Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Hume, Walter Reginald (1873–1943)

by G. D. Snooks

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

Walter Reginald Hume (1873-1943), inventor and entrepreneur, was born on 29 November 1873 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, second son of James Hill Hume, a professional phrenologist and mesmerist from Scotland, and his second wife Caroline, née Gill, from Bristol, England. As James Hume regularly moved round Victoria lecturing, Walter attended a large number of schools until his father died, and at 12 he had to find employment. For the next five years he worked at several trades, finally becoming a plasterer.

In the depression of the 1890s he joined forces with his brother Ernest (1869-1929), a carpenter, and in September 1892 they sought employment in the country. They tried a variety of construction, repair, and farming jobs before establishing a workshop at Malmsbury where they produced fencing droppers under the protection of their first patent. Their business flourished owing to extensive vermin fencing being constructed in South Australia and Walter moved to Adelaide about 1904 to establish a second factory. A major decline in pastoral capital formation forced the brothers to close their Malmsbury business in 1906 and to turn their energies to the manufacture in Adelaide of ornamental steel fencing. They continued in this business until early 1910 when they formed Humes' Patent Cement Iron Syndicate Ltd to develop Walter's revolutionary centrifugal process for the manufacture of concrete pipes. This important invention transformed not only Walter's own career, but also the nature of the pipe manufacturing industry world wide. A measure of his achievement with this and another eighty of his patented inventions is that his firm was the only one in Australia before World War II to pioneer a major new technology and to export it (under royalty agreements) throughout the world. As well, his inventions had an important impact upon the development of urban Australia by significantly reducing the cost of constructing essential water, sewerage and drainage facilities.

To begin production of concrete pipes using the newly developed centrifugal process, Hume Bros Cement Iron Co. Ltd was incorporated in Adelaide in April 1911. In this new company Walter (who was to be managing director) and Ernest each held one-third of the shares; the remaining third was subscribed by South Australian graziers and farmers. The firm grew slowly in its first decade. By 1920, however, Hume was determined to extend his operations throughout Australia, and a new company, Hume Pipe Co. (Aust.) Ltd, was incorporated in Melbourne in July of that year. Although Hume's ownership of the new company was reduced to only 14 per cent, he was able to maintain control, due to his forceful personality and his highly inventive and innovative mind. While the new board of directors included prominent men like Sir John Monash and Senator A. J. McLachlan, the key members of the managerial group who presided over the firm's remarkable inter-war growth were Walter Hume as managing director, L. J. (Lord) Clifford as director in charge of financial matters, and J. A. Cussen as secretary. Ernest resigned in 1923 to establish and direct the first commercial wireless transmitting station in Adelaide (5DN).

In the early 1920s the company established branches in all States, extending to New Zealand in 1922 and Singapore in 1923. The success of this rapid expansion of the concrete pipe business encouraged Hume to diversify production by establishing a new company, Hume Steel Ltd, in 1923 to manufacture steel pipes using his pioneering inventions in the new field of automatic electric-arc welding. Although economic conditions were far from favourable during the 1930s and early 1940s, Hume's companies continued to expand, so that by 1943 they controlled over sixty factories throughout Australasia.

Walter Hume married Alice Louisa Bourne, née Mudford (1884-1972), at Moonta, South Australia, on 23 November 1909, and they had five sons and four daughters. All the sons joined the business between 1929 and 1940, but left soon after Walter's death, and until 1960 traded successfully (as W. R. Hume Pty Ltd) in opposition to the parent company. What little leisure time Hume had was devoted to Freemasonry and recording his general observations of the world around him. He died from cancer on 21 July 1943 and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Springvale cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £39,951. There are two portraits by William Dargie, one in the Melbourne offices of Humes Ltd and the other held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • G. D. Snooks, ‘Innovation and the growth of the firm: Hume enterprises, 1910-1940’, Australian Economic History Review, Mar 1973
  • G. D. Snooks, Hume Enterprises in Australia, 1910-1940 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1971)
  • personal and company papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

G. D. Snooks, 'Hume, Walter Reginald (1873–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hume-walter-reginald-6764/text11695, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 2 October 2016.

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

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