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Nettlefold, Isaac Robert (1877–1946)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

This is a shared entry with Thomas Sydney Richard Nettlefold

Sir Thomas Sydney Richard Nettlefold (1879-1956) and Isaac Robert Nettlefold (1877-1946), businessmen, were sons of Thomas Nettlefold, farmer, and his wife Susan, née Olden, both from Birmingham, England. Thomas was born on 11 November 1879 at Tunnack, Tasmania, and educated at Harrington's school, Hobart. He claimed to have begun his career at 14 as a newspaper office-boy but in 1896 he joined a brother, possibly Alfred John who started a small business that year, and went on to establish the Hobart Daily Post in 1908. On 27 February 1906 Thomas, giving his occupation as outfitter, married Gertrude Elizabeth Sargison in Hobart. In 1914 he was appointed branch manager for Tasmania of the Hume Bros Cement Iron Co. Ltd of Adelaide. On the formation of the Hume Pipe Co. (Aust) Ltd in 1920 he moved to Melbourne as general manager for Australia.

Tall, indefatigable, bland and genial, with a flair for the conduct and control of meetings, he quickly gained a reputation as 'a busy man'. In 1922 he was also appointed general manager of the New Zealand branch and of the newly formed Singapore Hume Pipe Co. Ltd. Committed enthusiastically to a policy of expansion Thomas was credited with an ambition 'to lay cement pipes around the world'. In 1924 he personally negotiated the sale of the company's patented process rights when manufacturing plants were established in Britain, France, Germany, North and South America, Japan, the Philippines and India. Such rapid expansion was not without problems, however, and after Walter Hume rejoined the company Nettlefold relinquished the general managership in mid-1928. He then became managing director of Cement Distributors Pty Ltd, selling agency for Goliath Portland Cement Co. Ltd, established the same year.

Nettlefold continued to direct an impressive variety of business, philanthropic and civic interests. An outspoken patriot and a supporter of the National and United Australia parties, he was a founder with (Sir) Wilfrid Kent Hughes of the Young Nationalist movement in 1930, resigning in November 1931 in protest against lack of co-operation and delay in obtaining candidates for parliamentary election. In 1935 he was president of the Constitutional Club. A Melbourne city councillor in 1930-51, he was war-time lord mayor in 1942-45. Many major war charities claimed his time, as well as the Red Cross and the Big Brother movement and, appropriately in the light of his frequent overseas trips, he was a leading 'Resonian', an organization celebrating education through travel. In 1938 he was appointed C.B.E. and in 1945 he was knighted. Chairman of directors of a host of companies including the Royal Insurance Co. Ltd of Australia, City Mutual Life Assurance Society Ltd (Victoria), and the British firm of Woodall-Duckham Ltd, he was later a director of Hume Industries (1949) and senior partner in T. S. Nettlefold Holdings Ltd, general merchants and distributors. He was a councillor of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures, and after James Hume Cook founded the Australian Industries Protection League in 1922 Nettlefold was its president for fifteen years.

The five Nettlefold brothers were well known in Hobart commercial and sporting circles. Tom had links with amateur athletics, golf, fishing and bowls, and had been Tasmanian representative on the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia. In 1928 when he saw the Davis Cup played in England on the new en-tout-cas surface, he enthusiastically imported it to Australia. A president of the Royal Automobile Club of Victoria, he was a member of the Savage and Athenaeum clubs.

After a breakdown in his health in 1950, Nettlefold retired from public life the following March. He died on 20 July 1956 in Singapore General Hospital of cerebral haemorrhage while on a holiday cruise, and was cremated. Lady Nettlefold, two sons and a daughter survived him.

Robert was born on 25 July 1877 at Tunnack and was educated at Rev. Gray's grammar school, leaving to gain experience in a succession of businesses before beginning his own in 1904 as a general merchant in Macquarie Street, Hobart. On 29 October 1898 he married 19-year-old Edith Maria Hutchison from Adelaide, at Bellerive. A representative of the Victoria Insurance Co. Ltd in 1905-12, he combined selling fire insurance to farmers with dealing in their wool, skins and produce, later selling them their farm machinery through his franchise from the International Harvester Co. (Australia) Pty Ltd. In 1910 he founded the motor garage business, Robert Nettlefold Pty Ltd.

Pleasant and courteous, with a reputation for soundness, Robert inspired trust. In 1920 he was foundation chairman of the Hume Pipe Co. (Australia) Ltd, elected after Sir John Monash declined; he resigned in 1929. He impressed his successor Alexander McLachlan as a 'remarkably able business man' and by his readiness to listen to argument. Chairman of Motors Pty Ltd, Yellow Cabs (Tasmania) Pty Ltd and of Robert Nettlefold Pty Ltd, he was a director of Mercantile Mutual Insurance Co. Ltd and one of the founders of Commercial Broadcasters Pty Ltd. In 1920 he was appointed O.B.E. for his war-time Red Cross activities: foundation treasurer for southern Tasmania (1914-45), he was chairman of the Lady Clark Red Cross Convalescent Home in 1940-45 and of the Veterans' Trust, a British Red Cross fund. He was a foundation member of the Hobart Rotary Club and committee-member of the Royal Agricultural Society.

Robert was the most versatile and successful sportsman of the family (his elder brother William was a leading amateur billiards and bowls player), holding tennis, royal tennis and table tennis titles, including a Tasmanian doubles tennis championship. When he turned to golf he won Tasmanian titles and the Rotary International Championship at Brussels in 1928. With his son Leonard, who was Australian amateur golf champion (1926) and won the Tasmanian amateur title eight times, he tied for the Australian foursomes title (Adelaide, 1926). A member of the Royal and Ancient Club, St Andrews, Scotland, he founded the Kingston Beach, Hobart, golf club. He was also a keen cricketer and angler. An Anglican, he was a churchwarden and parish representative at synod. He died of coronary vascular disease on 16 September 1946 at Kingston, and was buried there. His wife, a son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • M. McArthur (ed), Prominent Tasmanians (Hob, 1924)
  • A. J. McLachlan, McLachlan (Adel, 1948)
  • F. Howard, Kent Hughes (Melb, 1972)
  • Tasmanian Mail, 4 Mar 1920
  • Herald (Melbourne), 31 Aug 1914, 26 Jan, 17 Sept 1928, 28 Aug 1942
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 July 1956
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6 Mar 1965, 17 Sept 1946, 19 Sept 1946
  • Hume Pipe Co. (Australia) Ltd papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Nettlefold, Isaac Robert (1877–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/nettlefold-isaac-robert-8496/text13573, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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