Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Plunkett, William George (1910–1975)

by John Ritchie

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

William George Plunkett (1910-1975), printer and aphorist, was born on 29 October 1910 at Herberton, Queensland, elder child of Samuel Joseph Wark, miner, and his wife Mary Honorah, née Doherty, both of whom died in 1912, within five weeks of each other. Raised in Sydney (from 1915) by his aunt Mary Plunkett (née Wark) and her husband James (d.1928), Bill attended Woollahra Public School and won a scholarship to Christian Brothers' College, Waverley, but left at the age of 14 to help to support the family. He served a five-year apprenticeship (from 1926) to a compositor and linotype operator at the Waverley Press Ltd. By 1934 Plunkett was the firm's foreman. At St Stephen's Anglican Church, Newtown, on 29 September that year he married Ruby Adell Brewer, a ledgerkeeper.

On 23 November 1943 Plunkett enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force. He was then 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, with blue eyes and light brown hair. Serving in Australia as an aircraft-hand and telephone-operator, he rose to leading aircraftsman before being discharged in Sydney on 26 March 1946. As printing production manager (from 1947) with W. Nevill & Co. Ltd, manufacturing stationers and publishers of the Olympic Desk Calendar, he began to collect literary quotations to provide the calendar's 'thought for the day'. Plunkett included a few pithy phrases of his own in 1961, and added more in the ensuing years. Many of his aphorisms were based on family incidents; others were drawn from conversations with colleagues at the Earlwood-Bardwell Park branch of the Returned Sailors', Soldiers' and Airmen's Imperial League of Australia, of which he was vice-president.

Jotted down on anything to hand—a packet of Tally-Ho cigarette papers, a newspaper, or even a toilet roll—and shaped into quotable form, Plunkett's maxims appeared in some 400,000 desk calendars each year, usually on Wednesdays, above the initials W.G.P. His words stood alongside quotations from the Bible, Shakespeare, Bacon, Milton, Pope and Coleridge. Most of his own epigrams were homely and didactic: 'One of the real secrets of happiness is to be content with what you have', 'A good deed, no matter how small, is worth more than the grandest good intention' and 'Husbands are like the fire on the hearth—likely to go out if unattended'. There was often a sardonic touch: 'Experience is a good school, but the fees come high', 'Travel may well broaden the mind, but it certainly narrows the bank account' and 'Many a self-made man worships his maker'. A number referred to women: 'Clothes that make the woman break the man', 'Lots of women aren't as young as they're painted' and 'For every girl with a curve there are several men with angles'.

Some desk-calendar readers thought that W.G.P. stood for 'Wednesday's Golden Proverb'. The relative few who knew the identity of the motto-maker dubbed Plunkett 'the man of a thousand sayings'. A quick-witted raconteur, he enjoyed a joke, a bet and a beer, but he could also be strict, pedantic and unyielding. He read avidly, habitually consulted the Oxford English Dictionary, usually carried a cryptic crossword puzzle in his pocket, and described himself as an 'ordinary bloke' who liked to 'play around with words'. Almost weekly, for fourteen years, he provided a touch of wisdom (or at least reflection) and moments of pleasure (or occasional irritation) for countless office workers. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and son, he died of cancer on 24 June 1975 at Royal Prince Alfred Hospital and was cremated. Australian desk calendars continue to quote him.

Select Bibliography

  • Tudor Bunch of Dates (Syd, 1997)
  • Collins Desk Calendar Refill (Syd, 1998)
  • Corporate Express Top Hole Calendar Refill (Syd, 1999)
  • Canberra Times, 11 June 1967
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Aug 1968, 25 June 1975, 26 Feb 1982
  • Sun (Sydney), 8 July 1969
  • National Times, 4-9 Mar 1974
  • private information.

Citation details

John Ritchie, 'Plunkett, William George (1910–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/plunkett-william-george-11439/text20387, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 November 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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