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Nathan, Sir Maurice Arnold (1914–1982)

by David Dunstan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Maurice Arnold Nathan (1914-1982), businessman and lord mayor, was born on 17 July 1914 at Kew, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Harold Benjamin Nathan, company secretary, and his wife Elizabeth St John, née Mall.  Educated at Trinity and Geelong Church of England Grammar schools, Maurice played football, cricket and tennis and became a school prefect at Geelong.  Influenced by his headmaster there, (Sir) James Darling, he initiated programs to assist unemployed boys and worked with a slum-clearance project run by the Brotherhood of St Laurence.  Aged 18, he joined Patersons Ltd, founded as the Richmond Furnishing Co. Pty Ltd by his grandfather and great-uncle, and became a director in 1937.  Following his father’s death in 1938, he and his younger brother assumed responsibility for running Patersons’ twelve stores and their two hundred employees.

In 1938 Nathan won the Victorian and national squash championships.  A back injury delayed his enlistment, but from 12 December 1941 he served in the Citizen Military Forces; he was appointed an acting lieutenant in April 1942.  On 19 December that year at Christ Church of England, South Yarra, he married Scottish-born Margaret Frances McKay, a secretary.  Seconded to the Australian Imperial Force the following August and attached to the 4th Advanced Ordnance Depot, he was promoted to captain in February 1943 and served in Buna, Papua, from January 1944 to June 1945.  He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 8 August.

Nathan returned to Patersons as chief executive (chairman, 1954).  Wealthy and energetic, he led an expanding enterprise that became a public company in 1949.  He was president (1951-53) of the Victorian Furniture Industries Confederation and the Australian Retail Furnishers Association.  Elected to Melbourne City Council in 1952, he was a founding member (1953) of the City Development Association and again supported slum clearance, now coupling the cause to high-rise development.  He was committed to the construction of a city ring road, a city square and underground rail, the provision of American-style hotels and an end to restrictive alcohol licensing.

Joining non-Labor members on the MCC’s Civic Group, Nathan chaired the special organising and civic committees for the 1956 Olympic Games.  He advocated an open-air festival, which in 1955 became Moomba, and with Sir John Jungwirth established the Victoria Promotion Committee in 1956.  As its chairman he travelled extensively, and in 1959 was joined by Premier (Sir) Henry Bolte on a mission to the United States of America, Britain and Europe.  Although he shared much with Bolte he did not gain the premier’s backing for ambitious plans for a world fair.  He also initiated the sale of the eastern and western markets but failed to secure the support of other councillors because—as the Herald reported in 1962—of his inability to compromise.

Appointed CBE (1957), Nathan served as lord mayor in 1961-63.  His two terms marked a high point of business and development influence in the council, including the recommendation for an international airport at Tullamarine.  At the same time Margaret Nathan set 'a glittering standard' in presiding over social activities.  Knighted in 1963, Sir Maurice supported council amalgamations as proposed by the town clerk, Frank Rogan, but the project failed over concerns that the new body would overwhelm business influence.  Amid anti-Vietnam War protests in 1970 he changed his stand to endorse, as a free-speech issue, the repeal of a by-law prohibiting the unauthorised handing out of leaflets on city streets.  He resigned from the council in 1972 to devote more time to his business and other commitments.

Competitive in business, in 1968 Nathan became chairman of Courage Breweries, set up by British Tobacco (Aust) Ltd and Courage Ltd in a bid to break the monopoly of Carlton and United Breweries Ltd.  When he resigned in 1972 the company had lost nearly $5 million.  Meanwhile Patersons had become one of the nation’s largest home furnishing chains, with more than sixty outlets in Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania.  In 1974 the London-based Great Universal Stores Ltd purchased 70 per cent of the firm, leaving Nathan still involved in management.  The relationship proved acrimonious and GUS purchased Patersons outright in 1977.

Nathan’s interests in sport were extensive.  He owned several race horses and was a long serving committee member of the Victorian Amateur Turf Club Association.  A keen Carlton Football Club supporter, he served (1971-77) as honorary president of the Victorian Football League.  With the completion of its stadium, Waverley Park, and growing gate receipts, the VFL had become a business that Nathan was determined to build.  His casting vote secured the election of his youthful, ardently 'expansionist' successor, Allen Aylett.

Of medium build, stocky and balding, but always well dressed, Nathan was 'a real driver'to his admirers but domineering, even 'pushing', to others.  A civic patrician who took full advantage of Melbourne’s interconnected business, sporting and social circles, he had no higher political aspirations than lord mayor but was treasurer and raised funds for the Liberal Party of Australia.  He never considered himself overworked, just busy.  Saturdays were divided between the office, racing and football; Sundays were spent in the garden of his Toorak home.  He steadily withdrew from public commitments following a heart attack in 1977.  Survived by his wife and their son, Sir Maurice died of coronary artery disease on 13 December 1982 at East Melbourne and was cremated.  A portrait by Paul Fitzgerald is privately held.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Aylett, My Game (1986)
  • Corian, September 1983, p 212
  • Australian Financial Times, 19 February 1962, p 21
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 July 1962, p 5, 29 April 1971, p 2
  • Melbourne Observer, 4 July 1971, p 9
  • Bulletin, 22 April 1972, p 31
  • Australian, 22 March 1972, p 9, 11 November 1972, p 1
  • B883, item VX81124 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Nathan, Sir Maurice Arnold (1914–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nathan-sir-maurice-arnold-14983/text26172, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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