Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Riddle, Sir Ernest Cooper (1873–1939)

by J. A. Kirkwood

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Sir Ernest Cooper Riddle (1873-1939), banker, was born on 5 April 1873 at Narrabri, New South Wales, one of thirteen children of English parents John Riddle, station manager, and his wife Agnes, née Cooper. Riddle left Narrabri Public School to join the Bank of Australasia at Narrabri in 1889 as a junior ledgerkeeper/teller. In Sydney during the banking crisis of 1893 he was responsible for the bank's Hurstville agency. After experience at other branches, in 1898 he was appointed manager at Orange where he spent fourteen years. On 14 June, at Hurstville, he married Annie Bibby with Anglican rites.

In December 1912 Riddle was appointed sub-manager in Perth from which he was recruited by (Sir) Denison Miller for the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. He took over as manager of its Perth branch in April 1915 where Miller expected he would have ample scope to develop business.

At Orange in 1903 Riddle had joined the Australian Military Forces (militia), rising by 1910 to the rank of major. At the outbreak of World War I he was refused permission to enlist both by the Australasia and later the Commonwealth Bank. Indeed, Riddle was to have a major role in organizing war loans in Western Australia. He was sent to London in March 1922 for experience and to inspect the branch, and returned to Perth in October by way of the United States of America where he met international bankers.

On Miller's death, Riddle was appointed acting manager of the bank's head office in Sydney in June 1923. Promotion was rapid: next January he was elevated to inspector and, in November, appointed manager in Melbourne. Within a year he was deputy governor (October 1925), and in June 1927 he became governor for a five-year term. His appointment occurred shortly after Sir Robert Gibson was elected chairman of the board, and their partnership coincided with Australia's greatest economic and financial crisis. The contrast between them was stark: Gibson was a businessman with no background in banking and finance, Riddle a widely experienced and competent banker. Gibson's drive and intensity allowed him to exert major influence in important policy matters and he assumed full responsibility for encounters with the government about important economic decisions. Riddle readily left this role to Gibson as the bank's predominant trading and savings operations offered him plenty of scope.

Riddle was reappointed governor for a seven-year term from June 1932. That year he attended the Imperial Economic Conference at Ottawa as financial adviser to the Australian delegation. He then went to London where he played a vital part in exchange-rate deliberations. Determined to take the first steps towards a return to sterling parity, Gibson had tried to convince the bank's board. Riddle argued against him because of uncertainty about the continuation of improved commodity prices and an impending loan conversion. Supported by the Bank of England and aided by a lack of enthusiasm for exchange-rate appreciation from some board members, Riddle's advice was accepted. In 1935 he was knighted.

When Riddle gave evidence to the 1935-36 royal commission on banking there were some signs of deterioration in his health. To the then chairman of the bank, Sir Claude Reading, Riddle wrote that he had managed to steer through his evidence without any very embarrassing questions or answers. There is, however, some evidence that the commission was not impressed and Alexander Bell, who had been acting chairman during Reading's absence, subsequently testified for the bank instead of Riddle.

In 1936 Riddle took sick leave. He returned to duty but, suffering from Parkinson's disease, retired in February 1938. In his youth Riddle was a keen sportsman. Always popular, he was an expert rifle shot and first-class golfer, tennis player and bowler. He was a trustee of Church of England property in the Sydney diocese and belonged to the Australian, Royal Sydney Golf and other clubs. He died on 28 February 1939 at his Woollahra home and was cremated. His wife, son and daughter survived him.

His successor, Sir Harry Sheehan, considered Riddle would be remembered 'for his lovable disposition, his honesty of purpose, his straight-forwardness and integrity, and his sound knowledge of banking'.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Giblin, The Growth of a Central Bank (Melb, 1951)
  • C. B. Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression (Syd, 1970)
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, 63, no 3, 21 Mar 1939
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Sept 1939
  • Reserve Bank of Australia Archives, Head office, Sydney
  • private information.

Citation details

J. A. Kirkwood, 'Riddle, Sir Ernest Cooper (1873–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/riddle-sir-ernest-cooper-8209/text14363, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 1 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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