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Smith, Sir Harold Gengoult (1890–1983)

by John Young

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Harold Gengoult Smith (1890-1983), lord mayor and medical practitioner, was born on 25 July 1890 in East Melbourne, third of four children of English-born parents Louis Lawrence Smith, medical practitioner and politician, and his wife Marion Jane, née Higgins. Harold enjoyed an outdoor life on his father’s model farms at Beaconsfield, and was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. He studied medicine in Scotland, but his course was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I in 1914. Serving in France with the 2nd Dragoon Guards, he was twice wounded, but not seriously. From July 1915 to April 1916 he held a commission in the cavalry. Returning to Scotland, he served in Red Cross hospitals while completing his studies. In 1917 he qualified as a licentiate of the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons, Edinburgh, and the Royal Faculty of Physicians and Surgeons, Glasgow.

Back in Australia Smith practised at his late father’s Collins Street medical rooms from 1919, and in 1921 he was elected to the Melbourne City Council. A keen adventurer, in 1929 he explored the Tanami Desert, 400 miles (644 km) north-west of Alice Springs, with Michael Terry.

In 1931 (Sir) Harold Luxton retired as lord mayor of Melbourne and there was a closely fought contest between Smith and another councillor, John James Liston, to replace him. Liston was regarded as inimical to business interests, and Smith won the position by one vote. Had the votes been equal it was speculated that the presiding officer would have chosen Liston.

Melbourne’s first bachelor mayor, Smith vigorously took up the mayoral role. His sister, Louise Dyer, returned from France to be lady mayoress, taking leave from her music publishing business, Editions de l’Oiseau Lyre. On 6 December 1933 Smith married Cynthia Mary Emmerton Brookes, the daughter of Sir Norman and Mabel Brookes. She was 21 and he was 43, and their marriage at St Paul’s Church of England Cathedral, Melbourne, was the wedding of the year, attracting thousands of onlookers. By then plans were afoot for the Victorian centenary celebrations (1934), and Smith chaired several organising committees. He conceived the England to Australia air race and persuaded the confectionery magnate Sir Macpherson Robertson to provide £15,000 in prize money. The celebrations were honoured by a Royal visitor, the Duke of Gloucester, who was later godfather to Smith’s first child; (Sir) Robert Menzies was godfather to his second child. In addition, the celebrations were marked by the erection of new city landmarks, including Captain Cook’s cottage (now known as Cook’s cottage) and the Shrine of Remembrance.

Smith was knighted in 1934. He retired as mayor at the end of that year, but was to remain a member of the city council—representing Albert (later Latrobe) Ward—until 1965, making him the city’s longest-serving councillor. His only other attempt at political office was to stand unsuccessfully as a United Australia Party candidate in a State election in 1940. Following his retirement as mayor, he undertook postgraduate medical studies, becoming a fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, Edinburgh, in 1935. Returning to Melbourne, he resumed his medical practice.

Having been active for much of the period 1908-33 in the Citizen Military Forces, Smith volunteered for full-time duty in World War II. Mobilised as a lieutenant colonel, Australian Army Medical Corps, in April 1941, he served in Australia and commanded the 5th Casualty Clearing Station (1941-42), the 50th Camp Hospital (1942-44), the 111th Australian General Hospital (1944-45) and the 107th Convalescent Depot (1945-46). He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 2 March 1946 and thence, as an honorary colonel, to the Retired List in 1948.

Known for his courtesy and old-world charm, the veteran councillor was seldom given to long speeches—when he spoke it was usually to the point and in a soft, gentlemanly voice. A defender of British tradition, Smith decried new architecture, modern art and long-haired pop singers (including the Beatles), and applauded Melbourne’s trees and parklands. He was conservative by inclination and tended to be frugal both in his private life and in his municipal role. As an influential member of the council’s finance committee, he dismayed the management by successfully advocating the purchase of only half of a site proposed for new administrative offices. The land was not built on for forty years. Predeceased by his wife (d.1962) and survived by their daughter and son, Sir Harold died on 14 April 1983 at Armadale, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Official Centenary Guide and Souvenir (1935)
  • M. Brookes, Crowded Galleries (1956)
  • 1934: A Year in the Life of Victoria (1984)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 3 July 1965, p 6
  • Bulletin, 17 July 1965, pp 31, 32
  • B883, item VX117117 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

John Young, 'Smith, Sir Harold Gengoult (1890–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/smith-sir-harold-gengoult-15901/text27102, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 17 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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