Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Shepherd, George Frederick (1886–1971)

by Brian Wimborne

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

George Frederick Shepherd (1886-1971), engineer, inventor and benefactor, was born on 13 December 1886 at Richmond, Surrey, England, son of Timothy Shepherd, shop-manager, and his wife Elizabeth Alice, née Dale. George trained as a general engineer at Birmingham before travelling to Sydney in 1924 with the intention of selling convertible motorcars. In the following year he moved to Melbourne where he worked for the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd. He married Mary Louisa Campbell about 1928 in Ceylon (Sri Lanka); they were to remain childless. In 1930 he patented a device to improve the operation of petrol pumps. Losing his job in the Depression, he joined three other former officers of Shell in establishing Pacific Oil Co. Pty Ltd in 1931. The firm distributed petrol in Victoria under the brand name Pax. Although it was taken over by Alba Petroleum Co. of Australia Pty Ltd in 1935, Pacific Oil continued to trade under its own name until 1942.

Finding that his enjoyment of the game of bridge was reduced by the rickety chairs and tables usually provided for players, Shepherd built a more sturdy, adjustable card-table and designed comfortable armchairs, mounted on castors, for parties at his home. In the 1930s he set out to make a better type of swivelling wheel. When his wife broke her leg, he fitted four of his experimental castors to a chair, enabling her to move easily around the house, over carpets, linoleum, mats and concrete.

Shepherd realized that his invention had commercial possibilities. He concentrated on problems of lubrication, dust-proofing and appearance. After years of experiment, hampered by World War II, he produced a standard, two-and-a-half-inch (6.4 cm) castor. It consisted of an inclined, domed wheel—within which there was a bearing with an oil trap—and a domed cover that fitted inside the rim of the wheel to enclose the working parts. Shepherd arranged for the castors to be mass-produced under licence by a friend, Mark Cowen, who began selling them in Australia in 1946.

Although the castors were not an instant success, they gradually became popular. In 1950 an English firm was licensed to manufacture them for the British market. Similar arrangements followed with companies in France, the United States of America, Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Israel and Italy. Shepherd travelled to England in 1954 to celebrate production of the millionth castor at Birmingham. He continued to improve his design. Later models incorporated rubber treads and brakes; a slightly smaller version was manufactured for lightweight furniture. Fitted to furniture and machinery in offices, homes, hotels, hospitals and factories, tens of millions of Shepherd's castors were eventually sold worldwide, making their inventor a wealthy man.

Towards the end of his life Shepherd decided that he would like to set up in Melbourne something similar to the Mayo Clinic at Rochester, Minnesota, U.S.A. He donated $250,000 to establish the Shepherd Foundation, a 'multiphasic' health-screening centre. Opened in South Melbourne in 1971, the non-profit centre aimed to help in the prediction and early diagnosis of disease by testing about seventy-five people a day. The foundation continues to operate.

Elizabeth Shepherd described her husband as exacting, determined, single-minded and methodical. He was a very private person who loved classical music. Survived by his wife, he died on 20 June 1971 in his home at Brighton and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $187,008.

Select Bibliography

  • L. W. Port, Australian Inventors (Syd, 1978)
  • E. Gold and R. Greener (compiler), Inventive Vics Exhibition, catalogue (Melb, 1985)
  • Woman's Day, 10 Sept 1973
  • private information.

Citation details

Brian Wimborne, 'Shepherd, George Frederick (1886–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/shepherd-george-frederick-11678/text20869, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 17 September 2014.

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

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