Pty Ltd and Commercial Finance Pty Ltd, of which he was chairman and managing director until his death. In 1934-38 C.M.V. replaced the South Australian Fire Brigade's engines with about forty Diamond Ts, 'fast and spectacular' new American trucks, which were also popular as goods carriers and buses. In its first year of trading C.M.V. paid bonuses to its workers, but no dividends to its shareholders. Staff continued to receive the greater share of the firm's profits, which enhanced Crawford's rapport with his employees and lessened the possibility of industrial disputes. He dedicated Hauling for Profit (1939), his handbook on the economics of road transport, to truck drivers, whom he described as 'Knights of the Road'. It sold widely.

Crawford advised Federal and State governments on economic matters. During World War II he was a member of the Commonwealth War Workers' Housing Trust. With John Wainwright, Tom Garland (a prominent communist) and Alex Ramsay, in 1942 he formed the Common Cause movement to develop public co-operation in winning the war, and, once peace was attained, to work for improved social conditions and to promote international harmony. Crawford served on the executive committee. Despite criticism from conservatives, the movement attracted some three thousand members. It provided a wide-ranging programme of lectures, study groups and public meetings on issues that included substandard housing, adult education and the Commonwealth's emergency powers. Believing that community work was 'the only visible answer to totalitarianism', he helped to set up a community centre at Nuriootpa and to produce the Common Cause publication, A Township Starts to Live (1944). He resigned soon afterwards. The movement disbanded in 1949.

Another business venture in wartime demonstrated his initiative. Crawford habitually smoked a pipe and burnt a hole through one within days. Because import restrictions had created a shortage, he asked his workshop staff to make some pipes and was eventually to employ forty-eight people in their manufacture. Having experimented with Australian woods, he sent examples to Prime Minister Ben Chifley.

In 1947 Crawford established the C.M.V. Foundation, a charitable trust which fostered educational and cultural activities for children by supporting kindergartens and library services, like those at Brighton and Noarlunga. In the 1960s he and his son Jim (who succeeded him in the family's conglomerate of companies) donated money and vehicles for South Australia's first mobile libraries in such rapidly-growing suburbs as Marion and Tea Tree Gully, and at rural Millicent. An agent for Iron & Steels Disposals Ltd, London, Sidney was also chairman of the local branch of British Motor Industries.

Tall, well built and energetic, he spoke his mind, regardless of the consequences. This attitude characterized his relationship with Heinerich Meyer who in 1950 succeeded Hugh Angwin as commissioner of the South Australian Harbors Board, on which Crawford had served since 1930. As chairman (1946-65), Crawford often spent more time on its business than on that of his own companies, but he found it difficult as an outsider 'to stand up to' sub-engineers, and frequently complained of the department's inefficiency and failure to collaborate with him.

Travelling abroad in 1948 and 1953, Crawford had inspected harbour facilities in Britain and South Africa. On the first trip he conceived a scheme to redevelop the upper reaches of the Port Adelaide River and later urged the S.A.H.B. to undertake the Greater Port Adelaide Plan. Large areas of swampland and sandhills on Lefèvre's Peninsula were reclaimed for wharfs, industry and public housing. Yet, when Crawford retired from the board in 1965, he regretted that the plan had made slow progress. Although the major housing redevelopments were to be carried out by private companies, Jack Cartledge, chairman of the South Australian Housing Trust, praised Crawford's imagination, his persistence in keeping the scheme alive, his creative intelligence and his social concern.

Crawford was a vestryman of St Jude's Anglican Church, one of Brighton's earliest buildings. When the church was damaged by an earthquake in March 1954, he successfully fought to prevent the trustees from demolishing it by taking the case to the Supreme Court. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died on 14 May 1968 at Brighton and was buried in St Jude's churchyard.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Parsons, Hindmarsh Town (Adel, 1974)
  • C. Bridge, A Trunkful of Books (Adel, 1986)
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, 16, 1988
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 June 1950, 16 May 1968, 25 Feb 1984
  • Crawford papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Susan Marsden, 'Crawford, Sidney (1885–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/crawford-sidney-9859/text17443, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 November 2018.

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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