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Mawby, Sir Maurice Alan Edgar (1904–1977)

by Frank Strahan

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

Sir Maurice Alan Edgar Mawby (1904-1977), industrialist, was born on 31 August 1904 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, son of Charles Curtis Mawby, a grocer's assistant who came from England, and his South Australian-born wife Alice Maud, née Smith. Maurie attended Broken Hill District and High schools, then studied part time at the local technical college on a scholarship. He gained diplomas in metallurgy (1927) and geology (1934), and won the college's bronze medal in 1934. Often seen collecting mineral specimens and gemstones, he was known to members of the Barrier Field Naturalists' Club as 'the boy on the bicycle'. He identified seventeen of the rarer minerals among the 150 individual species around Broken Hill's complex lodes and also became an ardent naturalist, developing expertise in the botany and zoology of the West Darling area.

Mining and metals treatment were the core of Mawby's intense and vibrant working life. In 1921 he served as a junior analyst with the technical commission of inquiry which investigated the prevalence of miners' phthisis and pneumoconiosis in the metalliferous mines at Broken Hill. Next year he joined the Junction North mine as an assayer and analyst. By 1924 he was company metallurgist in charge of some eighty men. Following the closure of Junction North in 1928, Mawby joined the Zinc Corporation Ltd as a surveyor's assistant on a ventilation survey. He gained varied experience in mining engineering and metallurgical practice. At the Sulphide Street Methodist Church, Broken Hill, on 19 March 1929 he married Lena Lillian White. Promoted mill foreman, he met (1935) W. S. Robinson who influenced him profoundly. Mawby and a workmate (Sir) George Fisher (later chairman of Mount Isa Mines Ltd) toured North America, Europe and Africa in 1937-38 with Robinson's backing. Their reports shaped the design of the company's underground and metallurgical operations.

With support from Robinson, Mawby sought in the late 1930s to establish 'the green belt', and engaged Albert Morris to regenerate flora and fauna in the arid, dusty country surrounding Zinc Corporation and its associated line of lode offshoot, New Broken Hill Consolidated Ltd. Other mines and the local council followed his example. As mill superintendent, he oversaw the commissioning (1939) of an innovative all-flotation plant for simultaneous separation of silver, lead, zinc, gold and copper from the Broken Hill ores. Sydney Technical College awarded him a fellowship in 1942 for his thesis on the application of the all-flotation process. During World War II Mawby directed his skills towards the discovery and increased production of strategic minerals and metals. He was technical secretary (1941-44) of the Commonwealth Copper and Bauxite Committee (Australia) which identified on King Island world-class deposits of scheelite—vital as a source for tungsten which was used as capping on anti-tank shells. In 1942 he was a member of a government mission to North America and Mexico to study metallurgical practices. He was appointed manager of New Broken Hill in 1944; he was also chief metallurgist there, and for Zinc Corporation.

Seeking wider experience, Mawby accepted appointment as director of research and development with Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd in 1945, which entailed moving to Melbourne. At the behest of Robinson he returned to Zinc Corporation in 1946 as director of exploration and research. In 1949 Zinc Corporation in Britain merged with the Imperial Smelting Corporation Ltd to form Consolidated Zinc Corporation Ltd and an Australian subsidiary, Consolidated Zinc Pty Ltd. Following the transfer of management from London to Melbourne in 1951, Mawby became vice-chairman (1955) of C.Z.P. and a director (1956) of C.Z.C. Robinson's son Lyell was chairman of both companies.

Mawby was keen to exploit millions of tons of high-grade bauxite, the ore for refining to alumina, recently discovered by a C.Z.P. geologist at Weipa, Cape York Peninsula, Queensland, under the direction of the Australian subsidiary. L. B. Robinson, however, favoured a C.Z.C. initiative in association with the British Aluminium Co. Ltd. In December 1956 the Commonwealth Aluminium Corporation Ltd was registered in Queensland. Over the next four years complicated takeover moves from powerful American companies and counter-manoeuvring occurred. In September 1960 C.Z.P. consented to acquire the B.A.C. component of Comalco's finance. Meanwhile Mawby and (Sir) Donald Hibberd had been negotiating (from 1958) on behalf of C.Z.P. with the Kaiser Aluminum & Chemical Corporation of the United States of America. On 12 October 1960 Kaiser agreed to enter a fifty-fifty partnership—Comalco Industries Pty Ltd was registered on 15 December—and accepted that management of Comalco would be Australian-based. On the death of L. B. Robinson in July 1961, Mawby became chairman of C.Z.P. and of Comalco, with Hibberd managing director of the latter.

In 1962 Mawby was made a director of Rio Tinto Zinc Corporation Ltd (formed by the merger of C.Z.C. with Rio Tinto Co. Ltd, London), a company with worldwide metals and metallurgical interests. Conzinc Rio Tinto of Australia Ltd (C.R.A.) was formed at the same time, by a merger of C.Z.P. with the smaller Rio Tinto Mining Co. of Australia Ltd whose main asset was a majority shareholding in Mary Kathleen Uranium Ltd, Queensland. Appointed chairman, Mawby declared that, as to Australia, C.Z.C. 'had lots of deposits, lots of work ahead, lots of development and limited money, and they [Rio Tinto] had lots of money and no projects'.

It was Mawby's strongly held and applied belief that, since the natural resources were Australian, initiative, direction and control of development should be Australian. He was strongly backed by Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies and Deputy Prime Minister (Sir) John McEwen. The Bell Bay aluminium plant, established in Tasmania by the State and Commonwealth governments during World War II, was acquired and enlarged; a refinery was built at Gladstone, Queensland, and a smelter at Bluff Harbour, New Zealand; at Weipa, the township, port and attendant facilities were developed. Mawby oversaw an intensified search for iron ore in the Pilbara region, Western Australia, and in 1962 a massive ore body was discovered at Mount Tom Price, Hamersley Ranges. A huge open-cut mining operation was established, with a railway connecting to it a port at Dampier. Townships were built at both places. The first shipments of ore from Dampier were made by Hamersley Iron Pty Ltd on 22 August 1966. Twenty-three million tons were extracted in 1973, and a second mine opened and a township built at Paraburdoo, 60 miles (97 km) south of Mount Tom Price.

A major copper enterprise closely followed, presenting another achievement vigorously inspired and nurtured by Mawby. He intensified the exploration of a copper-gold resource in the Panguna Valley on Bougainville Island, Territory of Papua and New Guinea. The metal deposits were of relatively low percentage, yet technological developments in open-cut mining could now render this an economically viable venture. After eight years of exploration, evaluation and construction, again including a township, mining was begun in 1972 by the C.R.A. subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Ltd. Yields would be of prime benefit—through leasing, royalties and dividend payments—to the national economy of Papua New Guinea.

Appointed C.B.E. in 1959, Mawby was knighted in 1963. He chose a wooden poppet-head, a mallee fowl and a desert pea for his coat of arms, graced with the motto of Broken Hill High School: Palma non sine pulvere ('no prize is won without effort'). Relinquishing executive responsibilities with C.R.A. in 1969, he remained chairman until 1974. With 23,000 employees, sales revenue of $833.5 million and dividends of $36.1 million, C.R.A. was second only to Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd among Australian companies. Mawby also resigned as chairman of Hamersley Iron Pty Ltd, Bougainville Copper Ltd and Interstate Oil Ltd, and as a director of C.R.A.'s many subsidiary companies. Other directorships that he held included Australian Titan Products Pty Ltd, several insurance companies belonging to the Guardian Royal Exchange Assurance Group, Kembla Coal & Coke Pty Ltd, and the Australian Mines & Metals Association.

A student member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy in 1923, Mawby was president (1952-54, 1958) and received its highest honour, the bronze medal, in 1956. As an honorary member of the Institution of Mining and Metallurgy, London, he represented Australia on its council for some years and was awarded (1964) its gold medal. He was acting-president of the fifth Empire (later Commonwealth) Mining and Metallurgical Congress in 1953, and president of the eighth congress in 1965. The American Institute of Mining, Metallurgical and Petroleum Engineers bestowed honorary membership on Mawby in 1964 for his 'outstanding contribution to the world lead and zinc mining industry and for his able and constructive services in developing the raw materials resources of Australia'. He was a fellow (1969) of the Australian Academy of Science, a life member of the Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, a member of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, London, the faculty of engineering, University of Melbourne (1962-72), and the Victorian State Committee of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, and a foundation member (1967) of the Australian Mining Industry Council.

Mawby was inaugural president (1959) of Australian Mineral Industries Research Association Ltd, which established the Australian Mineral Development Laboratories for comprehensive contract-research to benefit the mining industry. He became first life member of the Australia-Japan Business Co-operation Committee for encouragement of Japanese studies in Australia. Although an early member and councillor (1968-74) of the Australian Conservation Foundation, he decided that the conservation movement leaned towards people whose attitudes were 'based on hearsay, intolerance and sheer emotionalism, with little regard to facts and citizenship responsibilities'. He withdrew from the foundation. Mawby was a multiculturalist and a humanist. 'People', he said, 'are the basis of the mining industry: the technical part is secondary . . . Mining engineers don't worry so much about politics and nationalities, mining transcends all boundaries'.

His awards included an honorary doctorate of science (1955) from the New South Wales University of Technology. The University of Melbourne presented him with the Kernot medal for 1965 'in recognition of his distinguished engineering achievement in exploration, research and development in the mining and metallurgical industry in and beyond the continent of Australia, and his concern for preservation of the environment'. In 1975 the Victoria Institute of Colleges conferred on him an honorary doctorate of arts and sciences. A member of the Athenaeum (Melbourne), Broken Hill, Melbourne and Commonwealth (Canberra) clubs, Mawby enjoyed tennis, swimming, shooting and motoring. He had a soft, smiling face and far-seeing eyes. His successor as chairman of C.R.A., (Sir) Roderick Carnegie, said one of 'Sir Maurice's greatest attributes was his ability to lead and be well liked in the process. He generated enthusiasm in others . . . instilling a team spirit in those whom he led'. Mawby believed that in 'the ultimate sense development is concerned with people: the development of human personality and understanding is really the objective of all economic endeavour'. Survived by his wife and son, Sir Maurice died on 4 August 1977 in East Melbourne and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at $209,833. The National Museum of Victoria acquired his collection of minerals. His portrait by Peter Zageris is held by Comalco Ltd, Brisbane.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Woodcock (ed), Mining and Metallurgical Practices in Australasia (Melb, 1980)
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, Nov 1980
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8 Aug 1977
  • CRA Ltd records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • J. Ralph, Sir Maurice Mawby (typescript, 1991, copy held on ADB file)
  • M. Pratt, interview with Sir Maurice Mawby (transcript, 1971, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Frank Strahan, 'Mawby, Sir Maurice Alan Edgar (1904–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mawby-sir-maurice-alan-edgar-11090/text19745, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 November 2018.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

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

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