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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Smithers, Sir Arthur Tennyson (1894–1972)

by John Cain

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

Sir Arthur Tennyson Smithers (1894-1972), public servant, was born on 30 June 1894 at Echuca, Victoria, fourth of five sons of Frederick Smithers, a piano-tuner from England, and his Victorian-born wife Rachel, née Spearritt, late Cocks. Arthur was educated at Echuca State School and, after the family moved to Melbourne, at Prahran College. His first job was with a South Yarra estate-agent, A. E. Oakley, who collected the rent for the Smithers' family home in Domain Road. On 25 May 1911 he joined the Victorian Public Service as a clerk in the Treasury. His younger brother (Sir) Reginald said that he 'had plenty of brains'. 'Tenny' improved his prospects by studying at night and qualifying as an associate of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants.

At St Mary's Church of England, Caulfield, on 21 April 1920 Smithers married Constance Helen Wise, an artist. His diligence, patience, competence and commitment to his work were rewarded with regular promotions. In 1927 he attended the meeting of the Australian Loan Council, the body which determined borrowings by the Commonwealth and the States. He took part in each of the council's annual meetings until 1959. Appointed State director of finance on 1 September 1937, he became adviser to six different premiers (all of whom held the additional portfolio of the Treasury) in eleven successive governments. In a period when it was common for departmental heads to retain office for long terms, he remained director of finance for twenty-two years.

At that time State government ministers had no private advisers to reflect the views of interest groups or the general community. They depended on their public servants. Treasury was the key department, regarded as the repository of wisdom and authority. As its head, Smithers was seen as being very much 'in control'. He signed the cheques. Ministers asked him whether he could provide the funds they needed. The Treasury's relatively simple set of accounting-books was kept in a room at 2 Treasury Place, Melbourne, in which clerks sat on stools at a long, sloping desk, and prepared invoices, cheques and receipts. The room led to the office of the director of finance. Accounts and statements from every department were delivered by hand to that office. Throughout his career Smithers kept above the sectarianism that was rife in the public service. In 1949 he was appointed C.B.E. He was knighted in 1959, the year of his retirement.

A trustee (from 1937) of the Shrine of Remembrance, Smithers had joined the Royal Melbourne Hospital's management-committee in 1941. He was appointed a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1945 and a director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust in 1954. After retiring from the public service, he was chairman (1961, 1965 and 1970) of the State Savings Bank of Victoria and a director of several companies, including Portfolio & Development Ltd and Southern Cross Properties Ltd.

Smithers loved to sing. As a boy and young man he had performed at Ballarat in the South Street competitions and was said to have considered a career in the theatre. He was lead tenor in the choir of St Mary's, Caulfield, for most of his adult life. Accompanied by his wife at the piano, he frequently sang at weddings and birthday parties. They visited and received friends on Saturday nights for cards and supper. The family spent summer holidays at Point Lonsdale, where Arthur swam, and played beach-cricket and golf. He was fond of Shakespeare and supported the Melbourne Football Club.

Survived by his wife and their two daughters, Sir Arthur died on 28 June 1972 at Parkville and was cremated. A journalist noted that his birth and cremation had both occurred on 30 June—the end of the financial year.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 29 June 1972
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 June, 1 July 1972
  • unpublished autobiography of Sir Reginald Smithers (typescript, privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Cain, 'Smithers, Sir Arthur Tennyson (1894–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 16

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