This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996
John Cecil Jessop (1892-1968), chairman of the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, was born on 29 March 1892 at North Carlton, Melbourne, second child of Victorian-born parents John Coote Jessop, telegraphist, and his wife Louise Esther, née Portway. The eldest son of a large family, Cecil began work at 14 as a telegraph-boy to supplement the family income. He described himself as a Baptist minister when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force, with which he served from July 1915 to June 1919: he saw action on the Western Front with the 8th Battalion and Australian Corps headquarters as a stretcher-bearer. In her parents' home at Clifton Hill, Melbourne, on 13 September 1919 he married with Baptist forms Catherine Rose Robinson (d.1966); their only child died in 1923. Working as an accountant, Jessop made his way up to become manager of the mortgage and investment department of the Trustees, Executors & Agency Co. Ltd; he was later a director of a home-building and finance company.
His long career of public service began in 1930 when he was elected to the Heidelberg City Council. He was mayor in 1935 and a councillor until 1940. In 1934 he had been chosen as commissioner for Heidelberg on the M.M.B.W. where he rose to be vice-chairman (1937) of the finance committee. In 1940 he was appointed chairman.
Jessop took over the powerful M.M.B.W. at a difficult time. Public dissatisfaction was widespread, relations with other government agencies were poor and staff morale was low. Wartime restrictions on manpower and finance delayed overdue extensions to the water supply and sewerage systems, but Jessop's frank, open style and wide-ranging consultation soon smoothed relations on all sides. His concern for the well-being of workers and his firmly applied set of 'ideals' produced harmonious industrial relations within the board. In the M.M.B.W.'s dealings with constituent metropolitan councils Jessop was fortunate that parliament finally approved reforms to the board's structure in 1944 which gave better representation to newer suburbs and took account of population shifts.
Careful financial management during the years of World War II had produced a healthy reserve fund and lower rates, but the reserve proved inadequate to meet the needs of Melbourne's postwar boom. The delay in constructing the Upper Yarra Dam (which did not begin to fill until 1957) condemned Melbourne to years of inadequate water pressure and summer restrictions. Jessop skilfully guided the M.M.B.W. through a period of massive growth and modernization, indicated by the increase in the number of new houses connected with water from 145 in 1942-43 to almost 15,000 in 1955-56. In the same period capital expenditure rose from £100,000 to £6.5 million, while the number of board employees barely doubled. In a 'city of outgrown services' and 'heartbreak streets' it was a tribute to Jessop's leadership and his encouragement of an ideal of service that the M.M.B.W. continued to be held in generally high regard by both the public and government.
Largely due to Jessop's initiative, the board's powers to shape and direct Melbourne's development were greatly increased in 1949 when it was given authority to prepare a planning scheme for the city. The 'Master Plan', released with a fanfare of publicity in 1954, was a crucial first step towards improving the quality of urban life and marked the end of totally uncontrolled and uncoordinated growth. Jessop retired in February 1956, optimistic that the Board's 'blueprint' for future growth would alleviate some of the most pressing problems, at least in regard to the supply of essential services.
An unpretentious man who often took his cut lunch into the canteen to eat with the board staff, Jessop was firm in decision-making and enjoyed the confidence of those who worked closely with him. His private life was largely given over to the expression of his 'abounding Christian charity' from which many of his ideals of management also stemmed. He was a tireless supporter of community and philanthropic projects, an active advocate of Moral Rearmament in the late 1940s, and a keen gardener and surf fisherman. For many years treasurer of the Sutherland Homes for Children, in 1958 he published a book on the life and work of their founder Selina Sutherland. In retirement he built a cottage in the grounds of the Diamond Creek homes where he lived as manager until ill health obliged him to enter the Diamond Valley Community Hospital, Greensborough, which he had helped to found. He died there on 15 March 1968 and was cremated.
Carolyn Rasmussen, 'Jessop, John Cecil (1892–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/jessop-john-cecil-10626/text18743, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 November 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996