Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Petty, Sir Horace Rostill (1904–1982)

by David Dunstan

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

Sir Horace Rostill Petty (1904-1982), politician, was born on 25 March 1904 at Richmond, Melbourne, one of two children of English-born parents Frederick Charles Petty, wood-engraver, and his wife Alice Maud, née Rostill (d.1908).  Horace was educated at South Yarra State and University High schools, Hassett’s Business College and the University of Melbourne (B.Com., 1929).  Employed (1924-32) by Shell Co. of Australia Ltd, he was admitted as a licentiate (1927) and associate (1938) of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants.  On 22 February 1930 at St Patrick’s Catholic Cathedral, East Melbourne, he married Mary Margaret Anastasia (Mollie) Watt.  After working in a number of other sales and accounting positions, in 1937 Petty became the circulation manager of the Melbourne Argus.

Enlisting in the Citizen Military Forces on 23 August 1940, Petty joined the 29th Battalion.  He was promoted to probationary lieutenant in December, rising to temporary major in April 1942.  In August he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force and in the following January was appointed deputy assistant director of public relations, Northern Territory Force.  He was demobilised in March 1944.  After returning briefly to the Argus, he purchased a newsagency at Toorak, Melbourne.  He was president (1950-52) of the Victorian Authorised Newsagents’ Association.

When Petty first sought preselection for the Liberal Party of Australia in 1948 he claimed twenty-five years work with anti-socialist parties in Victoria.  He had been a 'special constable' at the time of the 1923 police strike, a Young Nationalist from 1929 and a member of the Liberal Party from its formation in 1944.  A member (1945-52) and founding chairman of the Liberal Speakers Group, he served (1949-52) on the Liberal and Country Party executive.  A Prahran City councillor (1949-52), he was mayor (1951-52) and in 1951 he organised local government opposition to the Greater Melbourne Council bill that threatened abolition of Melbourne’s municipalities.  He was first elected to the Legislative Assembly seat of Toorak as a Liberal Country Party member, in a close by-election in September 1952; he was re-elected at the general election in December.

Taking 'a strong stand on almost every issue', as minister of housing (1955-61) in (Sir) Henry Bolte’s government Petty presided over the reorganisation of the Housing Commission of Victoria, raised public housing rents, introduced private sector initiatives and values and advocated slum clearance and high-rise residential redevelopment.  He abolished the Camp Pell temporary housing settlement, formed in 1946, and oversaw construction of the 1956 Olympic Games Village.  Following visits in 1959 to Britain and the United States of America he initiated the building of the Commission’s first block of multi-storey flats and the sale of rented homes to tenants.  However, evictions from public housing, the unpopularity of high-rise housing for families and Petty’s personal style provoked opposition.  Removed from the housing portfolio, he became minister of public works (1961-64).  Undaunted, he 'slashed' the use of day labour on building projects and insisted on contracts and completion of work by due date.  He urged the building of freeways to solve Melbourne’s traffic congestion. In 1956-62 he was also minister of immigration.

Knighted in 1964, Petty was Victorian agent-general in London (1964-70), where he controversially supported racial bias in Australian and Commonwealth immigration policies, and the discriminatory regimes of South Africa and Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe).  Premier Bolte had to disown such comments, but considered him 'a great Minister . . . and a great man'.  Other contemporaries described Petty as 'strong minded, vigorous and forthright' and 'not a politician’s politician'.

Five ft 6 ins (168 cm), solid and square-jawed, Petty was often photographed well turned out in collar, tie, jacket, RSL badge and neat hair, kept that way by regular use of hair oil.  After retirement he took on directorships of Lombard (Australia) Ltd, Allied English Potteries Pty Ltd, Italiano Cheese Industries Ltd and J. D. MacDonald Engineering Co. Ltd; he was also chairman of Trendex Mineral Corporation Ltd.  In the 1970s he served customers in the Toorak newsagency, then owned by his son, and sometimes delivered newspapers in his Mercedes.  Divorced in 1959, on 27 November that year at South Yarra Presbyterian Church he married Beryl Anne Hoelter, née Wylie.  Sir Horace died on 16 February 1982 at Richmond and was buried in Springvale cemetery after a state funeral at St John’s Anglican Church, Toorak.  He was survived by his wife and the two sons and two daughters of his first marriage.  A housing estate in Prahran bears his name.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Blazey, Bolte (1972)
  • R. Howe (ed), New Houses For Old (1988)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Council, Victoria), 27 April 1982, p 7
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria) 27 April 1982, p 51
  • Australian Builder, January 1956, p 9
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 July 1963, p 6, 1 December 1969, p 13, 2 August 1974, p 6
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 March 1968, p 5
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 17 February 1982, p 34
  • Southern Cross, 24 February 1982, p 1
  • B883, item VX 80957 (National Archives of Australia)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Dunstan, 'Petty, Sir Horace Rostill (1904–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/petty-sir-horace-rostill-15087/text26289, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 October 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018