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McDonald, Sir Warren D'arcy (1901–1965)

by John Farquharson

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

Warren D'arcy McDonald (1901-1965), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1963

Warren D'arcy McDonald (1901-1965), by John Aloysius Mulligan, 1963

National Library of Australia

Sir Warren D'arcy McDonald (1901-1965), engineer, industrialist, soldier and banker, was born on 23 September 1901 at Penguin, Tasmania, son of William Patrick McDonald, a building contractor of Irish and Scottish descent, and his wife Christina Louise Gaffney. Warren spent his early childhood at Strahan. Sent to Hadspen State School, he won a scholarship to Launceston Church Grammar School. At the age of 17 he gained another to the University of Tasmania where he intended to study medicine. Because his scholarship could not be taken up until he was 18, he became a cadet-engineer with the Tasmanian Hydro-Electric Department. He relinquished his university place and never regretted his change of career, later remarking that: 'As an engineer you see what you have done. It's in concrete; it's there. I enjoy travelling over some bridge I have built . . . Every bridge is different. For the fellow who built it, it has its own personality'. The simplicity and camaraderie of life in construction camps also appealed to him.

About 1925 McDonald moved to Camperdown, Victoria, as assistant-engineer of Hampden Shire. Within eighteen months he resigned to supervise the construction of houses in Canberra under a contract which the Federal Capital Commission let to his father. Warren was to become a permanent resident of the national capital, identifying himself with the community and taking pride in the city and its development. On 14 December 1927 at St Patrick's Catholic Church, Sydney, he married Christina Helen Sullivan, a 28-year-old tailoress. That year he won a contract to build a section of the Federal Highway between Canberra and Goulburn. Following the death of his father in 1936, he took over the family business, establishing McDonald Constructions Pty Ltd and, in 1948, McDonald Industries Ltd.

On 5 October 1939 McDonald had enlisted in the Militia as a sapper. Commissioned in January 1940, he was seconded to the Australian Imperial Force in May and posted to the 7th Divisional Engineers. After serving in the Middle East from November 1940 to March 1942, he was promoted lieutenant colonel and took part in the Papuan campaign as chief engineer (from April 1942) of the 6th Division. He then performed staff and training duties in Australia. In June 1945 he flew to Bougainville as temporary brigadier and chief engineer, II Corps. Returning home in October, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 7 December and was mentioned in dispatches (1947).

At the Federal elections in 1946, McDonald unsuccessfully contested the seat of Hume for the Country Party. Next year the Chifley government asked him to advise the prices commissioner on building costs. McDonald gradually established strong political contacts with (Sir) Robert Menzies and the Liberal Party. In 1952 Menzies' administration appointed him to the Australian National Airlines Commission, which operated Trans-Australia Airlines; he became vice-chairman in 1956 and chairman in February 1957. The government used the Airlines Equipment Act (1958) to block T.A.A.'s choice of new aircraft, much to the advantage of its private-enterprise competitor, Ansett-ANA. McDonald's decision to engage the public-relations firm, Eric White Associates Pty Ltd, proved important in restoring T.A.A.'s standing.

Although he knew next to nothing of banking, McDonald was selected as foundation chairman of the Commonwealth Banking Corporation in 1959. He gave the corporation 'inspired direction' which, among other things, ensured the success of the Commonwealth Development Bank of Australia. McDonald staunchly advocated developing northern Australia, in which endeavour his company played its part by constructing beef-roads in Queensland and railways in Western Australia. He was also a driving force in the campaign to increase Australian exports, and in January-February 1962 led a trade mission to countries in the Middle East and eastern Mediterranean region.

A member (1953-64) of the council of the Australian National University, McDonald chaired the buildings and grounds committee; his policy of distributing commissions to numerous architects produced a plethora of building styles. In addition, he played a key part in launching the National Heart Foundation of Australia. As its genial, but concerned, founding president (1959-64), he took hard decisions when necessary to ensure sound funding. The foundation's Warren McDonald research fellowship commemorates him.

McDonald was thickset, with silver hair and a ruddy complexion. Able, extremely energetic, well-informed and widely travelled, he was very competitive and hated to be beaten. His recreations included golf, fishing and tennis. He had represented the Australian Capital Territory in cricket, of which he was a devotee, and in Australian Rules football. In 1957 he was appointed C.B.E. He was elevated to K.B.E. in 1964 for 'public service in many fields'. Survived by his wife and three daughters, Sir Warren died of cerebral thrombosis on 12 November 1965 at Lewisham, Sydney, and was buried in Canberra cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (Canb, 1959)
  • G. Long, The Final Campaigns (Canb, 1963)
  • I. Sabey, Challenge in the Skies (Melb, 1979)
  • Transair, Aug 1952
  • Age (Melbourne), 13 May 1964
  • Canberra Times, 13, 16 Nov 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13, 16 Nov 1965
  • Commonwealth Bank of Australia Archives (Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'McDonald, Sir Warren D'arcy (1901–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonald-sir-warren-darcy-10938/text19435, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 22 August 2014.

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

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