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Rydge, Sir Norman Bede (1900–1980)

by John Perkins

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

Sir Norman Bede Rydge (1900-1980), businessman, was born on 18 October 1900 in Sydney, second son of William Henry Rydge, a native-born blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née McSweeney, who came from Ireland. Educated at Woollahra Superior Public School and (on a bursary) at Fort Street Boys' High School, Norman joined the Chief Secretary's Department as a clerk in the Master in Lunacy's Office on 16 February 1916 and studied accountancy during his free time. He left the public service within two years. In 1921 he published a book on Federal income tax, the first of several manuals on tax and one on the Sydney Stock Exchange. Having qualified in 1921, he set up in practice as an accountant; by 1924 he was an associate of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants. At St Vincent's Catholic Church, Ashfield, on 3 July 1926 he married Alys Noad, a 19-year-old musician; they were to have two sons. He was mayor of Canterbury in 1926.

Rydge had taken over the Carlton Hotel, Castlereagh Street, in 1925. Subsequently he acquired a controlling interest in, and chairmanship of, Usher's Metropolitan Hotel Ltd, the Pacific Hotel (Manly Hotels Ltd), and Mockbell's Ltd, coffee-house proprietors and caterers. In 1936 he bought 150,000 shares in the Menzies Hotel, Melbourne, and became managing director. He also acquired a substantial shareholding in Cash Orders (Amalgamated) Ltd (Waltons Ltd from 1959), of which he was chairman (1930-61). In the mid-1930s he was a director of Waldas Shoes Ltd.

His increasing interest in the stock market had led him to launch and edit Rydge's Business Journal in 1928 as a source of stock-exchange advice and financial comment. Its monthly editorials were signed 'Norman Rydge' until 1969. In the 1930s Rydge became the leading individual 'player' on the stock market through Carlton Investments Ltd (founded 1928). The company took over Manly Hotels Ltd in 1936. For decades Carlton Investments paid dividends only in the form of bonus share issues. This reinvestment enabled the firm to buy new issues of shares to which it was entitled. More important, in the absence of a capital gains tax, the holder of the bonus shares was able to dispose of them without incurring a tax liability.

In 1936, following a shareholders' revolt led by John Armstrong, Rydge was persuaded by Bernard Curran, his stockbroker and a close friend, to buy a controlling interest in six loss-making cinema operators; he was elected chairman and managing director of the Greater J. D. Williams Amusement Co. Ltd and of Greater Union Theatres Ltd. Within three years Greater Union made a profit, and the box office boomed during World War II. On behalf of Greater Union Theatres Ltd, Rydge established 'a close working relationship' in 1945 with J. Arthur Rank. The development of Greater Union's chain of profitable cinemas led to the creation of subsidiary companies which distributed British, American and Continental films, sold cinema equipment, made and processed television, newsreel and commercial films, and marketed photographic equipment. In 1958 the cinema-operating companies were merged in Amalgamated Holdings Ltd and in 1965 Greater Union Organisation Pty Ltd was set up. Rydge retired as chairman in 1970, but returned in that capacity in 1977.

From 1945 Rydge had begun to dispose of his hotel assets, retaining only the Carlton Hotel (until the early 1970s). Oddly, perhaps, he never extended his publishing beyond Rydge's magazine (which his eldest son took over in 1955). With rare exceptions, Rydge avoided diversification. Even with the core cinema business, expansion into other areas of entertainment was notably limited. G.U.O. established only one bowling alley, and that in response to pressure from its partner, the Rank Organisation. Rydge maintained control of Waltons until 1961 when he resigned as chairman because of disagreements with John Walton. He was a commissioner (1961-75) of the Rural Bank of New South Wales and, in the mid-1960s, a director of the Australia Hotel Ltd and City Mutual Life Insurance Society Ltd.

After divorcing his wife in October 1939, Rydge married a 28-year-old nurse, Vincent Lillian Colefax, on 28 December that year at the district registrar's office, Paddington. The marriage ended in tragedy. In October 1949 the coroner found that, in the previous month, she had murdered her 5-year-old son and that she had 'died of poisoning by carbon monoxide, wilfully administered by herself'. On 13 November 1950 at the district registrar's office, Marrickville, Rydge married Phoebe Caroline McEwing, a 39-year-old secretary.

In 1940 Rydge had unsuccessfully contested the House of Representatives seat of Parramatta (for a United Australia Party faction) against Sir Frederick Stewart, the sitting U.A.P. member. Although he joined the Liberal Party, as a businessman he cultivated both sides in politics. For (Sir) Robert Askin's government, Rydge served on an inquiry (1968-69) into establishing an education commission and on another (1971) into the emoluments of senior public servants and politicians. For Neville Wran's government, he chaired (1979) a committee to assess nine applicants for the original Lotto licence.

Appointed C.B.E. in 1955 and knighted in 1966, Sir Norman was president (from 1969) of the trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, and a life governor of the Australian Institute of Management, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, and the Royal Children's and Alfred hospitals, Melbourne. He belonged to the Australian Golf, American National and Tattersall's clubs; his recreations, when he found time for them, were golf, motorboating, and gardening at his Vaucluse home. In 1961 he moved to Point Piper. He died there on 14 May 1980 and was cremated; his wife and their son survived him, as did the two sons of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • T. O'Brien, The Greater Union Story 1910-1985 (Syd, 1985)
  • Rydge's, June 1980
  • Kino, 14, 1985
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 29 Feb, 5 May 1936, 21 Nov 1945, 30 Sept 1948, 9 June 1955, 1 Jan 1966, 12 Aug 1967, 6 Feb 1969, 26 Aug 1971, 11 Apr, 15 Aug 1979
  • Herald (Melbourne), 22 Oct 1948
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 8 May 1960
  • Financial Review, 17 July 1979
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 22 July 1979.

Citation details

John Perkins, 'Rydge, Sir Norman Bede (1900–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rydge-sir-norman-bede-11596/text20703, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2014.

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

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