Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shapcott, Louis Edward (1877–1950)

by J. Hughes

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

Louis Edward Shapcott (1877-1950), civil servant, was born on 7 June 1877 at Kingston, Victoria, son of Irish-born Mrs Sophia Mary Shapcott, née Doyle. Louis worked on station properties and as a show-troupe boxer around Bendigo and Ballarat. Following his half-brother Albert to Western Australia in 1897, he worked as a points cleaner with the railways and briefly with F. H. Faulding & Co. In 1899 he joined the Department of Mines where his rise to a position of controversial influence, probably unparalleled in the State public service, began with night-school study of French, elocution, chemistry, shorthand and typing; from 1901 he was a shorthand clerk and typist, then clerk, in the department's correspondence branch. On 1 January 1905 in Perth he married Elsie Beatrice Quarrell with Baptist forms.

From 14 March 1914 until he retired in 1941 Shapcott was secretary to the premier, making himself indispensable to Premiers Scaddan, Wilson and Willcock, Colebatch and Collier, Lefroy and Mitchell; there was a saying among public servants that seven premiers served under Shapcott. One back-bench parliamentarian protested about his power; another retorted that 'Every Leader of the Opposition has said that, and when he becomes Premier, he has kept that gentleman there'.

In World War I Shapcott was also a commissioner under the Postponement of Debts Act and liaison officer between the army and the State. With Rear Admiral (Sir) William Clarkson he controlled priority lists of foodstuffs into Western Australia. In November 1918 he organized the Western Australian visit of a French trade mission, led by war hero General Pau, and was later appointed officier d'Académie Française.

In 1920 the Premier's Department was created. Shapcott, as secretary, ranked among the four leading permanent heads; he was executive officer of the government. Three times a State director of royal tours, he had a bad moment on 5 July when the train carrying the Prince of Wales and Lord Louis Mountbatten through the south-west overturned, shaking the prince as it fell.

In 1920 Shapcott had nine Perth foreshores and reserves placed under the control of the State Gardens Board, the personal empire which he chaired; eventually the land under its control exceeded 16,700 acres (6758 ha), including 5000 acres (2024 ha) in the Porongorups near Albany, 9000 acres (3642 ha) of (now John Forrest) National Park and, the jewel in the board's crown, Yanchep Park. On this, his pet project, he directed planning and, often on weekends, worked to transform swamp and bush to a beautiful park. Shapcott's management was eccentric. He prevented an extension of the board's quorum from one; no minutes were kept; in 1928 he had part of King's Park transferred to its control and gloated that it took King's Park Board four years to notice. From 1932 he also administered Perth Zoo, in similar style: no minutes survive. He was probably aided by being a tall, heavy man of 18 stone (114 kg), hard-driving, 'something of a “loner”', careless of his own popularity, and ambitious: 'we are trying' to win 'a niche, be it ever so little in the Temple of Fame'. Driving to work, he would not give way and policemen learned to hold up other traffic. In 1920 Shapcott was appointed M.V.O., in 1927 I.S.O. and in 1935 C.M.G. His subordinates admired and respected him, but many feared or disliked him; none questioned his impartial devotion to duty.

In 1930 and 1932, on Shapcott's advice, (Sir) Charles McNess had allocated to him about £20,000 for unemployment relief; it supplemented sustenance and employed about 170 men for five years, many at Yanchep and most on Gardens Board activities.

A foundation member of the Civil Defence Council, in 1941-42 Shapcott was director of civil defence. He published The Story of Yanchep (Perth, 1938) and State Gardens Board W.A. (Perth, 1939). He retained his interest in boxing and was an apiarist and photographer. Survived by his wife, daughter and two sons, he died of coronary vascular disease on 23 May 1950 and was buried in the Baptist section of Karrakatta cemetery. A portrait by Buckmaster is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In (Perth, 1972)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Western Australia), 25 Nov 1919
  • West Australian, 1 July 1920, 16 May 1927, 3, 4 Oct 1934, 24 May 1950, 9 Aug 1978
  • D. Bryant, A Brief History of the South Perth Zoo Through Sixty Years (1898-1958), (typescript, 1964, State Library of Western Australia)
  • Premier's Department, correspondence files, 7/36, 121/29, 423/37, 524/33, 665/30, Accession 161, AN 254/1, vol 4, correspondence, Accession 1068 AN 76/1, vol 17, folios 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, Accession 1068 AN 76/1, 17/42, folios 148-50, 284, 279-81, Accession 1215, AN 68/3 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Civil Defence Council minutes, Accession 1496, AN 2/2, file 380/30, report 30/6/32, folios 13, 14, and file 274/38, report, Accession 1703 AN 2/9, file 56/18, correspondence (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

J. Hughes, 'Shapcott, Louis Edward (1877–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shapcott-louis-edward-8397/text14745, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 September 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Birth

7 June 1877
Kingston, Victoria, Australia

Death

23 May 1950

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation