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Harding, Harry Douglas (1913–1995)

by Nancy Cushing

This article was published online in 2019

Harry Douglas Harding (1913–1995), engineer and dockyard director, was born on 9 October 1913 at Newcastle, New South Wales, eldest of five children of Tasmanian-born Henry William Harding, engineer, and his New South Wales-born wife Christenia Margaret, née Bell. Harry was educated at Cook’s Hill Intermediate High and Central Boys’ Junior Technical High schools, before being offered an apprenticeship in fitting and turning with the engineering firm Morison & Bearby Ltd at Carrington in 1930. He studied concurrently at Newcastle Technical College, where his father was head teacher in engineering and applied mechanics.

The Scottish immigrant shipbuilder David Lyon McLarty was then an assistant manager at Morison & Bearby and became a mentor to Harding, who gained a position with the firm as a draughtsman. He quickly became head of the drawing office. On 1 January 1938 he married Olive Adeline Collins at St John the Baptist Church of England, Lambton. Their honeymoon was the long drive to Melbourne, where McLarty had offered Harding a position as chief draughtsman at his new firm, the engineering company Robison Bros & Co. Pty Ltd. After being appointed as chief engineer, Harding moved into the same role with the large engineering firm Kelly & Lewis of Springvale. With this firm, he undertook work for the Royal Australian Navy in the first years of World War II, outfitting merchant vessels in the Port of Melbourne with guns and other defensive hardware.

In 1941 McLarty was appointed New South Wales director of shipbuilding and charged with establishing the State Dockyard, Newcastle, which was brought under State jurisdiction by the New South Wales Government Engineering and Shipbuilding Undertaking Act, 1943. He seconded Harding to help. Harding began work as a plant design and construction engineer in December 1941, and helped to manage the relocation of buildings and equipment from the earlier State dockyard on Walsh Island to the new site at the end of the Carrington Dyke. Once the dockyard was in operation, he remained as technical and business manager, responsible for the design and estimating departments. Throughout the war, orders for new vessels flooded in, as did demands for repairs to damaged ships. By 1945 the dockyard included three distinct areas of operation: heavy engineering shops, shipbuilding, and ship repairs.

Harding was promoted in 1950 to chief technical executive, looking after business and contractual negotiations. In this role, he travelled to Britain and the United States of America in 1952, touring shipyards and engineering works with a primary interest in power station machinery, which was later produced at the Newcastle dockyard. Assisted by a Commonwealth government subsidy for privately commissioned ships, and by government contracts for dredges, ferries, and ships for the Australian National Line, the State dockyard grew to be one of Australia’s leading shipbuilding, ship repair, and heavy engineering facilities. It adopted new technologies, involving welding together prefabricated sections rather than building from the hull inward.

In 1954 Harding was made chief executive—administration. After McLarty’s retirement in 1957 he was the dockyard’s director. He faced two constant challenges: securing ongoing investment from State governments, and managing the diverse and heavily unionised workforce. He was frustrated by frequent stoppages and what he saw as the unions’ use of demarcation disputes to block technological change. While he resisted the view that he was ‘some kind of capitalist’ (Jameson 1987, 11), he accepted that his management style could be seen as dictatorial.

As part of his efforts towards continuous modernisation, Harding spent three months in 1961 touring shipbuilding facilities in Europe, Britain, and the United States. His visits to Japan in 1967 and 1969, and return visits by Japanese shipbuilders, bore fruit in a technology-sharing agreement with Hitachi Shipbuilding & Engineering Co. Ltd. He was less successful in requests for more government investment, with a lengthy campaign for a large graving dock ultimately unsuccessful. His long reign over the dockyard came to an end in 1968, when a board of management was appointed, with a new general manager, while he was made commercial manager. He retired in 1973, but remained as a director on the board until 1977.

Trim, bespectacled, and with a ready smile, Harding directed most of his energies to his professional life. An interest in education led him to serve on the councils of colleges of advanced education and technical and further education. A member of the Newcastle Business Men’s Club, he served as its president in 1956. He was a board member for the Hunter Valley Research Foundation (chairman, 1970). He enjoyed the camaraderie of clubs, belonging to the Rotary, Masonic, Newcastle, and Merewether Golf clubs, and, in retirement, becoming president of the Probus Club of Newcastle in 1986. A deputy sheriff of Newcastle, he was also a vestryman of Christ Church Cathedral and the patron of Newcastle Ship Lovers’ Society. After retiring he lived in an apartment in Newcastle’s east end from which he could watch the ships passing through the harbour. He died on 14 March 1995 at Waratah, survived by his wife and their two daughters and one son; twin daughters born prematurely had predeceased him in 1943.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Harding, Harry. Interview by Esther Galbraith, 8 July 1989. Margaret Henry Oral History Archive, University of Newcastle. Accessed 24 August 2018. https://soundcloud.com/uoncc/history-of-shipbuilding-harry-harding-8-july-1989
  • Jameson, Neil. ‘Dockyard That Harry Built.’ Newcastle Herald, 21 February 1987, 11
  • Newcastle Morning Herald and Miners’ Advocate. ‘Big Graving Dock Advocate Retires.’ 9 October 1973, 5
  • Newcastle Region Library. B008, Harding Collection

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Nancy Cushing, 'Harding, Harry Douglas (1913–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harding-harry-douglas-27656/text35187, published online 2019, accessed online 22 July 2019.

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