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Mussen, Sir Gerald (1872–1960)

by B. E. Kennedy

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

Sir Gerald Mussen (1872-1960), entrepreneur, journalist and industrial relations consultant, was born on 17 October 1872 at Dunedin, New Zealand, son of Henry Garrett Mussen, surveyor, and his wife Harriett Alice, née Drew. He was educated at Southland High School, Invercargill. In 1897 he joined the gold rush to Coolgardie where he survived typhoid fever, then became a freelance journalist in Sydney. On 21 November 1900 he married Florence Elizabeth Gordon at Roseville and next year moved to Melbourne to report Federal politics for the Sydney Daily Telegraph. He became a close friend of W. S. Robinson and an associate of W. L. Baillieu, superintending his investments in 1908-10 and investigating plans in London and Germany to develop Victoria's brown coal. Through his friendship with the Labor leaders J. C. Watson and W. M. Hughes Mussen helped to reconcile the Labor government and the mining companies after Hughes's military raid on Collins House in November 1914.

W. S. Robinson, as managing director of Broken Hill Associated Smelters Pty Ltd at Port Pirie, South Australia, in 1915 turned to Mussen, who 'understood and sympathised with the Australian worker' and agreed about worker welfare schemes for assisting with labour and community problems. In 1917 Mussen was the company's full-time industrial adviser, heading its welfare and publicity department with journalistic flair, imagination and drive. He found Port Pirie a raw, industrial town where workers' families 'walk the dusty streets, look in the shop windows and as there is nowhere to sit down and nothing to see they go home again'.

There were no amenities at the plant and no sickness and accident insurance, despite the serious risk of lead poisoning from dust and fumes. Mussen, supported by Robinson and (Sir) Colin Fraser, introduced housing, industrial safety and health measures: smelter workers had lunch and changing rooms, accident and sickness insurance, first-aid care and a provident fund. To reduce living costs B.H.A.S. established boarding houses, a co-operative store and a firewood scheme, and to discourage absenteeism in a vital war industry Mussen developed a seaside holiday-camp. He collaborated with town planner Charles Reade to improve conditions: B.H.A.S. donated £1000 to a soldiers' memorial park, contributed to charities, and commissioned Reade to design a housing estate. Hundreds of men in what Mussen publicized as 'the world's largest working bee' built a twelve-acre (4.8 ha) children's playground in one day. During the conscription and industrial turmoil of 1916-17 Mussen used his influence with the local press and unions to isolate militants from Broken Hill, New South Wales, and consolidate support behind the war effort.

While he preached the 'gospel of happiness', delivering the Joseph Fisher lecture at the University of Adelaide in 1919 on 'The humanizing of commerce and industry', Mussen promoted himself as the 'single and lone specialist in Australia on this particular type of work'. After his success at Port Pirie he was appointed 'consulting industrialist' to the troubled field at Broken Hill in March 1919, reluctantly accepting £1000 a year instead of the £5000 he had nominated. Delays and disagreements notwithstanding, his proposals for a welfare trust won support from Baillieu, Fraser, Robinson, W. E. Wainwright, James Hebbard and (Sir) Herbert Gepp, and the companies subscribed £42,900 to the Barrier Industrial Association formed for this purpose.

Mussen found his efforts to improve industrial relations nullified by mounting conflict over the miners' union's 'revolutionary' log of claims and by demarcation disputes, but he worked with the hospital board and union leaders to fund a children's ward and, during the influenza epidemic, organized treatment facilities. Militants, however, denounced his policies as 'palliatives, sops, and doles to chloroform the worker' and the union paper attacked him as 'the greatest menace Broken Hill unionists have ever had to fight'. Mussen was a negotiator during the strike of 1919-20, suggesting a lead bonus to soften the hard line of Cyril Emery, the irascible president of the mine managers' association. With his assistant Baxter Cook he supervised the purchase and refitting of the Palace Hotel as a club for the Returned Soldiers' Association, the funding of the Barrier Distress Association and municipal relief works, and assisted the medical commission of Professor H. G. Chapman.

Mussen's close association with the owner-editor of the Barrier Miner, J. E. Davidson, led to the founding of the Adelaide News in 1922-23. It was as a newspaper proprietor that Mussen followed experiments to make paper pulp from short-fibred eucalyptus hardwood. In 1924 he was a negotiator between the Van Diemen's Land Co. and Amalgamated Zinc (de Bavay's) Ltd (controlled by Collins House) for tracts of Tasmanian forest and an intended mill site at Burnie. When Collins House lost interest, Mussen bought 125,000 acres (50,586 ha) and the mill site from the V.D.L. Co. and further options, all of which he transferred to Canberra Activities Pty Ltd. He lobbied the Tasmanian and Federal governments and urged his case before two parliamentary committees. The Lyons Tasmanian government legislated to encourage a wood pulp and paper industry. Canberra Activities sold out in 1930 to Paper Makers Pty Ltd, which Mussen helped to form with the essential support of (Sir) Colin Fraser. The project continued to languish through the Depression. In 1936, however, Associated Pulp & Paper Mills Ltd was formed. Throughout tortuous manoeuvres, Mussen had remained supremely confident. The company's first chairman Sir Walter Massy-Greene considered him 'an optimist—perhaps dangerously so', but recognized his pluck and courage. Mussen remained a major shareholder. In 1939 he was knighted.

Mussen formulated a comprehensive social welfare policy for the 750 employees at Burnie. Family medical and hospital cover was provided for a nominal contribution and in 1941, a dental clinic, financed by a production bonus. Such further innovations as a life assurance scheme and a scholarship fund, administered by a council of employees and management, were among the most original and advanced in Australia.

Mussen was active also as chairman of the Victorian Central Citrus Association (1924-30) and of the Federal Citrus Association (1927-30). He developed the fish-canning industry at Port Lincoln, South Australia, from 1937. During World War II he was a vigorous publicist for the war effort and national planning, advocating in many speeches the goals of full employment, improved health and education services, better housing and town planning. In 1944 he published Australia's Tomorrow. Ever an optimist, Mussen believed most causes of human suffering and misery were 'remediable'. His confidence was infectious and his broad sympathies and liberal views lifted the spirit of his staff and employees, who knew him simply as 'Muss'. He was personally reticent and preferred to avoid the limelight. His strength lay in negotiation and public relations rather than in original thought.

After a lingering illness Mussen died on 21 March 1960 in a Melbourne private hospital and was cremated with Anglican rites. Two sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • B. Kennedy, Silver, Sin and Sixpenny Ale (Melb, 1978)
  • B. Kennedy, A Tale of Two Mining Cities (Melb, 1984)
  • Bulletin, 9, 16 Dec 1959
  • C. B. Johnstone, A History of the Origins, Formation and Development of B.H.A.S. Pty. Ltd. at Port Pirie, South Australia (Ph.D. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1982)
  • A. G. L. Shaw, manuscript on Australian Pulp & Paper Mills Ltd.

Citation details

B. E. Kennedy, 'Mussen, Sir Gerald (1872–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mussen-sir-gerald-7718/text13519, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 July 2019.

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

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