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Knox, Edward William (1847–1933)

by Martha Rutledge

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

Edward William Knox (1847-1933), industrialist, was born on 1 April 1847 in Sydney, second of four surviving sons of Sir Edward Knox, founder of the Colonial Sugar Refining Co., and his Irish wife Martha, sister of William Rutledge. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, in 1863 he won the senior Knox prize. He refused a university education and joined C.S.R. in April 1864 as a junior clerk.

In 1870 Knox took charge of the company's crushing mills on the Clarence. Inheriting 'his father's drive, his integrity and his uncanny intuition', he sought many improvements in management and encouraged the cane-farmers to improve their agricultural methods and to grow sweeter cane. In 1876 he visited the West Indies to study milling: next year double crushing was adopted. He later visited sugar-beet factories in Germany and France. At St Matthew's Church, Manly, he married Edith (d.1942), daughter of J. S. Willis on 30 January 1878.

Appointed general manager of C.S.R. in 1880, Knox 'surrounded himself with able lieutenants'. During his first five years C.S.R. expanded its operations into Queensland and Fiji, and built seven new mills and a refinery at Auckland, New Zealand. He realized that profits depended on increased efficiency through the application of science to every aspect of the industry.

In the early 1880s the company recruited chemists from Scotland and Germany and, after the slump of 1884, Knox introduced a system of chemical book-keeping. In 1890 he addressed the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science 'On an application of chemical control to a manufacturing business'.

The company's size, efficiency and tendency to absorb competitors laid it open to criticism, particularly by politicians raising the cry of monopoly, especially after Federation and the payment of the Commonwealth sugar bounty. The attacks culminated in the royal commission on the sugar industry in 1911-12. Knox categorically refused to answer questions about costs or to produce the company's books, as he believed publication would damage the company. He was vindicated when C.S.R. successfully challenged an amendment to the Royal Commissions Act in the High Court of Australia and was upheld by the Privy Council. A stubborn free trader, he desired 'a uniform absence of [government] interference in industrial matters'. (He was again to refuse to give information to the royal commission chaired by A. B. Piddington in 1920.)

However, in May 1915 W. M. Hughes and Knox met to draft the principles of the Commonwealth's wartime control of the industry. In 1920 Knox became chairman and managing director of C.S.R. He visited London in 1922 at the request of the British government to discuss the problem of Indian labourers in Fiji. He resigned as managing director in December 1932.

Although diffident about his 'inability to speak in public' and his civic achievements, he served on four royal commissions, including the Sydney water supply (1902), and as an alderman on Woollahra Municipal Council in 1887-1902. A member of the Board of Health in 1888-1902, he found its work interesting and varied.

He was a fellow of the Senate of the University of Sydney in 1894-1919 and a trustee of Sydney Grammar School in 1884-1924 and of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales from 1907. He served on the committee of the Union Club for forty years (president in 1908-21) and was a member of the Australian Jockey Club.

His gabled stone house, Rona, on Bellevue Hill, was completed in 1883. His great pleasure was sailing: in 1875 he and his brother Tom bought and raced Pleiades. In 1881 he had built Sirocco, a ten-ton cutter, won many races in her over twenty years, and continued to be a familiar sight on the harbour until he sold her in 1927. He was commodore of Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron in 1883-84. Ned, as he was known in the family, enjoyed dancing, attending the theatre and opera, and frequent foreign travel from which he brought home many objets d'art. He was guided by his friend George, son of S. K. Salting, in buying Chinese porcelain and ivories, but paintings 'he chose for himself'. A shy man, who would never speak on the telephone, he was happiest among his relations.

In old age Knox wrote some random recollections. He resigned from the board of C.S.R. in February 1933, died at Rona on 26 June and was buried in Waverley cemetery after a service at All Saints Anglican Church, Woollahra, where he had worshipped all his life. He was survived by his wife and four daughters; the eldest Dorothy married (Sir) Colin Stephen. His younger brothers were Thomas Forster (1849-1919), managing director of the Sydney branch of Dalgety & Co. Ltd for many years, and Sir Adrian, chief justice of the High Court.

Knox's 'intuitive knowledge of the course to be taken in emergencies' enabled the 'Sugar Company' to surmount the crises and fluctuations in price that beset the industry. As a salaried man he thought it wrong to speculate and his fortune derived from shares in the company. His estate was valued for probate at £223,701 in New South Wales and £4066 in Victoria. His portrait by Longstaff, in the Union Club, emphasized his glistening white hair and beard, 'the face so full of health and open air vitality', and his piercing china-blue eyes. Portraits of him and Mrs Knox by McInnes, painted for their golden wedding in 1928, are held by the family, and a bronze bust by Lyndon Dadswell is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Select Bibliography

  • Colonial Sugar Refining Co., Account of the Proceedings at the Presentation to E. W. Knox (Syd, 1914)
  • A. G. Lowndes (ed), South Pacific Enterprise (Syd, 1956)
  • P. R. Stephensen (ed), Sydney Sails (Syd, 1962)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vols 1-2 (Syd, 1964, 1979)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1902-03, 2 (31)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1912, 3, p 1035, 1913, 4, p 1169, 1920, 4, p 960
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, 1912, vol 15, p 182, 1914, vol 17, p 644
  • Australian Sugar Journal, Jan 1977, p 492
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept 1921, 28 Mar 1928, 4 May, 27 June 1933
  • C.S.R. Co. records (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Knox, Edward William (1847–1933)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knox-edward-william-6990/text12151, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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