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Kirby, Sir James Norman (1899–1971)

by Peter Cochrane

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir James Norman Kirby (1899-1971), industrialist and philanthropist, was born on 15 June 1899 in Sydney, fifth child of Victorian-born parents Louis Kirby, plasterer, and his wife Margaret, née Gartner. Educated at Newtown Public School and Francis Street Catholic School, Marrickville, in 1914 James was apprenticed to a motor mechanic at 7s. 6d. a week. He completed his training with the Howarth Petrol Economiser Co. Drawn to manufacturing machine tools, he set up his own automative-engine reconditioning business, James N. Kirby Pty Ltd, in 1924. At St Paul's Catholic Church, Dulwich Hill, on 21 November 1925 he married a saleswoman Agnes Ann Wessler whom he later described as his greatest asset.

A foundation member (1931) of the Metals Treatment Society of New South Wales (Australian Institute of Metals), Kirby appropriated the micrometer as his advertising symbol. His firm reground cylinders in the engines of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith's aeroplanes. Kirby's reputation for precision engineering led to his involvement in the Commonwealth government's manufacture of military aircraft; in 1940 he was appointed manager of the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation Pty Ltd. During his tenure he formed connexions with the British air industry and began a long friendship with Lord Hives, chairman of Rolls Royce Ltd. Kirby's factories made field-guns and aircraft components.

After World War II Kirby started to manufacture consumer goods (Crosley refrigerators and television sets, Bendix washing machines, Pye transistor radios and high-fidelity equipment, lawnmowers and other household goods). He sensed a big future in industry based on suburban expansion and home-making. Strengthening his British links, he was appointed a director of Nuffield (Australia) Ltd by Lord Nuffield—another dear friend—and with George A. Lloyd set up a car assembly plant (the British Motor Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd) in Sydney to build Morris Oxfords.

Founding chairman (1958) of the Manufacturing Industries Advisory Council, Kirby attended the eleventh Australian Citizenship Convention in Canberra in 1960: he spoke in favour of sensitive assimilation strategies and opposed the formation of ethnic 'cliques' in factories; he also warned against the 'high sounding' New Citizens Council of Australia, agreeing with Albert Monk that it was connected with 'Communists, crooks and tyrants of the unions'. Although Kirby received limited formal education, he formed strong university ties. He was a foundation council-member (1947) of the New South Wales University of Technology, and of the Nuclear Research Foundation at the University of Sydney where he became a friend of Professor Harry Messel.

In the latter part of his life the bulky-framed, ruddy-faced and laconic Kirby served as a director of many companies, including Qantas Empire Airways Ltd. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1956 and knighted in 1962. His idiosyncratic armorial crest bore the sign of a marlin to indicate his love of fishing, a motto in an Aboriginal dialect—'Ngaben-Bidjigarme' ('I all hands hold')—and the words 'For God and Empire'. He was an honoured Rotarian, a director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and deputy-chairman of the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (Australia) for many years.

Kirby belonged to the New South Wales, American National and Australian Golf clubs and to Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. He was also a record-holding fisherman, and an orchid grower. His horse, Home James, won the Grafton Cup in 1963 and 1964, and its owner developed a close association with Clarence River Jockey Club, of which he became patron. In keeping with his preference for close working ties outside the spotlight, he enjoyed the relaxed fraternity of the country track more than the members' stand at Randwick. He was made an honorary citizen of Grafton in 1970. Sir James died at his Vaucluse home on 30 July 1971 and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife and two sons survived him.

Paternalistic and charitable, Kirby had long admired American industry's culture of patronage. In 1967 he had established the James N. Kirby Foundation for educational and charitable work, with a grant of $2 million, most of his personal fortune. 'I came up the hard way', he said, 'I suppose it is because of that I felt I had to plough something back'. The foundation, chaired by one of his sons, has distributed more than $5 million since its inception.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Gunn, High Corridors (Brisb, 1988)
  • H. Beran, 'I Feel I Should Plough Something Back' (Syd, 1993)
  • James N. Kirby Foundation, Annual Report, 1992
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 May 1957, 4 July 1958, 11, 12 Feb 1960, 28 Mar, 22 Sept 1961, 19, 20 Oct 1967, 31 July, 4 Aug 1971
  • Australian Financial Review, 19 Oct 1967
  • Daily Examiner (Grafton), 15 July 1970, 31 July, 3 Aug 1971
  • records of the School of Physics (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Sir Leslie Herron, 'Valedictory Address' at the funeral of Sir James Kirby, Box 85, G47 (University of Sydney Archives)
  • Nuclear Research Foundation papers, Box 212, G47 (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Cochrane, 'Kirby, Sir James Norman (1899–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirby-sir-james-norman-10749/text19053, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 1 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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