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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thorpe, Frank Gordon (1885–1967)

by Matthew Calaby

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

Frank Gordon Thorpe (1885-1967), public servant, was born on 15 February 1885 at Kooreh, Victoria, second child of William Jabez Thorpe, schoolteacher, and his wife Kate, née Mann, both Victorian born. Educated at St Arnaud and Warrnambool State schools, Frank entered the Post and Telegraph Department in 1898 as a telegraph messenger. He transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service in 1901 and became personal clerk to the deputy postmaster-general. Seconded to the Department of Defence during World War I, he rose to be head of the army pay office in Melbourne with the honorary rank of lieutenant colonel. On 24 January 1917 at the Methodist Church, Brighton, he married Elsie Rebecca Leake; they had one child, a son, before she died in 1921.

That year Thorpe joined the Prime Minister's Department as a senior clerk. In 1923 he was appointed an assistant-inspector with the Commonwealth Public Service Board. His responsibility for industrial arbitration involved him in negotiations with staff associations. At Holy Trinity Church, Surrey Hills, on 21 August 1926 he married with Anglican rites Vera Hope Donaldson, a typist. The board moved to Canberra in 1928. When Thorpe was promoted to be its secretary next year, he retained his role in industrial relations.

By 1931, due to the exigencies of the Depression, the Federal government had allowed the number of public service commissioners on the board to decline from three to one. To reduce the burden on (Sir) William Clemens, who was handling retrenchments and reductions in salaries, Thorpe was chosen for the new position of assistant-commissioner in September 1932. Appointed M.B.E. in 1936, he succeeded Clemens as commissioner on 27 March 1937. Although he was hamstrung by having insufficient staff, he managed to deal with the more important issues. In 1939 he was appointed C.M.G. Throughout World War II he worked under increased pressure that stemmed from the creation of additional departments and the recruitment of larger numbers of public servants (including many women), but he had little time for analysing the needs of individual departments in regard to staff and training.

In 1940-43 Thorpe argued against full preference for returned servicemen to gain employment in the public service on the grounds that such a practice had denied young people the opportunity to enter the third division after World War I. The government overruled him. His major achievement lay in his harmonious negotiations with staff associations following the implementation of the Commonwealth Public Service Act (No.2, 1945), legislation which modified the promotions system and provided for greater staff involvement in decision-making. He retired on 26 March 1947.

A skilful negotiator, Thorpe had been popular with staff-association officials. His 'conciliatory attitude' had saved the public-service arbitration system from collapse, but, in Gerald Caiden's view, his kindness and courtesy had 'allowed the more unscrupulous to take advantage of him'. Thorpe's recreations were motoring, bowls, golf and gardening. Survived by his wife, he died on 30 March 1967 at Canberra Community Hospital and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His only child Harold had been killed in India in 1943 while serving with the Royal Australian Air Force.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Caiden, Career Service (Melb, 1965)
  • Public Service Board, Annual Report, 1923-47
  • private information.

Citation details

Matthew Calaby, 'Thorpe, Frank Gordon (1885–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 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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