Australian Dictionary of Biography

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

Pitt, Henry Arthur (1872–1955)

by Andrew Lemon

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

Henry Arthur Pitt (1872-1955), civil servant and stockbroker, was born on 20 January 1872 at Colac, Victoria, fifth of eight children of Mark Augustine Pitt, Irish Catholic schoolteacher and occasional writer, and his wife Kate Mary, née Gibson. Harry's education—sound, formal, liberal—was received from his father at a succession of country schools. On his father's death in 1888, Pitt was diverted by financial need from his intention of studying law at university. The family moved to Melbourne, where he found work next year as a junior in the Public Service, supporting the schooling and university education of his younger brothers Herbert and Ernest Roland. Imbued with a strong sense of social justice, he was a follower of Henry George, with whom he may have felt some fellow feeling as a member of a poor and exiled Irish family.

On 5 April 1899 at Middle Park Pitt married Gertrude Augusta, eldest daughter of South Melbourne estate agent J. R. Buxton. Soon afterwards they moved to the remote town of Omeo, where Pitt served as clerk of courts for the next decade. His intelligence, industry and reliability were rewarded in 1909 when he returned to Melbourne to a promotion in the Treasury. In his own time he studied accountancy. In 1914 he was sent to London to work with the Victorian agent-general, returning early next year.

In 1916 Pitt was appointed manager of the new Australian Wheat Board. Criticized in some quarters as excessive state intervention, the compulsory pooling scheme, defended by Pitt in his 1918 pamphlet, The Australian Wheat Pooling Scheme, soon succeeded in guaranteeing substantial sales overseas and in delivering a cash return expeditiously to farmers. The board was a war-time expedient and was dismantled in 1922, with a return to State-based growers' co-operatives. Pitt was appointed O.B.E.

In 1923 he became permanent head of the Treasury under the Lawson government. His title of 'under treasurer' was altered to 'director of finance' under administrative rearrangements in 1928. He visited London again in 1927, briefly serving as agent-general.

When Pitt first headed the Treasury, the finances were sound, with handsome budget surpluses, but with the onset of the Depression the State faced a collapse in revenues. Pitt was closely involved in the premiers' conferences in 1931, which sought to deal with the crisis, and he urged an austere stand. Despite arousing unpopularity which contributed to its electoral defeat in May 1932, the Victorian Labor government implemented the spending cuts of the Premiers' Plan more rigorously than any of the other States, and this policy was continued by the Argyle government. By 1934-35 the burgeoning deficit had been almost eliminated. Pitt was appointed C.M.G. in 1934.

In October 1935 Pitt was named one of six royal commissioners to inquire into the Australian banking system. Prime Minister Joe Lyons saw the commission as a means of stifling the Labor clamour for bank nationalization, although Ben Chifley was one of the commissioners. Pitt's appointment was construed as a tribute to his independent thinking. The commission sat throughout 1936, next year recommending the retention of the private trading banks, the strengthening of the powers of the Commonwealth Bank and the introduction of a decimal currency.

Retiring as director of finance in 1937, Pitt earned the sincere tributes of colleagues and politicians. Singularly inappropriately, he was presented with an easy chair, for he at once embarked on a vigorous and successful career as stockbroker (with Ian Potter & Co.) and company director. He was appointed to the inaugural board of Georges Ltd on its public company flotation in December 1937 (chairman 1939-55), and presided over its growing prosperity as it secured its place as Melbourne's most exclusive department store.

World War II saw Pitt's services again in demand by government. He chaired a committee of inquiry in 1943 into the costs of wheat production and distribution, and he became chairman of the Commonwealth War Workers' Housing Trust. In 1938 he had accepted the presidency of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria, a post he retained until his death. He more briefly served as vice-president of the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia in the period of ascendancy of Australian tennis after World War II. He also served on finance committees of the Royal Children's Hospital and the University Women's College.

Heavily built, stooped and bald with bright eyes beneath bushy brows, Pitt was characterized by versatility, intellectual vigour and wit untypical of the career public servant. He was active until shortly before his death in East Melbourne on 3 August 1955. He was buried with Catholic rites in Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at about £160,000.

The Pitts had four children, one of whom died in childhood; a daughter, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, became associate-professor of history at the University of Melbourne. A portrait by Ernest Buckmaster is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • K. Dunstan, The Store on the Hill (Melb, 1979)
  • K. Fitzpatrick, Solid Bluestone Foundations and other Memories of a Melbourne Girlhood 1908-1928 (Melb, 1983)
  • Royal Commission into the Monetary and Banking Systems at Present in Operation in Australia, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1934-37, 5
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4, 5 Oct 1935, 20 July, 31 Aug, 1, 3 Sept 1937, 4 Apr 1943
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Sept 1937, 4 Aug 1955.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Lemon, 'Pitt, Henry Arthur (1872–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pitt-henry-arthur-8056/text14057, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 August 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2019