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McCann, Sir Charles Francis (1880–1951)

by Joan Hancock and Eric Richards

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Charles Francis McCann (1880-1951), by Lafayette

Charles Francis McCann (1880-1951), by Lafayette

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7765

Sir Charles Francis McCann (1880-1951), agent-general and trade commissioner, was born on 10 June 1880 at Jamestown, South Australia, son of John Henry McCann, an Irish-born farmer, and his native-born wife Catherine Alice, née Morris. He was educated at Hornsdale State School and Christian Brothers' College, Adelaide.

At 18 McCann became a cadet with the Produce Export Department in Adelaide, and enjoyed remarkable promotion: by 1900 he was clerk-in-charge at the Dry Creek depot; six years later he became works manager at Port Adelaide; and in 1910 sub-manager of the department. That year he went to Western Australia to advise on the proposed construction of abattoirs and meat-export works. He was also chief inspector of wheat for South Australia and examining officer for export rabbits and meat. The detailed expertise which he accumulated, along with his rural family background, underpinned his career in the international marketing of primary produce.

From 1911 McCann deputized in London for the South Australian trade commissioner, succeeding to the position in 1914. In World War I he co-operated with the War Office's food supply department, organizing the import and distribution of frozen and chilled meat. Having developed both his commercial reputation and his trade contacts, in 1919 he became general manager in Argentina for the British-owned Smithfield & Argentine Meat Co. His eleven years with one of Australia's great trading rivals spanned labour troubles, a major plant enlargement and modernization programme, and the so-called 'meat war' within the cartel of overseas packing companies controlling Argentinian meat exports.

In 1930 McCann returned to London as a director of Minear, Munday & Millar Ltd, wholesale fruit-merchants with South Australian connexions. During the prolonged illness of South Australia's trade commissioner R. M. K. Lewis, McCann gave unpaid help to the agent-general, Sir Henry Barwell. When Lewis died in 1931 McCann resumed the trade commissionership for a five-year term. Although he resigned all his English and Argentinian appointments, his whole-hearted commitment to South Australia was briefly questioned in State parliament in July 1932; but the government and primary producers' organizations believed McCann was ideally qualified to represent the State's export marketing needs.

Barwell's successor in 1933, former Labor premier L. L. Hill, in early dispatches referred to McCann's 'splendid services'. But there was soon serious discord and friction in the London office, arising partly from petty misunderstanding, and partly from Hill's trespass into McCann's territory. In October McCann contemplated resignation; the government tried to resolve the conflict by making the trade commissioner responsible directly to the minister of agriculture. Hill accepted this, yet continued to interfere in trade matters, withheld McCann's correspondence, and instituted an audit of his activities. With relations at breaking-point, McCann visited Adelaide next June, ostensibly for discussions about marketing South Australian produce in Britain. In ten weeks he addressed over sixty meetings throughout the State, offering advice to fruit-growers, butter-manufacturers, dairymen, poultry-farmers, cattlemen, lamb and pig breeders, wine-makers and cereal-growers, urging them to study precise market requirements and to tailor quality and type of output to meet those demands. He also conferred in Melbourne and Sydney with the Graziers' Federal Council of Australia, advocating formation of an exporting authority similar to the recently established New Zealand Meat Board. He appreciated the need to sharpen Australia's competitive edge against South American export companies, whose sophisticated marketing organization gave them dominance in the British market.

In August 1934 McCann told the premier that he would not return to England as trade commissioner while Hill was agent-general. Unwilling to lose McCann, the government gave Hill the choice between recall and resignation. McCann replaced Hill, while retaining his post as trade commissioner, and assumed the combined position on 21 September.

Throughout the 1930s McCann sought to promote South Australian products in Britain by improving quality, packaging, distribution and publicity. To this job he brought extensive knowledge of the production and marketing of perishable goods, sound judgement and indefatigable energy. In 1938 he was knighted. Apart from a brief visit to South Australia, he remained in England in World War II, again assisting government food supply authorities. In 1943 he became a member of the International Wool Secretariat, and later its chairman. In the post-war years 'Charlie' cordially received streams of South Australian visitors in London, many of them taking up his time with requests for social calls, garden parties, and advice on accommodation, employment and personal matters. He helped Australian jockeys in the British racing industry, answered queries about horse-breeding and bloodstock, facilitated arrangements for migrants, and remitted detailed reports on trade prospects, marketing strategies and the condition of the State's produce on arrival. His advice, practical and to the point, was often reported to farmers in the South Australian Chronicle.

In 1950 McCann visited South Australia, and again crusaded at producers' meetings, speaking some seventy-five times. On his return to London he underwent an abdominal operation, his first experience of hospital, but died in office three months later of cancer, on 5 June 1951, after almost two decades of service as agent-general.

His greatest contribution had been as an export promoter. In the 1930s he had been an important advocate of international trade agreements: indeed their growth in the post-war years eventually reduced the scope for State promotion. He remained a key link in the economic relations between Australia and Britain. Combining vitality, hard experience, practical business expertise and many personal contacts, McCann was one of Australia's most effective representatives in London.

A Catholic, he had married Eileen Florence Hammond, a nurse from Strathalbyn, on 22 February 1909; they had a daughter and a son. His chief recreation was the racecourse.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1908 (20)
  • Public Service Review (South Australia), Feb 1909, Aug 1911, June 1914, Oct 1919
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 4, 13, 16 June, 13, 16, 21 Aug 1934, 1 Jan 1938, 7, 8 June 1951
  • Adelaide Stock and Station Journal, 19 Apr 1950
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 7 June 1951
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 7 June 1951, p 8
  • papers relating to Agent-General and Trade Commissioner (GRG 20/3, 20/6, 55, State Records of South Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joan Hancock and Eric Richards, 'McCann, Sir Charles Francis (1880–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccann-sir-charles-francis-680/text12665, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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