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Hornibrook, Sir Manuel Richard (1893–1970)

by Raymond L. Whitmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Sir Manuel Richard Hornibrook (1893-1970), master builder, industrialist and company director, was born on 7 August 1893 at Enoggera, Brisbane, and registered as Emanuel, second of seven children of Irish-born parents John Hornibrook, storeman and builder, and his wife Catherine, née Sullivan. In 1896 John took up farming in the Obi Obi Valley, near Nambour; the family returned to Brisbane in 1903 where he set up as a tea merchant and died that year of typhoid fever. Manuel was educated at Nambour, Obi Obi, Bowen Bridge and South Brisbane state schools. A 'big lump of a lad' at the age of 13, he was apprenticed to H. W. Fooks, Adelaide Street, to learn the building and joinery trade. In August 1912 he established his own business as a builder and contractor; his brother Reg joined him in the following year. On 27 November 1915 Manuel Hornibrook married with Methodist forms Daphne Winifred Brunckhorst at her parents' Enoggera home.

From the outset Hornibrook showed the drive and initiative that were to characterize his career, though his business was, from the first, very much a family affair. Four other brothers joined him—Ray in 1918, Eric in 1919, Frank in 1921 and Gus in 1948. The company began carrying out drainage schemes in Brisbane suburbs for local councils in 1918, and then contracted for large sewerage works at Longreach, Roma and other towns in western Queensland. In 1922 the firm excavated the State's first open-cut coalmine at Blair Athol, and constructed water-supply systems for Goondiwindi, Mackay and Rockhampton. By 1926 business had developed to such an extent that M. R. Hornibrook Ltd (a proprietary company from 1932) was formed with a paid-up capital of £25,000. In the late 1920s Hornibrook extended into New South Wales, establishing a subsidiary company (Hornibrook Bros & Clark Co. Ltd) in Sydney in 1938. In 1947 Hornibrook Constructions Ltd was registered in Papua. Other branches were set up in Victoria and South Australia in the 1950s. Over a period of forty years these companies built wool stores, wheat silos, wharves, sugar-sheds, tank farms, water mains, factories and electricity power-stations. They constructed shipping beacons at the entrance to Moreton Bay and at Weipa. A major achievement was the successful completion in the 1960s of the superstructure of the Sydney Opera House, including the sail-like roof.

It was, however, as a bridge-builder that Hornibrook made his reputation. His first sizeable bridge, erected for the Department of Main Roads across the Burrum River in 1925, was the earliest, publicly funded, reinforced-concrete bridge in Queensland. The Hornibrook Highway—a toll road which he launched as a private venture during the Depression—included what was Australia's longest bridge at the time of its construction, and provided full-time employment for hundreds of men. The group built more than one hundred bridges, some of the better-known including the William Jolly, Story and New Victoria bridges in Brisbane, the Northbridge and Iron Cove Bridge, Sydney, the King's Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue bridges in Canberra, and the Markham River Bridge in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea.

As did (Sir) Leslie Thiess, Hornibrook brought modern, mechanized methods of civil-engineering construction to Queensland and Australia. Reflecting Hornibrook's natural mechanical and engineering instincts, his company established its own workshops for maintaining the heavy machinery which had become an essential part of large-scale contracting. It also developed facilities for designing and manufacturing the specialized tools required for specific contracts. A first-rate craftsman, Hornibrook insisted that his company should employ the best methods in carrying out its work. Nor was he afraid of adopting new techniques, as indicated by his pioneering use of the 'sand island' method of preparing foundations for the piers of the William Jolly Bridge in 1927. His application of air-lock technology to the construction of the piers of the Story bridge provided another model for later contractors.

In February 1955 Hornibrook (Pty) Ltd was floated as a £1 million public company and was heavily oversubscribed. By the following year it was employing over two thousand people. The strength of the Hornibrook group, which stemmed from being the creation of a single, dynamic personality, became a weakness after it was launched as a public company. Lacking a sufficient technical and financial support base, the firm began to lose contracts to its rivals, particularly those from abroad. Hornibrook's individuality could not come to terms with the need for modern financial and management structures in his companies. As a result they were unable to meet the competitive pressure of international contracting. In 1964 Hornibrook Ltd and M. R. Hornibrook (N.S.W.) Pty Ltd were acquired by the British-owned Wood Hall group. Two years later Hornibrook retired as chairman of directors. He did, nevertheless, continue his association with other companies that bore his name, among them the Hornibrook Highway Ltd, and Hornibrook Highway Bus Service Ltd of which he was chairman. He also retained chairmanship of Brisbane Gravels Pty Ltd and remained on the board of the Queensland Cement & Lime Co. Ltd. In search of a challenge of a different kind, in 1955 Hornibrook had bought Omar, a property in South Australia, which he developed for sheep and cattle.

He devoted much time and effort to raising the professional status of civil-engineering contracting in Australia and to improving educational facilities for young men planning to enter it. In 1914 Hornibrook had joined the Queensland Master Builders' Association and was its president in 1922 and 1923; he was president (1926) and a life member (1959) of the Master Builders Federation of Australia; he was also a foundation fellow (1951), councillor and president (1952-56) of the Australian Institute of Builders, and a driving force in the construction of its headquarters at Milson's Point, Sydney. For his contribution to the science and the practice of building, he was awarded the A.I.B.'s first medal of merit (1955). President (1953-59) of the Queensland Civil Engineering Contractors' Association, he was an honorary member (1968) of the Australian Federation of Civil Engineering Contractors and an honorary fellow (1969) of the Chartered Institute of Building (Britain)—the first Australian to be so honoured. He was appointed O.B.E. in 1957 and knighted in 1960.

Known to his associates as 'M.R.', Hornibrook was a big man, not only in physique—he stood 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall and weighed 17 stone (108 kg)—but in personal magnetism, vision and spirit. Courage, ability and determination carried him to the highest levels in his profession. He dominated his immediate environment, had a cool head in crises and did not suffer fools gladly. His lack of formal education was amply compensated by a large measure of common sense, energy and enthusiasm. Hornibrook's warm humanity and interest in people was legendary. He enjoyed golf and bowls, and was president of the Queensland Golf Council. His organizational abilities were always in demand for fund-raising and, in 1931, during his term as president of the Hamilton Bowling Club, a spacious clubhouse was built. Sir Manuel was a Rotarian and an ardent worker for International House, University of Queensland, of which he was foundation master (1966-70).

Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, Hornibrook died on 30 May 1970 at the Holy Spirit Private Hospital, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $230,564.

Select Bibliography

  • Men of Queensland (Brisb, 1929)
  • W. Browne, A Man of Achievement (Brisb, 1974)
  • People (Sydney), 19 Oct 1955, p 19
  • Building, Lighting and Engineering, Jan 1960, p 24
  • Chartered Builder, 1, 1970, p 7
  • Sunday Mail (Brisbane), 25 Jan, 31 May 1970
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 23 Nov 1957, 1, 20 Jan 1960, 26 Sept 1968, 3 June 1970, 6 Oct 1971.

Citation details

Raymond L. Whitmore, 'Hornibrook, Sir Manuel Richard (1893–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hornibrook-sir-manuel-richard-10547/text18729, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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