Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Potter, Sir William Ian (1902–1994)

by Peter Yule

This article was published online in 2018

Ian Potter, at the conferring of his honorary doctorate, University of Melbourne, 1973

Ian Potter, at the conferring of his honorary doctorate, University of Melbourne, 1973

University of Melbourne Archives, 11343/​75943

Sir William Ian Potter (1902–1994), financier, philanthropist, and patron of the arts, was born on 25 August 1902 at Scarborough, Sydney, third of four children of English-born James William Potter, then a soap maker, and his Scottish-born wife Maria Louisa Townsend, née McWhinnie. James was a charming wastrel, who lost his wife’s inheritance on a series of failed business ventures, while Louisa’s strong character held the family together as its financial position worsened. In 1903 the Potters moved to Bradford, England, where James had previously worked in the wool trade. There are stories in the family that speak of an unsuccessful investment in the woollen industry, and the Potters returned to Sydney in 1910. They lived in rented accommodation at Mortdale, then an outer southern suburb.

In later life Potter seldom talked of his childhood and the accounts he provided were misleading. Although he gave the impression that most of his schooling had been in England, he attended Mortdale Public School before winning a scholarship to Cleveland Street Intermediate High School, Redfern, in 1915. After topping his class in 1916, he went to work, possibly as a clerk for the shipping firm McIlwraith, McEachern & Co. Pty Ltd, and later for the Pacific Islands trader William Blacklock. He saved enough to pay university fees and, after matriculating (1924), studied economics at the University of Sydney (BEc, 1928), winning the Economic Research Society’s prize (1925), a G. S. Caird scholarship (1926), and a Chamber of Commerce prize (1928). He graduated top of his final year, and briefly considered an academic career before opting for business. On 5 April 1928 he married Victoria Bernice Moorhead in Mosman Presbyterian Church.

Through R. C. Mills, professor of economics at Sydney, Potter obtained employment with the Melbourne stockbrokers Edward Dyason & Co. in 1929. He not only took on a new job but a new persona, rejecting the name Bill by which he had been known in Sydney and calling himself Ian, and presenting a false picture of having come from an affluent background. His work at Dyason brought him into contact with many influential clients, including the commerce professor (Sir) Douglas Copland and the politician Richard (Baron) Casey. In 1931, unaccompanied by his wife and daughter, he was a resident fellow at Queen’s College, University of Melbourne, where he became friends with Harold Holt and (Sir) Richard Eggleston, among others. In spite of the onset of the Depression, he flourished, making a favourable impression in Melbourne financial circles, and in 1933 became private secretary to Casey, then assistant treasurer in the Lyons United Australia Party government. His sixteen months in the role gave him an understanding of government finance as well as many contacts in politics and the Federal bureaucracy.

In 1931 Potter had purchased a seat on the Stock Exchange of Melbourne and four years later he set up his own stockbroking firm, known from 1938 as Ian Potter & Co. From the start he saw himself more as a merchant banker than a share trader and he rapidly became known as a daring and resourceful underwriter of new issues. During World War II he rose to prominence, his firm challenging J. B. Were & Son for the position of Melbourne’s leading stockbrokers. Elected to the committee of the Stock Exchange of Melbourne in 1942, he was involved in the establishment of the Institute of Public Affairs (Victoria) and the Liberal Party of Australia. From 1941 to 1943 he served in small craft of the Volunteer Coastal Patrol and its successor, the Naval Auxiliary Patrol. His cabin cruiser, the MY Nordecia, was used by the patrol until the navy requisitioned it in January 1943.

While many feared a postwar slump, Potter saw that the growth of Australian manufacturing combined with a strong rise in incomes would result in a booming economy. However, the Australian financial system was poorly adapted to provide the capital for construction and industrial expansion. It was his greatest achievement, in the wake of the economic difficulties of Sterling-area countries, to open up new sources of overseas investment money, especially funds from the United States of America and through the World Bank. This made possible Australia’s rapid economic growth in the next two decades. During the 1950s he raised capital for many of Australia’s largest manufacturing ventures, while in the 1960s he played a central role in bankrolling the massive capital investment required for the expansion of mining, notably the iron-ore mines of the Pilbara.

Belying the cool calculation he brought to his business career, Potter had an active and complicated romantic life. Having divorced his first wife in 1941, on 2 July 1942 he married Gwenyth Winifred Izzard, an amateur actress, at the Cairns Memorial Presbyterian Church in East Melbourne. The marriage was turbulent and he filed for divorce on the ground of desertion. His petition was initially refused, before being granted on appeal to the High Court of Australia in 1954. On 5 February 1955 he quietly wed Patricia Ann Garvan, née Fitzgerald; this marriage also ended in divorce. Twenty years later, on 27 March 1975, he would marry Primrose Catherine Dunlop, née Anderson Stuart, in the Chapel of St George the Martyr, HMAS Watson, at South Head, Sydney.

In 1967 Potter retired from Ian Potter & Co. He remained active in business for many years, but increasingly his interests turned to the arts and philanthropy. His financial acumen was vital for the establishment and growth of many major cultural institutions. He had been the inaugural treasurer (1947–53) of the National Gallery Society of Victoria and later a member of the National Art Gallery and Cultural Centre building committee, playing a key role in the development of the Arts Centre on St Kilda Road. While a member of the University of Melbourne’s finance committee, he provided support that made possible the formation of the Union Theatre Repertory Company (later the Melbourne Theatre Company). He also worked closely with H. C. Coombs to set up the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (AETT) in 1954, which in turn created the Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company (later Opera Australia) and the Australian Ballet, as well as giving encouragement and support to many other artistic companies.

Potter was always interested in education, science, and medical research. He served (1949–71) on the University of Melbourne council and was a long-standing supporter of the Australian Academy of Science, being elected a fellow in 1978. Early in the 1960s he worked with Derek Denton, and Kenneth and Baillieu Myer to set up the Howard Florey Laboratories (later the Howard Florey Institute of Experimental Physiology and Medicine) at the university. The Myer brothers and Potter gave large sums of money for the Florey, and Potter was instrumental in gaining funding from the Federal government, writing directly to Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies and receiving the memorable reply: ‘Dear Ian, I have spoken to Harold [Holt] and that will be all right, Yours, Bob’ (Denton Papers).

Although Potter’s business skills made him rich, he had little interest in the accumulation of wealth for its own sake, and he lived comfortably rather than ostentatiously. Inspired by the Myer Foundation, in 1964 he established the Ian Potter Foundation Ltd as a vehicle for his personal philanthropy. When he set up the foundation, there was no provision for tax deductibility for gifts to public charitable trusts, and Potter used all his powers of persuasion on Holt, then Federal treasurer, to amend taxation laws. This was eventually achieved—though only after Potter made an initial non-deductible gift to the foundation of £1 million in shares—and proved to be a vital step in the growth of philanthropy in Australia.

Potter was handsome, blue-eyed, and as he aged, sported a full head of silver hair. Cordial, considerate, and generous, he moved with confidence in the highest circles of business and politics in Australia and abroad. He had innumerable acquaintances and business connections, but only a small circle of close friends. Despite Potter’s charm, many felt that he was impenetrable and few got to see behind his public mask. Some associates described him as shy, but it would be more accurate to see him as reserved and intent on preserving his privacy.

Knighted in 1962, Potter was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of laws by the University of Melbourne in 1973, and appointed to the Royal Order of the Polar Star (Sweden) in 1983. Sir Ian was made an honorary fellow of the Australian Stock Exchange in 1991, and was an honorary life member of the AETT, the Australian Ballet Foundation, the Australian Opera, and the National Gallery of Victoria. On 24 October 1994 he died at his home in Melbourne and was cremated. His wife and a daughter from each of his first and second marriages survived him. In November a memorial service was held at St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral, Melbourne. His estate was valued at about $85 million and, after family and other bequests, the balance of some $58 million was left to the Potter foundation.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Denton, D. A., and M. H. Ryan. ‘William Ian Potter, 1902–1994.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 11, no. 4 (December 1997): 541–50
  • Denton Papers. Private collection
  • Glezer, Leon. ‘Sir Ian Potter and His Generation.’ In Australian Financiers, Biographical Essays, edited by R. T. Appleyard and C. B. Schedvin, 401–26. South Melbourne: Macmillan, 1988
  • Parker Bowles, Carolyn. Personal communication
  • Potter, Lady (Primrose). Personal communication
  • Potter, Robin. Personal communication
  • University of Melbourne Archives. MS 2007.0033, Ian Potter Papers
  • Yule, Peter. Ian Potter: Financier, Philanthropist and Patron of the Arts. Melbourne: Miegunyah Press, 2006

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Peter Yule, 'Potter, Sir William Ian (1902–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/potter-sir-william-ian-19778/text31055, published online 2018, accessed online 22 May 2019.

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