Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roberts, Edwin Peter (1913–1991)

by Margaret Kowald

This article was published online in 2014

Edwin Peter Spencer Roberts (1913–1991), grazier and wool industry leader, was born on 20 September 1913 at Toowoomba, Queensland, younger child and only son of Queensland-born Alfred John Spencer Roberts, medical practitioner, and his Victorian-born wife Sybil Zouche, née Ross. His mother died when he was about seven, and in 1922 his father married Laura Heness, his governess. Educated at Harristown State School, Church of England Preparatory School, Toowoomba, and The King’s School, Parramatta, New South Wales, Peter was nicknamed ‘Speedie’ because of his athletic ability and position on the wing in the rugby union first XV. He was a sound scholar and his father wanted him to study medicine but he was drawn to the land. He worked as a jackaroo on several properties during the 1930s before becoming an overseer on his uncle Jack Ross’s property, Boobera, at Goondiwindi in 1937.

On 29 May 1940 Roberts enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served in the Middle East (July 1941 to January 1942) with the 2/1st Anti-Aircraft Regiment, in Papua and New Guinea (April 1942 to May 1943 and August 1943 to February 1944) with the Port Moresby AA Group and the 114th Light AA Regiment, and in Borneo (June-October 1945) with the 2/3rd AA Regiment. Having been commissioned as a lieutenant in November 1942, he transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 3 November 1945. In 1946 Roberts and Harry Craig, a friend from school, purchased Minnel, a fifteen-thousand-acre (6,070 ha) grain and grazing property at Toobeah, near Goondiwindi. When the property was split, Roberts retained the homestead at Minnel.

The experience of accompanying (Sir) William Gunn on a tour of Queensland during the 1956 shearers’ strike alerted Roberts to the importance of united action. Over the next two decades he put this experience into action, progressing from local to state to federal organisations associated with the land. He was president of the Graziers’ Association of South Eastern Queensland (1957-63), the United Graziers’ Association (UGA) (1971-75), the Queensland Producers’ Federation (1971-75), and the Australian Wool Growers’ and Graziers’ Council (1973-76); vice-president of the UGA (1961-71); and a member of the Australian Wool Industry Conference (1963-79), the Queensland Rural Reconstruction Board (1976-91), the Trade Development Council (1976-82), and the National Bank of Australia’s advisory board (1977-82).

A long-time supporter of the reserve price scheme, which provided growers with a guaranteed minimum price for their wool, Roberts used his ‘gentle art of persuasion’ to help convince the Federal government not to introduce compulsory acquisition of wool (Kerr 1990, 85). He worked closely with Queensland’s representative on the Australian Wool Corporation that was established with UGA support in 1972 to administer the scheme. The AWC purchased all wool not meeting the minimum reserve price at auction and sold it during periods of higher prices. Roberts was one of the presidents of the UGA in the 1970s who steered the association to a rational organisational structure, allowing autonomy in policy making by the commodity councils. He was appointed CMG for services to government and the wool industry in 1969.

As a member of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization’s executive (1960-72), Roberts saw research as the lifeblood of the wool industry and took pride in the introduction in 1974 of sale by objective measurement, an innovation made possible by CSIRO’s pure research program. He was chairman of the Queensland Agricultural College (later the University of Queensland, Gatton campus) from 1975 to 1983, and on this basis was made an honorary life member of the UQ Gatton Past Students Association (1976). Roberts served as patron of this association from 1985 to 1991.

Loyal to friends, school, and family, Roberts was a committed Christian with a strong sense of responsibility. He enjoyed sports, followed numerous schools’ sporting teams, and served as a polo umpire in Australia and abroad. He earned respect from the top echelons of agricultural politics to the hundreds of schoolchildren who knew him affectionately as Uncle Peter. On visits to Brisbane, he took the orphaned Legacy children at Moorlands on outings and arranged for them to holiday at Minnel. He took special interest in the students of the Toowoomba Preparatory School, Glennie Memorial School, and the Toowoomba Grammar School.

Of moderate height, urbane, with almost Menzian eyebrows, he was quiet, modest, amusing, and generous, but, with a ‘full head of steam,’ could also be ‘irascible’ (Roberts 1989, 101-08). He believed in hard work, good manners, devotion to God, and a healthy mind in a healthy body. He spoke quickly yet precisely, with thoughts that tumbled out ‘sometimes with startling rapidity’ (Roberts 1989, 179). An excellent communicator and an accomplished chairman, he exuded an air of wanting to get to the kernel of things with a minimum of delay.

Roberts did not marry. He died on 20 May 1991 at Minnel and was buried at the Drayton and Toowoomba General cemetery with Anglican rites. The Peter Roberts Continuing Education Centre at the University of Queensland’s Gatton campus is named after him.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Kerr, Ruth. Freedom of Contract: A History of the United Graziers’ Association of Queensland. Brisbane: United Graziers’ Association of Queensland, 1990
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX22517
  • Roberts, Mary. Personal communication with author
  • Roberts, Mary. Uncle Peter: Edwin Peter Spencer Roberts C. M. G. Man of Achievement. Victoria Downs, Qld: M. Roberts, 1989
  • Chronicle (Toowoomba). ‘Saviour of Wool Industry in 1970s Dies, Aged 78.’ 21 May 1991, 12.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Margaret Kowald, 'Roberts, Edwin Peter (1913–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-edwin-peter-14652/text25785, published online 2014, accessed online 19 March 2019.

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