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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Prest, Wilfred (1907–1985)

by Graeme Davison

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

Wilfred Prest (1907-1985), economist, was born on 3 May 1907 at York, England, elder child of Fred Prest, grocer, and his wife Eliza Annie, née Hornshaw.  After attending Archbishop Holgate’s Grammar School, he studied at the University of Leeds, completing degrees in history (BA Hons, 1928) and in economics and politics (BA, 1930).  Continuing his studies at the University of Manchester (M.Com., 1932), he wrote a lucid, sceptical study of the Lancashire coal industry.  A second thesis on the coal industry earned him a further degree from the University of Leeds (MA, 1934).  Prest taught classes for the Workers’ Educational Association before becoming an assistant lecturer (1933-37) in economics at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.  On 26 June 1935 at the parish church, Clifton, York, he married Marjorie Wynne Robertson.  Traces of his northern origins persisted in his soft, slow Yorkshire accent, dry humour and robust common sense.

In 1937, after attending a lecture in London by Professor (Sir) Douglas Copland, Prest applied for a senior lectureship in the economics department at the University of Melbourne.  Copland had proposed a social survey of housing in Melbourne, an idea that appealed to Prest, who was familiar with Seebohm Rowntree’s famous poverty surveys of York (1899 and 1936).  Arriving in 1938, Prest quickly became a stalwart of the expanding department.  With the coming of World War II, however, most of his new colleagues, including Copland, departed for Canberra, leaving him almost alone in charge of a reduced economics program.

Between 1941 and 1943 Prest oversaw an ambitious social survey of Melbourne, funded largely by the Department of Post-War Reconstruction.  The rigorously designed survey was carried out by a team of mainly female interviewers who questioned one in thirty Melbourne householders about their income, expenditure, nutrition, housing, travel patterns and general living conditions.  Prest’s heavy teaching and administrative load and resistance to simple conclusions slowed progress of the analysis.  In scholarly articles, he showed that family size, rather than unemployment, was the main cause of poverty, and that rising incomes generated the city’s housing shortage––but the promised contribution of the survey to building a ‘new Social Order’ was modest.  By 1952, when he finally published Housing, Income and Saving in War-time: A Local Survey, his data, he admitted, were mainly of ‘historical value’.

When Copland resigned in 1946, Prest succeeded to the Truby Williams chair, a position he occupied until his retirement in 1972.  In an era of ‘god-professors’, he left his imprint on every aspect of his department’s life, from its teaching syllabus to the parties he and his wife hosted each Christmas at their Brighton home.  As a teacher, he gave priority to ‘traditional demand and supply analysis’, eschewing technical jargon, grounding his analysis in empirical examples, and leaving the heights of macroeconomic theory and social accounting (‘the climax of the course’) to later years.  With Alfred Marshall, he believed that ‘economics is the study of mankind in the ordinary business of life’:  a well-thumbed copy of Marshall’s Principles of Economics—‘Prest’s Bible’—accompanied him to most classes.  He was a shrewd and kind, though rather formal, mentor to the cohort of talented younger Melbourne graduates—Don Cochrane, Joe Isaac and Peter Karmel—who rejoined the department after the war.  He was slow, however, to give space in the curriculum to their interests in econometrics, macroeconomics, trade and industrial relations.  By the early 1960s all three had departed for chairs at other universities, leaving the Melbourne economics department temporarily depleted.  Through the 1960s he worked to rebuild it, bringing a stream of celebrated international visitors and promoting the careers of his younger colleagues through appointments and fellowships.

Prest’s own energies were increasingly drawn towards university and public affairs.  He became a pillar of the university, an ubiquitous committee-man and a calm, dependable administrator.  Seven times a dean of his faculty, in 1962-64 he was chairman of the professorial board and pro-vice-chancellor.  Beyond the university he was an active participant in the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Committee for Economic Development of Australia.  He was a long-serving member (1953-65) of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, a post that suited his bent towards the rigorous, impartial analysis of economic relationships; the role also stimulated his research and publications on the fiscal aspects of Federal-State relationships beyond Australia, an interest he pursued into his retirement.  He was appointed CBE in 1966 and received an honorary doctorate of commerce from the University of Melbourne in 1983.  Survived by his wife and their two sons, including the historian Wilfrid Prest, he died on 14 August 1985 at St Kilda and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • J. P. Nieuwenhuysen and P. J. Drake (eds), Australian Economic Policy, 1977
  • J. E. King (ed), A Biographical Dictionary of Australian and New Zealand Economists, 2007
  • R. Williams (ed), Balanced Growth, 2009
  • G. Davison and J. Lack, ‘Planning the New Social Order’, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Sociology, vol 17, no 1, 1981, p 36
  • Prest Papers (University of Melbourne Archives)

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graeme Davison, 'Prest, Wilfred (1907–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prest-wilfred-14866/text26055, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 20 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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