Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Pope, Sir Sidney Barton (1905–1983)

by P. A. Howell

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

Sir Sidney Barton Pope (1905-1983), industrialist, was born on 18 February 1905 at Northam, Western Australia, second of three surviving children of South Australian-born parents Henry Pope, storekeeper, and his wife Sarah Anne, née Nunn. In 1913 the family moved to Adelaide, where Barton attended Pulteney Street School. After passing the junior public examination at 14 he became junior clerk to a public accountant and enrolled at Stott’s Business College. Though his parents were Methodists, Barton played cricket with the North Adelaide Baptist Church’s club and joined that denomination by immersion in 1922.

Following the family’s move to Adelaide Henry established a small backyard foundry, making fittings for watering systems he supplied and serviced. Barton helped out during his father’s absence in 1921, rushing about on a bicycle to take orders during his lunch hour. In 1923 he quit his clerkship, went to Sydney, secured some agency lines and commenced business in Adelaide as a manufacturers’ agent. When he was 19 his father took him into a partnership trading as Popes Sprinkler & Irrigation Co.; soon afterwards Henry retired. For several years Barton employed only youths who did not have to be paid adult wages, prompting neighbours to dub the premises the ‘Boy Farm’. On 19 March 1927 at North Adelaide Baptist Church he married Lily Maria Howard, who was seven years his senior.

In 1928 the firm became a registered company, Pope Sprinklers Ltd, with Australia’s principal fellmonger, William Michel, a substantial shareholder. Barton’s younger brother, Harley, joined to take charge of marketing and accounts, giving Barton time to plan new ventures. Diversification prompted a change of name to Pope Products Ltd in 1931. Falling sales during the Depression led to voluntary liquidation and successful restructuring into a public company with the same name in 1934. Production moved to a large factory at Beverley, South Australia, in 1935. While most sales now went to interstate hardware merchants, lucrative markets were also found overseas. During World War II most of the factory was turned over to munitions production.

Pope bought and cleared a large area of scrub land in South Australia’s south-east in the 1940s. Improving the soil’s productivity by applying traces of cobalt and zinc, he grew clover hay and bred sheep and cattle. He also developed citrus orchards on the Murray River and produced lucerne at Meningie. Lily had separated from him in the 1930s and she divorced him in 1942. On 15 June 1944 at College Park Congregational Church, Pope married Ada Lillian McCarthy, née Hawkins, a welfare officer who had been the nurse at his Beverley factory.

New capital and a larger body of shareholders were secured in 1945 through the flotation of a holding company, Pope Industries Ltd, with Pope as chairman and managing director. It acquired all the shares of Pope Products, which continued as the main operating subsidiary. Another subsidiary, Pope Engineering (WA) Pty Ltd, in Perth, made electric motors shipped to Beverley for installation in an expanding range of household goods, notably washing machines and refrigerators. It later made petrol engines. New works at Finsbury, South Australia, produced sheet metal for use in making white goods. The Finsbury factory also did electroplating and stove enamelling, made 500-horsepower (373-kW) electric motors for the mining industry, and supplied die-castings to many other manufacturers.

In the 1950s the company commenced manufacture of petrol-powered rotary mowers, high-fidelity stereophonic sound equipment and, under licence from Motorola, television sets. By 1957, when it had offices and warehouses in all States and about three thousand employees, most of the nation’s washing machines were being made in Adelaide: Harley claimed that South Australia’s homes had a higher proportion of them than did homes in any other State. Pope’s white goods and television sets were given as prizes on ‘The Pope Show’, a radio quiz and variety program compered by the comedian Jack Davey and later, after it moved to television, Terry Dear.

Elected to the South Australian Chamber of Manufactures in 1928, Pope became one of its most active members. He opposed proposals to include women in the basic wage and reduction of the working week from 48 to 44 and then 40 hours; and he championed decimal currency, incentive schemes, standardisation of railway gauges, and the law allowing employers to dismiss any worker without giving a reason if seven days notice was given. Vice-president (1945-47) and president (1947-49) of the chamber’s council, he remained on the chamber’s executive committee and council until 1960 and, as a past-president, continued to represent them at interstate conferences and local social functions. He also served on the executive of the Metal Industries Association of South Australia (from 1946) and the advisory committee of the South Australian Industrial Safety Council (established in 1961). He was a director of Finance Corporation of Australia Ltd and the South Australian Insurance Co. from their foundation, and of John Shearer & Sons Ltd and Apac Industries Ltd. In 1953 he was appointed to the ammunition industry advisory committee set up by the Department of Defence Production.

Until 1945 Pope had been feared as one of the toughest businessmen in South Australia. Thereafter he cultivated friendly relations with trade-union leaders willing to enter deals that gave him the right to refuse to employ any member of the Communist Party of Australia. Anticipating that coal strikes would lead to electricity rationing, he installed massive emergency generating equipment at his factories. In 1947 grateful workers in the foundry division ‘of their own volition, and at their own expense, tendered a dinner to the management’. In 1960 he persuaded an extraordinary general meeting of shareholders to agree to the granting of options that encouraged employees to invest in the company. To promote ‘peace and cooperation’ in industrial relations, he organised—in collaboration with Lord Mayor (Sir) John McLeay and the United Trades and Labour Council president, Albert Baden Thompson—annual ‘Test Matches’ (1949-53) between cricket teams representing the Chamber of Manufactures and the Trades Hall. These were succeeded by bowls tournaments between the chamber and the UTLC (1954-57), and cricket matches between employers and apprentices (from 1954).

Concerned about depression suffered by a close relative and desiring to increase respect for its victims at a time when thousands of mentally ill were still being locked away for life in asylums, Pope helped the psychiatrist W. A. Dibden establish the South Australian Association for Mental Health. He was its vice-president (1956-60) and president (1960-68), and gave £2100 to endow a public lecture. In 1960 he headed a deputation to persuade the University of Adelaide to establish Australia’s second chair in psychiatry. The university’s council agreed, but only if £45 000 could be found to fund the new chair and department for the first five years. Pope organised the fund-raising and £21 500 was collected within six months. When the recession of 1960-61 slowed donations, he persuaded business associates to support him in underwriting the balance required. The chair of mental health was filled in 1963 and three lecturers were appointed by 1964.

The steady growth that had characterised Pope’s manufacturing business since 1932 was ended by ‘severe liquidity problems’, resulting from Federal treasurer Harold Holt’s credit squeeze. In 1959, the year Pope was knighted, his company had reported a record annual profit of £303 787. It made a loss of £686 527 in 1961. Sales dropped by ‘several million pounds’, much working capital was frozen by delays in payments from retailers, and more than one thousand employees were dismissed. Profitability, dividend payments and staff recruitment returned within eighteen months but, distressed by the unpredictability of Federal government policies, Pope and his shareholders accepted amalgamation with the company’s main competitor, Simpson Distributors Ltd. Though Simpson was smaller and, in theory, the takeover target, it had a talented management team. On completion of the merger in May 1963, the company became known as Simpson Pope Holdings Ltd, Pope yielding the reins to become a non-executive director. The new entity changed its name to Simpson Holdings Ltd in 1979. In 1986 it merged with Email Ltd, which was taken over by the Swedish Electrolux Group in 2000.

In 1982 the scientists Sir Macfarlane Burnet and Sir Mark Oliphant joined Sir Barton in forming the Challenge to Australia Committee that produced a series of articles on the problems facing Australia. He then established a council of elders comprising seventy eminent Australians (minimum age of 70), which afforded him another platform for airing his views on the necessity for advancing science and technology and improving social and economic conditions.

Pope often related how a journalist, hearing that his mother was a Nunn, had quipped that her marriage to a Pope meant he had been the product of a clerical error. Survived by his wife and their adopted daughter and his daughter and two sons from his first marriage, Pope died of myocardial infarction on 2 September 1983 at Melbourne’s Tullamarine Airport and was cremated. His lateral and strategic thinking, his willingness to take risks and efforts after 1945 to enhance South Australia’s phenomenal record for harmony between capital and labour, had enabled him to play, as Premier Sir Thomas Playford put it, ‘a major part in the expansion of secondary industries in the State’. Since the 1980s the Barton Pope Lecture has been presented under the auspices of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists.

Select Bibliography

  • Pope Industries Ltd, Directors’ Report and Accounts, 1952-1961
  • Journal of Industry (Adelaide), Feb 1947, p 3, Apr 1947, pp 6, 22, 24, May 1947, pp 4-5, Dec 1947, p 4, Sept 1983, p 5
  • Advertiser (Adelaide) 11 Dec 1942, p 7, 21 Sept 1946, p 3, 24 Jan 1983, p 4, 3 Sept 1983, p 3
  • Sunday Mail (Adelaide) 21 Apr 1956, p 20
  • SRG 112/1/20-23 (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

P. A. Howell, 'Pope, Sir Sidney Barton (1905–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pope-sir-sidney-barton-15839/text27038, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 November 2014.

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

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