Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sanderson, Robert Fitzroy (1889–1971)

by Stuart Sayers

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

Robert Fitzroy Sanderson (1889-1971), manufacturer, company director and grazier, was born on 10 March 1889 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, son of Robert Ubsdell Sanderson, English-born draper, and his wife Ellen Roper, née Jackson, of Melbourne. From Fitzroy North primary school Robert went to St Paul's Cathedral School on a choir scholarship. He played Australian Rules football in the Fitzroy reserves team, retaining a lifelong interest in the game, and was an energetic walker and a keen bowls player.

On turning 15 Robert joined Sargood, Butler, Nichol & Ewen, the Melbourne warehousemen and softgoods manufacturers, on a weekly wage of 2s. 6d., a Spartan start to life recalled frequently for the edification of his children and grandchildren. In the years before World War I he travelled widely in country districts, representing various Flinders Lane houses, and adding to an already sound grasp of rural affairs founded on close interest in the activities of his father's grazier cousins in New South Wales. On 12 February 1916 he married Gwendoline Mary French (d.1954) at St James' Anglican Church, Sydney.

Sanderson acquired and became managing director in 1920 of Headwear Pty Ltd, a wholesale millinery business which supplied hats to Buckley & Nunn Ltd, the Melbourne department store. He was elected president of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures in 1938, by which time he was a director of Buckley & Nunn, as well as the Melbourne printers, Ernest E. Gunn Pty Ltd (later Gunn & Taylor Ltd), and the Scottish Insurance Corporation. Early in World War II he became chairman of both Buckley & Nunn and Gunn & Taylor. At its peak Headwear had more than 320 employees, but demand for its hats waned and the business closed in 1962.

In 1932 Sanderson bought a mixed farm of 430 acres (174 ha), later enlarged to 640 acres (259 ha), at Kyneton. There he founded a Southdown sheep stud, importing his first ram from New Zealand, and entered the fat lamb market. He grew Lincoln wool, bred pigs, raised and sold turkeys and kept more than 16,000 laying hens. In 1934 he added a Guernsey cattle stud to the farm, which he called his hobby but ran as a profitable, highly efficient business. He served as president of the Victorian and Southern Riverina Society of Lamb and Mutton Export Producers and on the federal council of the Australian Society of Breeders of British Sheep. He was appointed to the Victorian Meat Advisory Council and the Federal and State advisory committees on Eastern trade and became a councillor of the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria.

The Lyons government appointed Sanderson leader of an Australian trade and goodwill mission to the Dutch East Indies and the Straits Settlements in 1933. Two years later he headed a delegation which spent three months in India, Burma and Ceylon. His speeches advocating more trade with Asia and the Pacific were widely reported. In 1937 he was appointed C.B.E.

During World War II he chaired the Victorian Business Administration committee in the Department of Defence Co-ordination, and joined the Victorian Patriotic Funds Council in 1940 (chairman, 1962). In 1947 he became a director of Wm. Haughton & Co. Ltd, woolbrokers and shipping agents, and in 1949-59 was chairman and managing director. He was chairman of the Argus and Australasian Ltd (1950-54), a director of the General Accident, Fire and Life Assurance Corporation, and chairman of the Clothing Trades Employers' Council. In 1952 he received the French Ordre du Mérite Commercial.

To friends Robert Sanderson was 'Bob', to employees 'R.F.'. He was a stocky, energetic man, of 'wide and generous mind and natural goodness', who held firm opinions, clearly stated. In the early 1950s, when Australian wool was obtaining record prices, his cogent warnings of approaching competition from synthetic fibres aroused hostility from less far-sighted wool-growers but proved well-founded. He was an outstanding businessman, who could digest a balance sheet almost instantaneously, was willing to take calculated risks, disliked letting money lie idle, was adept at restoring companies in straits. He was for many years president of the Victorian Adult Deaf and Dumb Society and a trustee of the Free Kindergarten Union. He remained chairman of Buckley & Nunn and Gunn & Taylor, and a director of Wm. Haughton, until his death at Malvern on 21 August 1971. Survived by his second wife Winifred Stockford, née Bunn, whom he had married at St Paul's Cathedral on 20 February 1959, and by a son and daughter of his first marriage, he was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at about $124,000.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Grant, 500 Victorians (Melb, 1934)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 Sept 1935, 23 June 1938, 17 Jan 1949, 27 Jan 1950, 22 Aug 1952
  • Age (Melbourne), 23 Aug 1971
  • private information.

Citation details

Stuart Sayers, 'Sanderson, Robert Fitzroy (1889–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sanderson-robert-fitzroy-8335/text14625, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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