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Darling, Harold Gordon (1885–1950)

by Doreen Wheeler

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

Harold Gordon Darling (1885-1950), company director, was born on 9 June 1885 in Adelaide, son of John Darling junior and his wife Jessie, née Dowie. Harold was educated at Prince Alfred College, and in 1903 he entered his father's milling and grain business. On 24 April 1913 in a Presbyterian ceremony at Bundarra, Malvern, Melbourne, he married Dorothy Hazel Heath. On his father's death in March 1914 he became principal of John Darling & Son; the headquarters were moved to Melbourne and Harold made his home there. At the beginning of World War I he volunteered for military service, but agreed to Prime Minister Billy Hughes's request to serve on the advisory council of the Australian Wheat Board.

On 14 April 1914 Darling accepted an invitation to join the board of directors of Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd to fill the vacancy caused by his father's death. Eight years later, on 27 October 1922, he was elected chairman of the board; he was then its youngest member. At his first public address to the shareholders in 1923 he had to announce the first annual loss since 1909 because of a nine-months closure of the steelworks. No dividends were paid between 1921 and 1925 but in those years the company extended its activities into coal-mining, built up a fleet and set up its first subsidiaries. Darling faced what was probably his most difficult meeting with the shareholders in 1930, after a coal stoppage and another year of no dividends, but by 1935 the worst of the company's difficulties were over. Negotiations had begun for the takeover of the local rival Australian Iron & Steel Ltd; two years later B.H.P. was to make its largest profit to that date, passing the £1 million mark.

Darling followed local and international politics with keen interest. Although he believed, in 1934, that Japanese rearmament was defensive, he worried about the defence of Australia and in particular Newcastle. He was friendly with Admiral Hyde and tried to establish closer ties between government and business for the building of ships and aeroplanes. By 1936 B.H.P. had succeeded in putting together a syndicate ready to undertake the manufacture of aircraft; Darling became first chairman of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation when it was set up on 17 October. In 1941 he was appointed by the Commonwealth to the Aircraft Advisory Committee, representing the corporation. In 1934 Darling had doubted whether shipbuilding could succeed in Australia as a commercial venture. But his growing conviction of the seriousness of the international situation led him to prepare the company to be ready to accept an official request to begin shipbuilding at Whyalla when it came in 1939.

Censorship prevented Darling from publicly disclosing the extent and nature of some of the company's activities during World War II, and at the same time he found himself defending B.H.P. profits against public and political criticism. In the first years of peace he could outline with pride the company's achievements in war, but shortages in manpower and problems in coal production reached a crisis point. His last meeting with shareholders was in 1949, when the effects of the seven-week general coal strike and a strike in B.H.P.'s iron ore quarries were reflected in a fall of profits. Nevertheless he could look back over a spectacular growth of the company during his chairmanship, from a struggling steelworks at Newcastle to a steel monopoly spanning three States, which marshalled its own mines, transport and fabricating subsidiaries, and made the cheapest steel in the world.

During his years with B.H.P. Darling had worked well with Essington Lewis, general manager and later managing director of the company. Darling's grasp of political affairs and technical details, and his financial expertise, allowed him to advise the board on the nature of Lewis's projects and the financing involved; the two men generally agreed beforehand on matters discussed at board meetings. They have been described as a brilliant team, and maintained a close friendship.

In his capacity as chairman of the board of B.H.P., Darling was chairman of Australian Iron & Steel Ltd, Wellington Alluvials Ltd, Stewarts & Lloyds (Aust.) Pty Ltd, Rylands Bros (Aust.) Pty Ltd, and B.H.P. By Products Ltd. As well, he was a director of B.H.P. Collieries Pty Ltd, Tubemakers of Australia Ltd, and British Tube Mills (Aust.) Pty Ltd, Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd, and the National Bank of Australasia.

By tradition Darling firmly believed that only private enterprise could create prosperity and a stable economy. In the 1930s he was friendly with, though not uncritical of, (Sir) Robert Menzies. As a private citizen he contributed time, energy and funds to conservative politicians, and in 1942 he was a founder and council-member of the Institute of Public Affairs. At the end of 1944 Darling noted with alarm the Labor government's plan to take over airways, banks and insurance companies, or at least to retain existing wartime controls. He wrote, 'we must … face this crowd with an undivided section of the community that is opposed to socialism and to chaos'.

A serene and cheerful-looking man, Darling enjoyed tennis and golf, but his chief interests were family, politics and the company he headed with such loyalty. Of simple tastes, he dreaded even the restrained entertaining practised by B.H.P. In 1934 he remarked 'Melbourne [is] in the throes of the Duke and centenary. I am very busy dodging almost everything'. His public utterances were confined to shareholders' meetings and company functions. A daughter remembers him as a just, approachable and deeply affectionate father, devoid of personal vanity. A colleague described him as always firm and confident, with great integrity and strength of character. Even when forced publicly to spell gloom he maintained a personal faith in his company and his country.

Darling died on 26 January 1950 of cancer. He was survived by his wife and three children: Elizabeth (married to John Baillieu), Joan (married to Sir Robert Law-Smith) and John. In his lifetime Darling made generous bequests to his home State. In June 1929 he presented the Waite Agricultural Research Institute with £10,000 to extend work on soil conservation. Another donation of £15,000 was made to the University of Adelaide for the equipment of a medical school.

In 1951 B.H.P. commissioned a portrait of Darling by William Dargie, and announced the H. G. Darling Memorial Scholarship, tenable at the South Australian School of Mines, for B.H.P. employees and their sons in South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Hughes, The Australian Iron and Steel Industry, 1848-1962 (Melb, 1964)
  • B.H.P., Annual Report, 1922-1950
  • Board minutes, 1922-1951, and correspondence, H. G. Darling and E. Lewis, 1930-1944 (BHP Billiton Archives, South Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Doreen Wheeler, 'Darling, Harold Gordon (1885–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/darling-harold-gordon-5884/text10013, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 11 December 2018.

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

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