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Tubman, Kenneth Vernon (Ken) (1915–1993)

by Andrew Moore

This article was published online in 2017

Kenneth Vernon Tubman (1915–1993), motor sport competitor and pharmacist, was born on 31 December 1915 at Mudgee, New South Wales, son of New South Wales-born parents Harold Vernon Tubman, school teacher, and his wife Olive May, née Lysaught. Part of Ken’s primary schooling was undertaken at Deniliquin, where he passed the entrance examination for Fort Street Boys’ High School in Sydney, which he attended from 1928 to 1932. He then studied pharmacy at the University of Sydney (1935–36), in his first year winning prizes for botany and chemistry. In March 1939 he became a member of the Pharmaceutical Society of Australia. He worked as a relieving pharmacist, including for a time at Kurri Kurri, before moving to Maitland. On 23 March 1940 he married Ruth May Atkinson at St Mary’s Church of England, West Maitland. In World War II he served (1942–45) in the 20th Battalion, Volunteer Defence Corps, rising to corporal in 1944.

Encouraged by rising prosperity and wider patterns of car ownership, motor racing’s popularity in Australia increased dramatically after the war. Tubman embraced the sport enthusiastically. He raced a supercharged MG K3 Magnette, without conspicuous success, at various circuits around Australia including Mount Panorama and Mount Druitt in New South Wales, Fisherman’s Bend in Victoria, Leyburn in Queensland, and Nuriootpa in South Australia, as well as competing in the 1951 Lady Wigram Trophy at Wigram, Christchurch, in New Zealand. He also became a regular competitor in motoring trials, his initial outing being in the first postwar Castrol Trophy trial in a 1939 Buick.

Trial driving—later known as rallying—with its attendant attractions of adventure and thrills, became Tubman’s forte. The high point of his motor sport career came with winning the first Redex Round Australia Reliability Trial in 1953. Driving a privately entered Peugeot 203 and with John Marshall as navigator, he secured victory after skilfully negotiating a ‘horror section’ (Burden 1953, 450) near Marulan in New South Wales that was included to break the dead heat of the leading cars. The public profile of the trial, the most popular motoring event of the era, made Tubman a national sporting celebrity. The victory established the French marque in Australia and the grateful Australian distributor gave Tubman and Marshall a car each.

Known as ‘Tubbie,’ the nickname matching his silhouette, Tubman was quiet and self-effacing, a foil to the extroverted persona of his fellow rally driver ‘Gelignite’ Jack Murray, who—with Bill Murray—won the Redex trial the following year. Tubman continued to compete in national and international rallies. Major success eluded him until the 1974 World Cup rally, which, with Jim Reddiex and Andre Welinski, he won, driving a Citroën over a circuitous course between London and Munich. In 1977 he surveyed the route across Australia for that year’s London to Sydney rally; he was the rally director for the event. By then regarded as the senior statesman of Australian rallying, he was noted for sportsmanlike behaviour, including stopping to assist fellow competitors, sometimes at the expense of winning.

Between motoring commitments Tubman operated Tubman’s Pharmacy in High Street, Maitland, from 1952 to 1983. He was a genial and competent pharmacist on whom many relied for medical advice. After divorcing his first wife, he married Nellie Myfanwy McLeod, née Evans, a business manageress, on 19 March 1955 in a Congregational service at Maitland. The couple enjoyed overseas travel and in 1984 he was welcomed at a private meeting and lunch in Paris with Roland Peugeot, company chairman, who gratefully acknowledged Tubman’s role in establishing Peugeot’s sales successes in Australia. In 1988 a bypass of the city of Maitland was named in his honour.

On retirement Tubman had continued to work as a relieving pharmacist in the Hunter Valley and Newcastle area. Residing in a retirement village at Shoal Bay for the last seven years of his life, he worked in a pharmacy there one day a week where friends and customers from his Maitland years would often call in. He was visiting his stepson’s pharmacy at Rutherford when he fell ill. Rushed to the nearby West Maitland Medical Centre he suffered an aneurism and died on 22 April 1993. His wife and two stepsons survived him. A funeral service was held at St Mary’s Anglican Church, Maitland; he was cremated. The Peugeot concessionaires in Australia wrote in condolence that ‘Ken put us on the map when maps of Australia barely existed … Au revoir Mate’ (Hal Moloney collection). He was inducted into the Australian Rally Hall of Fame in 2013.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Burden, Peter. ‘Tubman—Redex Champ.’ Wheels 1, no. 6 (November 1953): 450–51, 504–7

  • Davis, Pedr. Wheels across Australia: Motoring from the 1890s to the 1980s. Hurstville, NSW: Marque, 1987

  • Hal Moloney collection. Private collection

  • Pritchard, Geoff. ‘Ken Tubman—Pharmacist and Gentleman.’ Australian Pharmacist 12, no. 6 (July 1993): 391, 402

  • Tuckey, Bill, and Thomas B. Floyd. From Redex to Repco. Ultimo, NSW: Gregory’s, 1979

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Tubman, Kenneth Vernon (Ken) (1915–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tubman-kenneth-vernon-ken-23070/text32343, published online 2017, accessed online 25 June 2019.

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