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Small, Sir Andrew Bruce (1895–1980)

by Robert I. Longhurst

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

Sir Andrew Bruce Small (1895-1980), bicycle manufacturer, land developer and politician, was born on 11 December 1895 at Ryde, Sydney, second of six children of William Andrew Small, a native-born gardener, and his wife Annie Elizabeth, née Martin, who came from Victoria. William and Annie were ardent Salvationists, and by the age of 6 Bruce was playing the tenor horn in Salvation Army bands. He was to hold the post of solo euphonium player in the Territorial Staff Band of Victoria for twenty-two years. The family was always on the move. In later life Bruce recalled that he attended fourteen schools before he finished his formal education at the age of 13. He found work in Melbourne as a printer's devil, earning six shillings a week. He then operated a milk run before becoming a commercial traveller. On 3 September 1919 at the City Temple, Melbourne, he married with Salvation Army forms Eileen Hayman, a nurse. They had one son before being divorced.

By 1920 Small had saved enough to buy a bicycle shop at Malvern for £200. At first he manufactured twelve bicycles a week. With the slogan, 'You'd be better on a Malvern Star', the business blossomed and he formed a company, Bruce Small Pty Ltd, in 1926. Five years earlier he had hired a young telegraph messenger, (Sir) Hubert ('Oppy') Opperman, whose national and international feats as a racing cyclist brought fame to Malvern Star. Small, Oppy and a promotional team toured the world six times and successfully marketed bicycles abroad. In 1936 Allied Bruce Small Ltd was registered as a public company. At the 1st Congregational Church, San Francisco, United States of America, on 11 August 1939 Small married Lillian Ada Mitchell, a clerk from Sydney.

During World War II Small's factories produced bicycles, both for the armed forces and for civilians. Demand surged due to petrol rationing. Malvern Star also made radio-location sets, tubular tent frames and radio-masts for defence purposes. The business eventually comprised six factories, a wholesale warehouse and a chain of forty-five retail shops, supplemented by about one thousand dealerships. A successful manufacturer and exporter, he was a fervent proponent of Australian industrial self-sufficiency.

Described as a 'non-swearing, non-drinking, God-fearing Christian', Small showed a lifelong concern for the less fortunate. He was a director of the Association for the Blind of Victoria for twenty-five years. As its president (1955-64), he was closely involved with the construction of homes for the elderly at Brighton, Bendigo and Ballarat. For many years he was a board-member of the Young Men's Christian Association of Melbourne.

By 1958 Small was a millionaire. He sold his holding in Allied Bruce Small and moved to the Gold Coast, Queensland. He soon acquired 100 acres (40 ha) of low-lying dairy land and mangrove swamps at Bundall, across the Nerang River from Surfers Paradise. Over the next eight years his companies bought more land, reclaiming and developing 500 acres (202 ha) as Paradise City. At the Isle of Capri, part of the project, he built the palm-flanked Wanamara, which remained his home until his death. Flamboyant and extroverted, he soon fell foul of the Southport-dominated Gold Coast City Council by calling for an overall town plan and for co-operation between developers, local government and the Crown.

Using the slogan 'Think Big, Vote Small', Small stood successfully for mayor of the City of the Gold Coast on 29 April 1967. His efforts during the disastrous cyclone in June that year, when he marshalled 5000 civilian volunteers and 187 soldiers to fill and place thousands of sandbags along the eroded beachfront, won him added support. He became known as 'Boulder Bruce' for his efforts to have permanent rock walls constructed along vulnerable Gold Coast beaches. Determined that the Gold Coast's image as a holiday resort would not suffer as a result of the erosion crisis, he toured Australia in 1968 with a bevy of 'meter maids', clad in gold lamé bikinis. He was also often accompanied by his beloved poodle Mimi. By 1969 his promotional tours had spread farther afield to include New Zealand, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. At home, he participated in dance marathons and rode a penny-farthing bicycle through Surfers Paradise at the head of a circus parade. He laid the foundation for the development of the Gold Coast as an international tourist destination and did much to Americanize the way of life of Surfers Paradise. In 1974 he was knighted.

Immensely popular, Mayor Small had been re-elected unopposed in 1970. In May 1972, at the age of 76, he won the Legislative Assembly seat of Surfers Paradise for the Country Party. He stood down as mayor in 1973, but remained an alderman. In 1975 he retained his seat in parliament, but narrowly lost it to the Liberal Party candidate, Bruce Bishop, in November 1977. He had again stood for mayor in March 1976, easily defeating his arch political foe, Robert Neumann. While mayor, Sir Bruce bought an official car, a Mercedes 450SL coupé. He claimed that it was for his sole use; when he went interstate or overseas, he refused to make it available to the acting-mayor. His relations with councillors progressively deteriorated over the next two years. Many complained that he acted more as a managing director of his own business than as head of an elected team. Small eventually approached (Sir) Johannes Bjelke-Petersen's government and laid sixteen charges against his fellow councillors. The government dismissed the council and appointed an administrator in March 1978.

Later that year Small fell gravely ill with cancer. Increasingly frail, and reliant upon his son and company secretary Bruce ('Kelly') Small to handle his affairs, he made his final public appearance at a dinner held in his honour on 13 March 1980. His last request to the council, to receive the freedom of the city, was stubbornly refused. Three days before his death, however, he was granted the freedom of the town of Hervey Bay, some 250 miles (402 km) to the north of Surfers Paradise. Survived by his wife and by the son of his first marriage, he died on 1 May 198O at Benowa and was cremated with Salvation Army forms. Some years passed before his role in the development of the Gold Coast was officially recognized: Mark Andrews' statue of Small was erected in Elkhorn Avenue, Surfers Paradise, in 1986.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Freeth, The Silver Anniversary (Melb, 1945)
  • A. McRobbie, The Surfer's Paradise Story (Surfers Paradise, Qld, 1982)
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 18 May 1960, 2 May 1980
  • Age (Melbourne), 2 May 1980
  • Australian, 2 May 1980
  • Gold Coast Bulletin, 2 May 1980
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 2 May 1980
  • Sunday Sun (Brisbane), 11 Sept 1988.

Citation details

Robert I. Longhurst, 'Small, Sir Andrew Bruce (1895–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/small-sir-andrew-bruce-11714/text20939, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 September 2014.

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

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