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Thorpe, Sir Fred Garner (1893–1970)

by Charles Fahey

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

Fred Thorpe, 1951

Fred Thorpe, 1951

photo supplied by his family

Sir Fred Garner Thorpe (1893-1970), engineer and army officer, was born on Christmas Day 1893 at Macorna, Victoria, fifth of nine children of James Thorpe, store-manager, and his wife Dorothy, née Angus, both Victorian born. Daniel Wrixon Thorpe was his elder brother. Fred attended state schools at Macorna and North Fitzroy, Melbourne, before being apprenticed (1910) to the Victorian Railways as a fitter and turner in the rolling-stock division. He won a scholarship to the Working Men's College, where he obtained diplomas in mechanical and electrical engineering in 1915.

On 15 July that year Thorpe enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served in Egypt with the 5th Field Company, Australian Engineers. In March 1916 his unit was sent to France. Commissioned on 20 October, he was transferred to the 6th Field Company in December and promoted lieutenant in April 1917. Near Bullecourt, on 3-6 May, he 'set a splendid example' in charge of parties that worked in communication and support trenches while under heavy fire. He won the Military Cross. At Trinity Chapel, Paddington, London, on 11 December 1918 he married with Wesleyan Methodist forms Myrtle Mary Amelia Bishop. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 7 December 1919.

Leaving the railways in 1920, Thorpe joined Gibson, Battle (Melbourne) Pty Ltd as a sales engineer. In 1925 he moved to Bevan & Edwards Pty Ltd (later E. P. Bevan & Son Pty Ltd) which amalgamated in 1938 with the machine-tool division of McPherson's Ltd to form Associated Machine Tools Australia Pty Ltd. Thorpe was appointed a director of the new company. The merger reflected a fear that war would disrupt overseas supplies of 'machines used to make other machines'; it was therefore essential that Australia become self-sufficient in lathes and forging presses, and in equipment 'for planing, boring, sawing, grinding, milling, filing and reaming'. Associated Machine Tools Australia was licensed to manufacture any product of Associated British Machine Tool Makers Ltd, a group of eight leading British manufacturers.

Thorpe was sent to England in 1939 to gain a more thorough understanding of the manufacture of machine tools. On his return in September, he took charge of McPherson's works at Kensington. By this time he was acknowledged as Australia's leading authority in his field. Having served in the Militia (from 1921) and risen to the rank of lieutenant colonel (1934), he was appointed on 1 April 1939 to the part-time post of chief engineer, 3rd District Base, Melbourne, as a temporary colonel. In July 1940 he relinquished his military appointment to become director of machine tools and gauges, Department of Munitions. The directorate had been established to 'control the production, reconditioning, acquisition, disposal and distribution of machine tools, ball bearings, electrical equipment, gauges, factory equipment, transmission gears and hand tools'.

Under Thorpe's supervision, tool-making expanded dramatically. He later recalled the important contribution of firms which had taken the opportunity during the 'phoney war' to obtain British designs of 'high production, high quality machines' previously not made in Australia. The experience gained in manufacturing this equipment proved invaluable in increasing the number, variety and complexity of machine tools built in Australia. In 1943 some two hundred manufacturers, employing 12,000 staff, produced 14,000 such items, ranging from a lathe weighing 132 tons to intricate precision instruments. Local firms made 37,000 of the 63,000 machine tools supplied to the armed forces and industry in 1940-45.

Thorpe's 'drive and energy' were crucial to his directorate's achievement, but there were deficiencies in his administration. Other sections of the department complained about long delays in the supply of machine tools. Thorpe never established clear procedures for charting and scheduling: after naming a delivery date, he had no system for monitoring production or advising changes to that date.

There were additional problems. Thorpe's close association with McPherson's led in 1941 to claims by New South Wales manufacturers of favouritism in the letting of war contracts. Moreover, the directorate experienced constant difficulty in recovering machine tools that had been assigned to manufacturers for specific jobs and were later required elsewhere. These manufacturers had a considerable hold over Thorpe and his colleagues; as potential customers for machine tools after the war, they could threaten to boycott their businesses. Coming from a small firm, Thorpe lacked the power of big businessmen in the department, such as Sir Colin Fraser and Essington Lewis, to resist such intimidatory tactics.

In June 1945 Thorpe returned to McPherson's as manager of the machinery department. Three years later he was promoted to technical director. Following his retirement in 1953, he set up as a chartered engineer. One of his commissions was to advise Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd on its machine-tool requirements. From 1952 he chaired the Federal minister for supply's advisory committee on machine tools and gauges for industry and government munitions establishments. He claimed that a machine-tool industry was essential to the nation's security and that the Commonwealth government should protect local manufacturers from overseas competitors.

Thorpe was a director of Renold Chains (Australia) Pty Ltd, Vickers Australia Pty Ltd, Bermid Auto Castings Pty Ltd and N. F. Thorpe Pty Ltd (his son's engineering venture at Briar Hill). He was a trustee (1945-63) of the National Museum of Victoria and chairman (1950-54 and 1964-65) of the Museum of Applied Science of Victoria. In 1952 he was knighted. In 1962 he received the Jack Finlay award from the Institution of Production Engineers. He belonged to the Naval and Military Club, and enjoyed gardening in his later years. Sir Fred died on 29 March 1970 at Rosanna and was cremated; his wife and their son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • A. T. Ross, Armed and Ready (Syd, 1995)
  • Australian Machinery and Production Engineering, Apr 1969
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Sept 1952, 11 May 1959
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 Mar 1970.

Citation details

Charles Fahey, 'Thorpe, Sir Fred Garner (1893–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/thorpe-sir-fred-garner-11857/text21227, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

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