Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Ramsay, Alexander Maurice (1914–1978)

by Susan Marsden

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

Alexander Maurice Ramsay (1914-1978), public servant, was born on 27 October 1914 at Parkside, Adelaide, second child of South Australian-born parents Alexander Ramsay, boot-operator, and his wife Bessie Laurance, née Smee. Young Alex was sent to Parkside Public and Unley High schools. Like other contemporaries with the mind but not the means to attend university, he trained (1935-36) at Adelaide Teachers' College. He then taught at Berri Higher Public School (1937-38) and Adelaide High School (1939-42). At St Augustine's Anglican Church, Unley, on 27 December 1939 he married Amy Jane Woithe, whom he had met at college. They were to have four children.

Eventually entering the University of Adelaide (B.Ec., 1941), Ramsay studied economics, history, geology, geography, French and English, and was appointed (1943) assistant-lecturer in economics. In 1942 a group that included Ramsay, Garnet Portus, John Wainwright, Tom Garland and Keith Isles founded Common Cause. Their manifesto, released in March 1943, aroused much interest with its aims of encouraging collective effort to win World War II and of working 'for a postwar world in which the social evils of . . . poverty, unemployment, bad housing, malnutrition and inequalities of opportunity for education, health and leisure will be banished'. Between 1943 and 1945 the movement attracted almost three thousand members in South Australia. They lobbied governments, carried out community projects and forwarded public education. Common Cause's secretary-treasurer in 1943 and editor of its newsletter from 1945, Ramsay was perhaps the most industrious and outspoken of the founders. He wrote frequently to the press and maintained his involvement until the movement was disbanded in 1949.

In 1943 several of the State's senior public servants recognized Ramsay's talents, dissuaded him from continuing a secondment with the Commonwealth Department of Post-war Reconstruction, and employed him at the South Australian Housing Trust as assistant-secretary and economic planner. He was to remain with that organization for the rest of his life. The trust had been established in 1936 as part of the government's plan to promote the growth of secondary industry in South Australia by keeping wages lower than elsewhere through the provision of low-cost rental housing to workers and their families. Building costs were rigidly contained by pioneering mass-produced cottages. While motivated to some extent by humanitarian concern in a period of acute housing shortages, the trust did not provide accommodation for the poor or the unemployed.

From 1938 a new government, led by (Sir) Thomas Playford, significantly increased the trust's activities and its staff. During World War II the premier learned to use State instrumentalities, such as the trust, in a wide range of development-related initiatives, drawing on the skills and energies of Ramsay and others to create an informal but efficient system of administration. At first Ramsay worked as the trust's supply officer, securing labour and scarce building materials, but he was clearly intended for higher things. Playford considered him 'a brilliant find' because he was intelligent, compassionate and articulate, with the necessary flair for public relations. 'He had opinions and he had principles and he would fight for them'. Moreover, he could build the trust into a 'big show'. Ramsay became acting general manager in 1948 and general manager in January 1949.

Under Ramsay, the Housing Trust reflected Playford's style of administration—informal, accessible and cost-conscious. Although the premier's parsimony and single-mindedness must have frustrated Ramsay at times, he worked creatively within those constraints, retained Playford's support, and became renowned for his skills as a negotiator and manager. He allowed subordinates flexibility on the job, promoted those who showed constancy and commitment rather than mere professional expertise, and concentrated decision-making in his own hands.

Ramsay defined management as 'achieving clearly defined aims as economically as possible by means of other people'. He also encouraged familial loyalties, both within the trust and among home-buyers and tenants. 'Finding people with appropriate qualities, motivating them and making opportunities for them, keeping them conventionally efficient but urging them always to treat each other and all the trust's customers as . . . real people . . . was the core of the managerial task as this exceptionally successful manager saw it'. Given the large demands on staff arising from the size of operations and from the acute postwar housing need, these attributes were vital. Most of Ramsay's staff and colleagues remembered him with affection and respect, although some, especially women, criticized his patriarchal style.

Earning wide public recognition and esteem as South Australia's 'Mr. Housing', Ramsay served the successive State governments of Playford, Francis Walsh, D. A. Dunstan and R. S. Hall. With the support of the trust's chairman Jack Cartledge, he was chiefly responsible for diversifying operations, and for expanding the size and scope of the organization. He came to play a key role in suburban land and housing markets by supplying large numbers of houses for rent and purchase, thereby helping to restrain the cost of public and private housing. The trust moved from building houses near factories and town centres to building factories and town centres near its housing estates, thereby coming into direct competition with private and project builders. Beginning in the 1950s, the trust also took on a new welfare dimension by providing 'cottage flats' for elderly people.

Every aspect of the trust's work and Ramsay's strong personal support were fully engaged during the 1950s and 1960s when the trust built Elizabeth, a completely new town on the northern outskirts of Adelaide. In later years Playford enjoyed recounting the story of Ramsay's unorthodox methods in obtaining land from a reluctant farmer on which General Motors-Holden's Pty Ltd would build its second South Australian factory. Conscious of the social implications of Elizabeth's rapid urban development and of its predominantly British immigrant population, Ramsay 'jumped hurdles' by supplying trust-built facilities (such as halls and theatres) and selecting tenants to act as community leaders. He was annoyed at the emphasis the press gave to the town's 'youth problems'; to counteract it, he promoted churches and counselling services, and attended many fund-raising functions and celebrations.

In the 1970s, partly through pressure from social-welfare organizations and Dunstan's Labor government, the trust broadened its role by providing a wide range of housing for handicapped people, single mothers, and boarders and lodgers. Keeping future welfare needs in mind, Ramsay retained at least half of the trust's housing stock, and in 1972 succeeded in having the Commonwealth-State housing agreement amended to allow the purchase and rehabilitation of old houses. The trust then bought hundreds of inner-city cottages and terraces for low-cost rental housing.

A slim, brown-haired man with fine features and a gentle smile, Ramsay had great personal charm, reflecting his generous nature and his passionate and practical Christianity. In an article, 'The Public Service as a Vocation', published in Public Administration (1969), he asserted that 'man realizes the finest quality of his nature when he forgets himself . . . and concerns himself with his neighbour'. Arguing that the state provided the essential infrastructure for the operations of the market economy, he merged his economic training and Christian principles in public service that was 'both in keeping with the highest ideals of a Christian society and essential for its progress'. He described his work as having two dimensions: honest stewardship of the resources entrusted to him, and care for the public good. It gave him satisfaction that the Housing Trust ran at a profit, built houses as cheaply as any other housing authority, and yet also served the community. If a man could obtain accommodation at one-fifth of his income then he had a fair chance of giving his family a reasonable start in life.

Ramsay felt that his duty lay in South Australia and declined offers of employment interstate, including a request from Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies to go to Canberra 'to finish off the city'. Instead, (Sir) John Overall, the trust's chief architect (1945-49), was made (1958) first commissioner of the National Capital Development Commission.

In 1958 Ramsay was appointed C.B.E. He was president (1951-52) of the Adelaide branch of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, and vice-chairman (1950-52) of the Australian Institute of International Affairs. In addition he was chairman of the Municipal Tramways Trust, Adelaide (1968-76), and of the short-lived Australian Housing Corporation (1975-76); a member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1967-73), the National Gallery of South Australia board (1963-67) and the Libraries Board of South Australia (1962-68); and president of the South Australian branch of the Australian Boy Scouts' Association (1967-73) and of Meals on Wheels Inc. (1970-78). A founding councillor of the Australian Institute of Urban Studies, he prepared reports on national urban and housing issues. He was a churchwarden (1955-71) of St Richard's Church, Lockleys, a member (1956-71) of the Adelaide diocesan synod, a governor (1962-68) of the Collegiate School of St Peter and president (1965-73) of the South Australian council of the Young Men's Christian Association.

An asthma sufferer himself, Ramsay helped to establish South Australia as a leading centre for treating the disease. He was founding head (1959) of Asthmatic Children's Aid and foundation chairman (1963) of its successor, the Asthma Foundation of South Australia. Energetic, even in his leisure, he was a keen yachtsman and rear-commodore of the Royal South Australian Yacht Squadron. In a paddock near his Lockleys home he built a three-ton sloop, Aroona. While sailing in Gulf St Vincent, he observed the loss of Adelaide's coastal dunes—partly resulting from the trust's broad-scale metropolitan development. He arranged for the surviving North Glenelg dunes to be transferred from Housing Trust ownership to the new West Beach Trust. He followed Australian Rules football, and was an avid reader.

Ramsay died of myocardial infarction on 25 May 1978 at the Adelaide Club and was cremated; his wife, and their son and three daughters survived him. The large sum of money donated in lieu of flowers at his funeral endowed an annual vacation scholarship for university students to undertake asthma research. Robert Hannaford's portrait of Ramsay is held by the South Australian Housing Trust.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Marsden, Business, Charity and Sentiment (Adel, 1986)
  • S. Marsden, Constructing Playford's City: The South Australian Housing Trust and the Transformation of Adelaide, 1936-1966 (Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University, 1994)
  • Australian Quarterly, vol 50, no 3, 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

Susan Marsden, 'Ramsay, Alexander Maurice (1914–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ramsay-alexander-maurice-11482/text20475, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014