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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Vanthoff, Percival Evert Russell (1894–1967)

by D. P. Blaazer

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

Percival Evert Russell Vanthoff (1894-1967), public servant, was born on 12 January 1894 at Cobram, Victoria, elder surviving son of Isaac Vanthoff (d.1901), saddler, and his wife Mary Jane, née Russell, both Victorian born. The family moved to Rushworth in 1901. Educated at the local state school, Percy joined the Postmaster-General's Department on 13 February 1908 as a telegraph messenger. He transferred to Melbourne as a letter carrier in 1911 and became a clerk in 1913. His rise through the department's administration was interrupted only by his service with the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force in World War I. At Brunswick, Melbourne, on 22 November 1924 he married with Methodist forms Ruby Ella Shanks, a machinist. In 1929 he was promoted inspector (commercial) in the telephone branch. For his work as the P.M.G.'s liaison officer during the Duke of Gloucester's Australian tour, he was appointed M.V.O. in 1934.

'Van', as he was known to friends and colleagues, overcame the many obstacles in his path with determination and hard work. His father's death had left him with early responsibilities to his mother and younger brother. While serving in New Guinea in the war he contracted malaria, which affected his health for some years. In his thirties he developed diabetes mellitus and lost almost half of his imposing 15 st. (95 kg) before his condition was correctly diagnosed. Although successfully controlled with insulin, the disease left him with little energy for activities outside his work.

In 1942 Vanthoff rose to superintendent in the telephone branch. He was chief inspector of telephones from 1944 and of postal services from 1945. Promoted director (planning and organization) in 1948, he became deputy director-general of posts and telegraphs next year. In 1949-56 he represented the P.M.G. on the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Vanthoff was appointed O.B.E. in 1955. On 21 May 1958 he succeeded Sir Giles Chippindall as director-general of posts and telegraphs. At a time of rapid expansion for the department, Vanthoff oversaw the development of an automatic teleprinter switching system to create a more efficient telegraph service, and worked towards the provision of a six-tube coaxial cable between Sydney and Melbourne.

Retiring on 31 December 1958, Vanthoff had embodied the finest traditions of the Commonwealth Public Service. He observed strict political neutrality, enjoyed good relations with his ministers, took great pride in his department's contribution to the nation's advancement, and attached little importance to personal enrichment or social status. Accordingly, he declined offers of highly paid work in private industry and steadfastly refused to move from working-class Coburg to a more expensive suburb. An open, kindly man with deep, brown eyes and dark, curly hair, he was equally at ease with the Duke of Gloucester as with the most junior members of his own office staff. For recreation he enjoyed reading and gardening. His final years were devoted largely to caring for his wife, who was suffering from dementia. Five months after her death, he died on 30 July 1967 at Richmond and was cremated with Anglican rites. His son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. C. Bolton, Dick Boyer (Canb, 1967)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • A. Moyal, Clear Across Australia (Melb, 1984)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 June 1958
  • Age (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1967
  • private information.

Citation details

D. P. Blaazer, 'Vanthoff, Percival Evert Russell (1894–1967)', 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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