Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Prowse, Russell Blair (1915–1982)

by Lola Sharon Davidson

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

Russell Blair Prowse (1915-1982), banker, was born on 1 October 1915 at Quambone, New South Wales, fourth child of Edwin Edgar Prowse, schoolteacher, and his wife Nellie, née Phillips, both born in New South Wales. Russell was educated at Newcastle and Parramatta High schools. In 1933 he joined the Bank of New South Wales as a teller at the Haymarket branch, Sydney, but continued his studies and graduated from the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1940). On 28 February 1942 at St Ann’s Church of England, Merrylands, he married Iris Agnes Smith, a stenographer. In 1943-45 he served in the Royal Australian Air Force as a radar operator at stations in the South-West Pacific Area. After his discharge he returned to the bank.

When, in August 1947, Ben Chifley’s Australian Labor Party government announced its intention to nationalise the banks, they responded with a legal challenge and a publicity campaign. The Bank of New South Wales’s management sought suggestions from its staff and Prowse’s submission so impressed his superiors that he was seconded to assist the general manager’s liaison officer, R. R. McKellar, in co-ordinating resistance. For three years Prowse liaised between the banks and with the bank staff committees, wrote advertising scripts, addressed public meetings and made radio broadcasts. His media prominence was such that some thirty years later Sydney’s Daily Telegraph made the wild claim that, as ‘the leader of the fight against bank nationalisation’, he had ‘almost single-handedly brought about the downfall of the Ben Chifley government’.

Back at his normal banking duties, Prowse submitted a recommendation for the establishment of a public relations department and in 1954 he was appointed public relations manager of the bank, a new post and a wholly new concept within the Australian banking industry. After four years he resigned in order to become the first director of the research office of the Australian Bankers’ Association. In 1963 he returned to the Bank of New South Wales as a divisional chief manager, becoming assistant general manager in 1970. He was the bank’s public relations face and a vigorous critic of the Reserve Bank’s monetary policies, especially during the time of the Whitlam government and the credit squeeze of 1974. Always outspoken, he nevertheless enjoyed the full confidence of the Wales’s general manager, Sir Robert Norman, who many years later described him as ‘a star turn’ with ‘a splendid personality and the gift of the gab’. Prowse was appointed OBE in 1974.

Following his retirement from the bank in 1980 Prowse became a public relations consultant. He continued to be active in banking circles and more generally as a public speaker, making regular radio broadcasts on social and economic issues. In 1981 he delivered the C. B. Alexander Foundation lecture, published as Australia in a Changing World. He decried the pessimism that he saw around him and expressed great faith in Australia’s potential. Anti-socialist, he identified industrial relations and lack of capital as major weaknesses; he prescribed more responsible unionism, greater profit-sharing and foreign investment. In an economy dependent on mechanised primary and extractive industries, labour-intensive tertiary industries such as tourism offered the best hope for a solution to unemployment. ‘Asia is where Australia’s future lies’, he asserted, advocating the teaching of Asian languages in schools. He believed that the combination of free enterprise and democracy was the best system for ensuring both material prosperity and basic freedom, but he emphasised that democracy required active and informed participation.

A highly sociable man, Prowse was a member of several clubs, including the Bankers’ and the Journalists’. He enjoyed reading, tennis and motoring. Survived by his wife and their two daughters and two sons, he died of aplastic anaemia on 15 June 1982 at Randwick and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • L. S. Davidson and S. Salsbury, Australia’s First Bank (2005)
  • National Times, 6-11 May 1974, p 8
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 Mar 1980, p 15
  • Canberra Times, 16 June 1982, p 3
  • interview with Sir Robert Norman (typescript, 1995, Westpac historical services)
  • A9301, item 134145 (National Archives of Australia)
  • L. R. Davies, Ledgers and Legends (manuscript, 1995, Westpac Museum).

Citation details

Lola Sharon Davidson, 'Prowse, Russell Blair (1915–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prowse-russell-blair-15551/text26764, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 August 2019.

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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