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Somerset, Sir Henry Beaufort (Harry) (1906–1995)

by Jane Carolan

This article was published online in 2019

Sir Henry Beaufort Somerset (1906–1995), industrial chemist, company executive, and director, was born on 21 May 1906 at Mount Morgan, Queensland, eldest child of Queensland-born (Sir) Henry St John Somerset, assayer, and his New South Wales-born wife Jessie Bowie, daughter of the politician and free-thinker John Bowie Wilson. Harry’s father was chief metallurgist at the Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. Ltd, and the family lived in a timber cottage overlooking the mine. In 1912 they moved to Hunters Hill, Sydney, and Harry attended Girrahween and Malvern schools. A plain youth with red hair and freckles, he wore glasses, having been almost blinded in his right eye when young. While his impaired sight made participating in sports challenging, he was considered a brainy boy with great promise.

The Somerset family relocated to Port Pirie in 1917. Harry studied at the local high school before attending the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, where he excelled academically (equal dux 1923). Moving to Victoria, he studied engineering and science at the University of Melbourne (BSc, 1927; MSc, 1928) and lived at Trinity College. He was made an honorary scholar of the college in 1927 and won the Dixson (1927) and Kernot (1928) scholarships in chemistry. Interested in learning about forests and paper-making, he travelled to the United States of America and spent eight months with Forest Products Laboratory in Madison, Wisconsin. In 1929 he joined Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd as a chemist at Billingham, in the north of England. On 4 November 1930 at St Mary Abbots Church, Kensington, London, he married Patricia Agnes Strickland, an arts graduate who had been a resident at Trinity’s Janet Clarke Hall. They returned to Australia in 1933.

On 4 September 1936 Somerset was appointed technical assistant at the newly formed Associated Pulp and Paper Mills Ltd (APPM) at Burnie, Tasmania. His first task was to commission the construction of a laboratory where investigative work could be done on timber. He took a no-nonsense approach to his work, was unpretentious in manner and dress, and developed warm relationships with his colleagues. In September 1940 he became general superintendent of the mill; four years later he was made a director of APPM, and in 1948 he was appointed managing director. He encouraged consultation, introduced a bonus scheme and a sickness and accident fund, and embarked on a bold policy of expansion. Active in the local community, he chaired the Burnie Technical Classes Council and was a committee member of the local branch of the Liberal Party of Australia. During World War II he had served as chairman of the Burnie Waste Products Sub-Committee and chief air raid warden for the north-west coast.

Somerset’s career also included positions on the boards of chemical, cement, fertilizer, and mineral companies, several of which had Tasmanian interests. Through the postwar expansion of these businesses and ‘the pulp’ (as APPM was known), he helped to create a prosperous north-west coast. The Advocate dubbed him ‘the man whose name spells progress in Burnie’ (1959, 19). In July 1964 he was appointed as chancellor of the University of Tasmania. Over the next two years he worked to finalise a settlement with the former professor of philosophy Sydney Sparkes Orr, who claimed he had been wrongfully dismissed in 1956. After months of intense negotiations, Somerset considered that this was the hardest task he had ever undertaken.

Stocky in build and with severe features and pebble glasses, Somerset exhibited a serious manner which tended to hide his essential kindliness and wicked sense of humour. He had been appointed CBE in 1961 and was knighted five years later. In 1969 he retired from APPM and moved to Melbourne. Remaining active in business, he was also a long-time member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (president, 1958 and 1966), a member of the executive of the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial Research Organization (1965–74), a trustee (1968–77) of the National Museum of Victoria, and inaugural chairman (1970–83) of the Australian Mineral Foundation. By the early 1980s he had relinquished his directorships.

Aspects of Sir Henry’s life were contradictory. Although he ran companies that chopped down trees and dug holes in the ground, he was also a bushwalker, a conservationist committed to the preservation of species, a keen field naturalist, and a collector of fossils and shells. In 1981 an orchid conservation area near Latrobe, Tasmania, was named after him. Predeceased by his wife, and survived by their two daughters, he died on 15 September 1995 at Richmond, Victoria, and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Advocate. ‘Incentive Payments Here to Stay—A.P.P.M. Head.’ 10 July 1959, 19
  • Carolan, Jane Mayo. No Run–of–the–Mill: A Biography of Henry Beaufort Somerset. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2006
  • Jamieson, Allan. The PULP: The Rise and Fall of an Industry. Hobart: Forty Degrees South Pty Ltd, 2011
  • Lawrence, Tess. A Whitebait and a Bloody Scone: An Anecdotal History of APPM. Melbourne: Jezebel Press, 1986
  • Parbo, Arvi. Down Under: Mineral Heritage in Australia. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, 1992
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 1974.0138, Associated Pulp and Paper Mills Limited, 1936–1970. Papers
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 106/45, Somerset, Henry (Sir). Papers
  • Walker, Ruth. APPM Council 1938–1988: 50 Years of Caring. Burnie, Tas.: Associated Pulp and Paper Makers, 1988

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Jane Carolan, 'Somerset, Sir Henry Beaufort (Harry) (1906–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/somerset-sir-henry-beaufort-harry-22010/text31985, published online 2019, accessed online 20 November 2019.

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