Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Knox, Sir Robert Wilson (1890–1973)

by D. H. Borchardt

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

Sir Robert Wilson Knox (1890-1973), businessman, was born on 17 May 1890 at South Yarra, Melbourne, fourth son of William Knox and his wife Catherine Mary, née McMurtrie. (Sir) George Knox was his eldest brother. Educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he excelled at athletics and was a lieutenant in the Cadet Corps, he joined his father's mining firm Knox, Schlapp & Co. in 1908. He was a member of the Old Melburnians Council from 1912 to 1924. On 11 November 1914 at the school chapel he married Victoria Ivy, daughter of Sir William and Lady (Janet) Clarke.

During World War I Knox was an executive member of the Victorian central council of the Australian Red Cross Society and served as a commissioner in Egypt and France. After the war his career in commerce and insurance burgeoned. He was the first federal president of the Australian Association of British Manufacturers (1919-20) and in 1928 was elected president of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce and vice-president of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Australia (president, 1934-36). In 1929-34 he was chairman of the Australian national committee of the International Chamber of Commerce. A consultant to the Australian delegation to the Ottawa conference on tariffs and trade in 1932, he was knighted in 1934. In 1936 when he was an executive member of the central council of the Employers' Federation of Australia he represented the Australian employers at the International Labour Organisation in Geneva.

Knox's business links included at various times directorships of Dunlop (Australia) Ltd, Vickers Australia Pty Ltd, Vickers Commonwealth Steel Products Ltd, the Bank of New Zealand, the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney (he was chairman of its Victorian board), Noyes Bros. Ltd and the Mount Lyell Mining and Railway Co. Ltd. He was chairman of directors of Knox Schlapp Ltd (1950-69), N.K.S. (Holdings) Ltd (1958-69) and the National Mutual Life Association of Australasia Ltd (1953-65). He was appointed a foundation director of the Victorian Gas & Fuel Corporation in 1951, having been on the board of the Metropolitan Gas Co. since 1938.

Unlike his father and brother, Sir Robert did not seek a parliamentary career, but he was nevertheless influential in politics. Early in 1931 as president of the National Union, the Nationalists' chief fund-raising body, he held discussions with 'the group', a conclave of Melbourne businessmen who, concerned to re-establish 'sound finance' in government, were endeavouring to unify the anti-Labor forces under the leadership of Joseph Lyons. Knox's role, resting on informality, is imprecisely defined; but he appears to have been deeply involved in persuading the Nationalist leader (Sir) John Latham to throw in his lot with Lyons and in formulating a new conservative policy statement. On 19 April he attended a meeting to form the United Australia Movement; this led in May to the establishment of the United Australia Party which won power in November. In subsequent years Knox continued to meet with and advise Lyons who became a firm friend.

A 'tall, big-framed figure', Knox played golf and tennis and ran a stud farm near Gisborne. He was a member of the Alfred Hospital Board of management and president of the Melbourne-based National Theatre Movement. Generous and friendly, he took a deep interest in the employees of the firms with which he was associated. He belonged to the Adelaide, Melbourne and Australian clubs and for many years his mansion Greenknowe was a centre of Toorak social life.

Predeceased by his wife, Knox died on 14 April 1973 in the Freemasons' Hospital, East Melbourne. After a funeral at Toorak Presbyterian Church, where he had been an elder, he was buried in the family vault at Boroondara cemetery. His estate of $633,369 was left to his daughter, surviving son and grandchildren. He had revoked small bequests to the Presbyterian Church in 1973.

Select Bibliography

  • A Century of Life (Melb, 1969)
  • Labour History, no 17, 1970, p 37
  • Age (Melbourne), 16 Apr 1973.

Citation details

D. H. Borchardt, 'Knox, Sir Robert Wilson (1890–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/knox-sir-robert-wilson-6993/text12155, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 2 August 2014.

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

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