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Priestley, Henry Thomas (1912–1979)

by Dorothy Gibson-Wilde

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

Henry Thomas Priestley (1912-1979), engineer and university deputy-chancellor, was born on 16 February 1912 at Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, eldest of four children of English-born parents Henry James Priestley, professor of mathematics, and his wife Margery Hope, née Hewitt. Tom attended Toowong State and Brisbane Grammar schools. He won a scholarship to the University of Queensland (B.E., 1933), studied mechanical and electrical engineering, and graduated with first-class honours. On 11 April 1936 at St Stephen's Catholic Cathedral, Brisbane, he married Anne Walsh (d.1977), a 31-year-old cane-tester. That year he travelled to England where he probably worked for British Thomson-Houston Co. Ltd at Rugby, Warwickshire.

Returning to Australia in 1937, Priestley joined the City Electric Light Co. of Brisbane as assistant-engineer and later became district engineer at Nambour. In 1950 he accepted a post with the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia Ltd at Risdon, Tasmania. Back in Queensland, he was appointed engineer-manager of the Mackay City Council Electricity Department in 1954. He was manager of the Townsville Regional Electricity Board in 1956-69 and of the Capricornia Regional Electricity Board at Rockhampton in 1969-74.

An energetic man who was keen to improve the lot of country people, Priestley supervised installation of the single-wire, earth-return system of distribution in the Townsville region, making it viable to provide mains supply to far-flung properties and towns throughout western parts of the State. He introduced co-generation arrangements with sugar-mills which led to more effective use of electricity. The increase in generating capacity encouraged industrial development in North Queensland.

In the late 1950s Priestley had become convinced that North Queensland needed a university to provide tertiary education for young people who were unable to travel to Brisbane to attend the University of Queensland. A driving force behind the formation of the Townsville and District University Society in 1958, he helped to gather support for the establishment of a university at Townsville. He was president (from 1960) of the North Queensland University Association which raised money for residential accommodation for students, library facilities and scholarships. When the University of Queensland opened the University College of Townsville at Pimlico in 1961, there were colleges for men and women—funded by the efforts of Priestley and his colleagues—ready for occupation. He was chairman of the new university college's advisory committee (1961) and council (1962-70).

The college became the James Cook University of North Queensland in 1970. Priestley chaired its first council until the appointment of a chancellor, and then served as deputy-chancellor (1971-79). Despite heavy commitments, he continued his association with the Catholic Church, and maintained his interests in cricket and bush-walking. He was a fellow of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, the Institution of Engineers, Australia, and the Australian Institute of Management, and a member of the Johnsonian (in Brisbane), North Queensland (at Townsville), Rockhampton and Mackay clubs.

Priestley died suddenly of coronary apoplexy on 29 August 1979 at St Paul's College, James Cook University, and was buried in Belgian Gardens cemetery, Townsville. His son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • K. Willey, The First Hundred Years (Melb, 1968)
  • University College of Townsville, Year of 1961 (Townsville, Qld, 1981)
  • J. Maguire, Prologue: A History of the Catholic Church as Seen from Townsville 1863-1983 (Toowoomba, Qld, 1990)
  • C. Doran, Partner in Progress (Townsville, Qld, 1990)
  • Townsville Daily Bulletin, 30 Oct 1979
  • private information.

Citation details

Dorothy Gibson-Wilde, 'Priestley, Henry Thomas (1912–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 August 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 16

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