Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hoskins, Sir Cecil Harold (1889–1971)

by George Parsons

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

This is a shared entry with Charles Henry Hoskins

Charles Henry Hoskins (1851-1926), and Sir Cecil Harold Hoskins (1889-1971), iron and steel manufacturers, were father and son. Charles was born on 26 March 1851 in the City of London, second son of John Hoskins, gunsmith, and his wife Wilmot Eliza, née Thompson. He reached Melbourne with his family in the Barrackpore in February 1853, and went to school there. After his father's death the family moved to Smythesdale, near Ballarat. Hoskins began work as a mail boy, tried his luck on the goldfields and worked as an assistant in Connelly's ironmongery store at Sandhurst (Bendigo).

In 1876 Hoskins joined his brother George (1847-1926) in Sydney in a small engineering workshop at Hay Street, Ultimo, which became G. & C. Hoskins Ltd in 1903. Despite their lack of capital, they gradually became known as skilled and ingenious craftsmen: one of their inventions, a 'Potato Thrower', was modified for a troupe of actors to use in a sensational acrobatic display.

Through hard physical work the brothers began to prosper mildly. Charles took over financing and management of the business, leaving George to supervise the workshops. On 22 December 1881, with Congregational forms, Charles married Emily Wallis (d.1928), who had been brought up as a Quaker. About 1889 the firm moved to larger premises in Darling (Wattle) Street and established a foundry, pipe-works and boiler shop. They achieved a breakthrough when they secured the contract to lay and join the six-foot (183 cm) main for the Sydney water-supply. In the 1890s they opened a branch in Melbourne to make steel pipes and in 1898, after negotiations, the Hoskins and Mephan Ferguson shared the contract to manufacture (in Western Australia) and lay 350 miles (563 km) of pipes for the Perth to Coolgardie water-supply, designed by C. Y. O'Connor.

From the early 1880s Charles Hoskins was anxious about the small size of the Australian market and his own dependence on imported raw materials. A convinced protectionist, he helped to found the New South Wales Chamber of Manufactures in 1885 and to reconstitute it in 1895, when he became president. He regarded the protectionist and manufacturing causes as inseparable, served on the committee of the Protection Union of New South Wales and was closely associated with (Sir) George Dibbs in the National Protection Association. No friend of trade unions, Hoskins firmly believed in freedom of contract and opposed a minimum wage. He was a leader in the Iron Trades Employers' Association of New South Wales and was prominent in the foundation of the Employers' Federation of New South Wales in 1903.

Although in 1899 the Hoskins refused William Sandford's offer to sell his Eskbank ironworks at Lithgow, Charles remained one of Sandford's closest friends, his largest customer and one of the few outside shareholders in William Sandford Ltd. After government efforts to save that firm in December 1907 failed, largely because of Labor pressure for nationalization and foreclosure by the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney, Charles Hoskins was asked by the secretary for public works, C. A. Lee, to take over the ironworks. G. & C. Hoskins accepted the offer, taking over Sandford's overdraft of £138,000, paying £14,000 to shareholders in the form of 4 per cent bonds and paying £50,000 to Sandford himself. They had acquired a blast furnace, iron and steel works, colliery, iron leaseholds at Cadia and Carcoar, stocks of raw materials, some 400 acres (162 ha) of freehold town estate at Lithgow, Eskroy Park at Bowenfels, and a seven-year government contract.

George henceforth confined his interests to the Sydney business and Charles undertook the development of the iron and steel industry. Early in January 1908 he moved with his family to Lithgow. He soon found that enterprise and business ability were not enough. The plant was badly located; technological difficulties raised costs; facilities for manufacturing steel rails and structured steel were lacking; and there were other bottle-necks. By 1909, after building a new steel-furnace, a rolling-mill and a bar-mill, he realized his geographical difficulties were probably insurmountable; moreover he lacked knowledge of metallurgy and practical experience of advances in iron and steel production.

An imperious, impatient entrepreneur, Hoskins was confronted with immediate strikes when he tried to change from the contract to day-labour system of wages and the plant was closed on 10 July 1908. The company was found guilty by the Industrial Court of deliberately engineering a lock-out and fined £50 and costs; Hoskins himself was fined £10 and costs. The establishment of the Iron Trades (Lithgow) Wages Board did not improve the situation. In 1911 hostility increased when Hoskins dismissed a miners' union delegate and inflamed the ensuing strike by importing blackleg labour from Sydney. On 29 August there was a riot at the plant. The strike dragged on for nine months until April 1912, then ended in a compromise.

Even with large-scale government aid in the form of reduced freights and generous contracts for steel rails (especially for the Transcontinental Railway), Hoskins had a struggle but made many improvements such as installing electric lighting, an overhead crane and a pig-iron-breaking machine. Despite increasing competition from the Broken Hill Pty Co. Ltd's new steel-works at Newcastle, Hoskins's Lithgow works flourished during World War I: demand exceeded supply and he was called upon to manufacture many special steels that could no longer be imported, such as those required by the Commonwealth Small Arms Factory at Lithgow spring steel, and hollow drill steel for Professor (Sir) Edgeworth David to take to France; in 1915 he produced ferro-manganese to aid munitions production.

In 1919 Charles bought out his brother George and the name of the company was changed in July next year to Hoskins Iron and Steel Co. Ltd. In the early 1920s the company fell steadily behind B.H.P. in technological sophistication and productivity and was crippled by freight charges. Charles retired as managing director in 1924.

In 1912 he had moved to Cadia Park, Lawson, in the Blue Mountains, where he and his wife made a beautiful garden and kept koalas, wallabies and birds. Bearded in his youth, with crisp wavy hair, he continued to sport a clipped moustache. Infatuated with cars, he owned seven in seven years, starting in 1904. Saddened by the deaths of two grown-up daughters, and of his eldest son in 1916 after an explosion at the works, he gave the land and built, for £50,000, a parish hall and the Hoskins Memorial Church (Presbyterian) at Lithgow which he did not live to see completed in 1928. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he died at his home at Elizabeth Bay, Sydney, on 14 February 1926 and was buried in the Congregational section of Rookwood cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £12,018. He had formed a private family company, C. H. Hoskins Co. Ltd, in 1904 to look after the financial interests of his family; Kembla Building (since demolished) in Margaret Street, Sydney, was built by this company in 1924.

His second son Cecil Harold was born on 11 November 1889 at Petersham, Sydney, and was educated at King's College, Goulburn, and Newington College, Sydney. He worked for Briscoe & Co. Ltd, ironmongers of Sydney, and joined the family firm at Lithgow in 1908, becoming a director in 1912. At Burwood he married Dorothy Gwynn, daughter of Thomas Loveridge, on 1 November 1913.

In 1925 Hoskins became chairman and with his brother Arthur Sidney (1892-1959) joint managing director of the family enterprises. His father had already begun to plan to move from Lithgow and to build integrated steelworks at Port Kembla where he had acquired 400 acres (162 ha) in 1924. After complex negotiations in 1927 the State government agreed conditionally to build a railway connecting Port Kembla with the main southern line at Moss Vale, and construction of a blast-furnace and deep-water wharf began. That year Hoskins went overseas seeking technical information and new plant; he acquired the rights to manufacture and sell de Laval centrifugally spun pipes. Most of the new plant was erected to the latest American or German designs. To finance the operations, in 1928 Hoskins formed a new company, Australian Iron and Steel Ltd with Baldwins Ltd of England, Dorman Long & Co. and Howard Smith Ltd; he became chairman and joint managing director of the new company. Hard-hit by the Depression, A.I. & S. was sued by the government for breach of contract in 1932 and had to pay £25,000. In 1935 A.I. & S. became a subsidiary of B.H.P., which exchanged 750,000 £1 shares for the company. Hoskins remained general manager of A.I. & S. until 1950 and a director until 1959.

Hoskins had moved to Sydney in 1924 and became a local director of the Royal Insurance Co. Ltd, a director of the United Insurance Co. Ltd and chairman of Southern Portland Cement Ltd in 1928-57. In 1929 he joined the board of the Australian Mutual Provident Society Ltd and was chairman in 1947-60. He was a strong protectionist and a council-member of the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales in 1925-46 and an executive member of the All for Australia League. Closely linked with the United Australia Party, he was a good friend of (Sir) Robert Menzies. He was also chairman of the Institute of Public Affairs (New South Wales). He was knighted in 1960.

From 1937 the Hoskins family lived at Invergowrie, at Exeter in the southern highlands. Here they created a famous garden and during World War II accommodated many allied servicemen and women on recreation or sick leave; here too he could enjoy his recreations of farming and motoring. In 1949 they moved to Cardona at Moss Vale; he remained a member of the Australian and Union clubs, Sydney. Active in scouting from the 1920s, he was foundation president of the South Coast and Tablelands area of the Boy Scouts' Association in 1946-66. In his retirement he wrote The Hoskins Saga (1969). Survived by his wife, four sons and two daughters, he died at Moss Vale on 8 March 1971 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was valued for probate at $133,697.

His brother Arthur Sidney was joint managing director of Hoskins Iron and Steel and supervised the construction of the Port Kembla steelworks. He remained a director of A.I. & S. and manager at Port Kembla. He had married another daughter of Thomas Loveridge, Helen Madoline, in 1917; they had three sons and four daughters.

'Mr Cecil', of medium height and sturdy build, was reserved in manner and very much the senior partner. 'Mr Sid' lacked his brother's quick mind but was more approachable. Their basic knowledge and experience 'from the floor up' had been gained in their father's works among family and long-serving employees. Limited technical expertise was their main handicap and the Depression their downfall.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Hughes, The Australian Iron and Steel Industry, 1848-1962 (Melb, 1964)
  • C. R. Hall, The Manufacturers (Syd, 1971)
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 18 Feb 1926
  • ANA, 7 Apr, 7 June 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 5 Feb 1926, 17 Nov 1928, 11 Jan 1958, 10 May 1969, 9 Mar 1971
  • private information.

Citation details

George Parsons, 'Hoskins, Sir Cecil Harold (1889–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hoskins-sir-cecil-harold-7072/text11639, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

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