Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Gibson, Sir Robert (1863–1934)

by C. B. Schedvin

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

Sir Robert Gibson (1863-1934), businessman and financier, was born on 4 November 1863 at Sunnyside near Falkirk, Scotland, third son of John Edward Gibson, metal manufacturer, and his wife Harriette, née Hicks. Robert's father had worked his way from employee to managing partner in the Camelon Iron Co. at Falkirk. An elder of the Presbyterian Church, he was described as retiring, reliable and steadfast. Robert's mother, who came from an impoverished English gentry family and had been obliged to teach in a Scottish ladies' seminary, was a woman of striking appearance and strength of purpose. She instilled in her children an intense sense of duty, the need for discipline, and the obligation to help those in need.

Educated at Falkirk High School, Robert left school at 15 to join his father's firm. In 1883 he was apprenticed to Robert Gardner & Co., lithographic draughtsmen of Glasgow, to develop his outstanding gift for drawing and design. He also studied at the Haldane Academy (subsequently the Glasgow School of Art). Robert rejoined the Camelon Iron Co. in 1887 as designer, and soon after was appointed manager of the company's London office.

With only a few pounds in his pocket, Gibson sailed for Melbourne on 22 March 1890, the day of his marriage at Trinity Congregational Church, Croydon, Surrey, to Winifred Margaret Moore. His prospects at the Camelon Iron Co. were clouded because his father neither possessed a controlling interest nor chose to exercise his influence. Robert's brother Henry sailed ahead of him, and another brother John (1861-1929), an industrial chemist who had migrated to New Zealand in 1888, moved to Melbourne in 1890 to manage David Mitchell's cement works. He became Mitchell's right-hand man and with (Sir) John Monash they formed the Reinforced Concrete and Monier Pipe Construction Co. Pty Ltd, which before World War I monopolized building in reinforced concrete in Victoria and dominated concrete pipe construction; John Gibson remained managing director through the 1920s. Robert's mother and several sisters visited him in Melbourne, and he assisted his family in Scotland when able to do so. Mostly, however, kin were kept at a distance and he never returned to Scotland.

In Melbourne Gibson worked as a draughtsman and designer and steadily accumulated savings despite highly unfavourable economic conditions. In 1897 he started his own business in North Melbourne: the Austral Manufacturing Co. which specialized in metal bedsteads mainly for hospital use and met with only moderate success. A second venture, the Lux Foundry Pty Ltd, incorporated in 1906, helped to lift Gibson to a senior position in the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures and from there to national prominence. The Lux Foundry manufactured fuel stoves, metal grates, baths and other products of the light casting industry. By World War I he had established himself as a man of means.

Gibson was a man of high sensitivity and broad accomplishment with a personal style far removed from the ordinary self-made, power-seeking industrialist. A craftsman in all he attempted, he was also a perfectionist with an intense desire to impose stringent control on his physical surroundings and the emotional content of his life. His slight figure and full forehead, sculptured beard and moustache, prominent eyebrows and deep sunken eyes combined to give him a distinguished though slightly distant appearance. Fine hands with tapered fingers were used eloquently, yet he spoke slowly and deliberately, almost reluctantly. His advice was sought on many matters because of his sound judgment, clarity and simplicity of expression, and the objective manner of his pronouncements. His own supreme self-control reassured and instilled confidence in other people.

Gibson lived at a pace and level of intensity exceeded by few others. As a child he attracted attention because of his inventiveness in building toys from improbable materials. In manufacturing business he designed his own products. As a husband and father he refurbished the interior of a large house on the banks of the Yarra in Toorak, built and largely maintained an extensive garden, designed Christmas cards, fixed the plumbing, turned his own shirt-cuffs, attended to his ironing when needed, acted as counsel for his five daughters and two sons, but rarely gave himself time for a full family life. Other interests reflected his preoccupation with the material world. As a motorist he most enjoyed taking the machine apart and putting it together to discover the secrets of its design. As a photographer he developed his own still-life prints which revealed his depth of perception and sensitivity to form; with his close friend and medical adviser, Julian Smith, he helped create the Victorian Salon of Photography in the 1920s.

The restless energy, great need for independence and highly developed sense of duty were limited by Gibson's frail constitution. From childhood he suffered many long periods of illness and several times in his fifties and sixties he was believed to be close to death. Uninterested in food he much preferred coffee. He smoked incessantly, one of the few indulgences he allowed himself. He slept poorly and was not easy to sedate; often he worked far into the night devising new schemes and planning for improvements in administrative efficiency. His undemonstrative style and tight control were disturbed only occasionally, but at such times his temper could be explosive. Much of his energy was directed towards the anticipation of threat, particularly illness, and towards building for a more secure future. Thus, his economic philosophy placed a high valuation on thrift, saving, giving to those in genuine need, and steady improvement in material conditions; he disliked speculation, waste, indulgence for its own sake, and the overt exercise of power.

Before World War I Gibson persuaded the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures to establish its own insurance company of which he was chairman in 1914-28. Membership of the chamber's council from 1911 gave him the opportunity to expand his interests. He was nominated by the chamber to be the Victorian representative on the Central Coal Board in 1916 because of his knowledge of coal-using industries. He was a member of the short-lived Luxuries Board in 1917, and deputy chairman of the original Repatriation Commission, 1917-20. He attracted considerable attention and earned a reputation as a martinet in some circles for his forthright criticism of waste and inefficiency in the public service, particularly the Postmaster-General's Department, as chairman of the royal commission on public expenditure (the 'Economy Commission') in 1918-21. He was the Commonwealth government's representative on the board of Commonwealth Oil Refineries from 1920, and joined the Victorian State Electricity Commission in 1919; he worked harmoniously with Monash and remained a commissioner until his death. His involvement with private industry was less extensive, but he served on the board of the National Mutual Life Association, the Union Trustee Co., and Robert Harper & Co., and as president of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, 1922-25, and of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures, 1924-27. For a time he was a member of the Council of the University of Melbourne. He was appointed C.B.E. 1918, K.B.E. 1920, and G.B.E. 1932.

In 1924 Gibson was gazetted an original member of the Commonwealth Bank Board following the decision to substitute a seven-man board for one-man control by the governor. He was elected chairman in 1926 following the retirement through ill-health of (Sir) John J. Garvan. Gibson brought to the position the craftsman's dedication to perfection and precision, and a firm conviction that his prime legal and moral responsibility was to serve as senior trustee of the nation's currency. Money was interpreted as currency and bullion in its tangible form and excluded those balances which were the result of credit creation. 'Real' money was seen as the outcome of thriftiness and the steady accumulation of savings. Gibson believed, with many of his contemporaries, in the strict separation of monetary management and government policy. His view was that governments could not be trusted with other people's money.

Although the chairmanship of the Commonwealth Bank was a part-time and non-executive position, Gibson assumed tactical responsibility for the bank's policy during the early 1930s. Already he had withdrawn from business and reduced his other commitments to concentrate on the bank. Initially he was concerned to maintain the gold standard in Australia, and spoke as if the standard would be still operating well after gold payments were abandoned in January 1930. Next he sought to retain exchange parity between the pound sterling and the pound Australian, but this was being undermined by Australia's poor credit standing in London which was linked with past profligacy of governments. The only way to stabilize the value of the currency was to ensure that governments balanced their budgets. Accordingly Gibson was responsible for the invitation to a representative of the Bank of England, Sir Otto Niemeyer, to visit Australia to help devise a plan for rapid budget-balancing. When this failed and 30 per cent devaluation was forced on the country, he refused a moderate request in April 1931 for further credit expansion to permit unemployment relief expenditure and wheat industry assistance. Before the bar of the Senate the following month he gave contradictory evidence about the desirability of selling off the remaining gold reserve. His immediate objective was to force governments to balance budgets within an agreed period; his wider purpose was to maintain external financial solvency and the sanctity of contracts.

Gibson was alternatively idealized and vilified for his tough stand. Conservative and liberal groups saw him as a figure of reason and responsibility in a world that seemed to be falling apart. He was remembered vividly for his radio broadcast on 3 May 1932 in which he used his soft Scots burr to evoke a sense of strength and security in a successful attempt to reassure depositors about the safety of the Commonwealth Bank. Indeed, he liked to see himself as guardian and defender: his favourite cartoon depicted him as the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike preventing inundation by the raging sea. The Labor Party and radicals saw him as a ruthless representative of the capitalist class interest. Both views have some merit but they miss the essence of the man. Gibson was a gifted craftsman whose personal need for order, stability and control led to over-rigid reliance on a set of simple axioms which were inadequate to negotiate the turmoil of the Depression. The judgment applies to nearly all his contemporaries in similar positions of authority.

Gibson disliked publicity, and the strain of the early 1930s took a heavy toll of his frail body. He had several long bouts of illness during 1932 and 1933, and, survived by his wife and children, died on 1 January 1934 at South Yarra. On 3 January, the day of his state funeral and burial at Box Hill, the Commonwealth Bank closed during the afternoon as a mark of respect. A bronze bust to stand in Parliament House, Canberra, was commissioned by the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, a small University of Melbourne scholarship was endowed, and a biography was to be written by (Sir) Ernest Scott. The biography lapsed probably because few personal papers were available: the tasks that Gibson imposed on himself gave him little time for expressive rather than functional communication. His estate in Victoria was valued for probate at £85,811.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank (Melb, 1951)
  • G. E. Caiden, Career Service (Melb, 1965)
  • C. B. Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression (Syd, 1970)
  • Bank Notes, Jan 1934
  • Victorian Chamber of Manufactures Gazette, 30 Jan 1934
  • Australian Quarterly, Mar 1934
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May 1929, 2 Jan 1934
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), Sept 1930
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Jan 1934
  • Gibson papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • Reserve Bank Archives (Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

C. B. Schedvin, 'Gibson, Sir Robert (1863–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gibson-sir-robert-6310/text10883, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 September 2017.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2017