Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harper, Charles Walter (1880–1956)

by Kevin P. Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Charles Walter Harper (1880-1956), orchardist and co-operator, was born on 27 January 1880 at Guildford, Western Australia, eldest of the ten children of Charles Harper and his wife Fanny, née de Burgh. Walter was educated at the High School, Perth, and Guildford Grammar School. Later he shared his father's interests in agricultural experimentation and co-operation, working with him and William Catton Grasby. As a young man Walter studied fruit-growing and marketing among the orchardists of California and also analysed the needs of British and European markets. He then managed his family's Woodbridge estate and joined the co-operative movement and the Farmers' and Settlers' Association.

On 8 October 1910 he married Margaret Rose Maxwell Drummond, a great-grand-daughter of Western Australia's first government naturalist James Drummond; they had four daughters and two sons. In March 1913 a Farmers' and Settlers' Association meeting accepted Harper's policy of establishing a new co-operative and next year he successfully moved that the Westralian Farmers Ltd ('Co-operative' was added in 1946) be registered; he became a director. An accident of Nature released him from management of the Woodbridge estate so that he could devote almost his full time to the welfare of farmer organizations. The tremendous floods of 1917 had severely damaged the Woodbridge orchards and other Harper properties. In 1918 Harper attended the first Australia and New Zealand-wide conference of producers' co-operative societies, instigated by the Western Australian movement. It formed Australian Producers' Wholesale Co-operative Federations Ltd which decided to establish a selling floor in London for Australian, New Zealand and South African growers, to be known as Overseas Farmers' Co-operative Federations Ltd. Next year Harper became the first chairman of the Co-operative Federation of Western Australia.

He kept himself above party politics. He was wary of political schemes for solving economic problems after his chairmanship of the 1924-25 royal commission into the group settlement scheme in Western Australia. In the course of this inquiry Harper journeyed widely, despite rough tracks and the administrative problems which attended the hearings. He wrote the commission's report. In 1934 he was a member of the Commonwealth royal commission on the wheat, flour and bread industries.

Throughout the 1920s, as Co-operative Federation chairman, board member of Producers' Markets Co-op Ltd and office-bearer of the Fruit Growers' Association, Harper travelled throughout the south-west of the State. He was a trustee of the first Co-operative Wheat Pool of Western Australia in 1922 and that year became chairman of directors of Westralian Farmers. In the 1920s and 1930s, supported by company leaders like Basil Murray and John Thomson, he took the firm into the wheat business as a buyer and broker and later as a founder of Co-operative Bulk Handling. Harper had difficulty convincing farmers that they were to own Co-operative Bulk Handling directly, and not through their shareholding in Westralian Farmers, but his objective was achieved with the setting up of Co-operative Bulk Handling Ltd in 1933. He helped Thomson develop it to become Australia's cheapest and most efficient grain-handling authority.

Harper had been chairman of Westralian Farmers when the company established the State's first radio station (6WF) in 1924. Next year they built the State's first pasteurized milk plant. In 1926 the company lifted the first wheat shipment from Esperance and formed a honey pool. Harper was also vice-chairman of Producers' Markets and a member of the Metropolitan Market Trust. In 1927 he brought farmers into the superphosphate business, as one-third owners of Cuming Smith & Mount Lyell Farmers Fertilisers Ltd; with his father and Grasby he had discovered that most Western Australian soils would benefit from additional soluble phosphate.

Harper supported his general manager Thomson in efforts to win realistic freight rates for the transport of Western Australian produce to London in the 1920s and 1930s. In taking on the British shipping companies, they attracted the Federal government's ire; Prime Minister Stanley (Viscount) Bruce, referred to them as 'pirates'. These freight-rate advantages had a short life because of the outbreak of World War II, but Westralian Farmers' Transport Ltd was established in London in 1937 as the company's shipping arm. Next year Harper joined the delegation representing the Australian Producers' Wholesale Co-operative Federation Ltd to England. On his return, in support of the war effort, he served on the Western Australian District Contracts Board.

Harper's influence was most apparent in the almost Spartan way in which Westralian Farmers Co-operative Ltd was run. Despite primitive conditions in country towns, the firm attracted excellent staff who assisted the organization's growth to become (in 1982) one of the fifty largest companies in Australia. In Harper's time it went into trading in the North-West with the acquisition of the Ashburton Transport Co. This was allied with the formation of a trading co-operative, initially for plantations on the Gascoyne River at Carnarvon, which later prospered as the North-West developed.

In 1953 Harper retired as company chairman. He died on 1 July 1956 and was cremated. Sir John Teasdale concluded that 'he, more than anyone else, fostered and cared for' the Western Australian co-operative movement which would 'remain his monument'.

Harper had been a frugal, abstemious, reserved man, and a talented cricketer and golfer. He was admired for his lucid, analytical thinking, his conservatism and his selfless service: as a director of Westralian Farmers his fees had generally been a guinea for a meeting and, for a long time, his remuneration as chairman was only £600 a year.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sandford, Walter Harper and the Farmers (Perth, 1955)
  • F. R. Mercer, The Life of Charles Harper (Perth, 1958)
  • family papers.

Citation details

Kevin P. Smith, 'Harper, Charles Walter (1880–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/harper-charles-walter-6568/text11297, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

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