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Wickens, Charles Henry (1872–1939)

by Cameron Hazlehurst and Margot Kerley

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Charles Henry Wickens (1872-1939), statistician and actuary, was born on 16 October 1872 at Kangaroo Flat, Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, fourth child of English-born Charles Wickens, farmer, and his Irish wife Margaret, née Quinn. Educated at the local state school, Charles worked in the family orchard and through private study qualified as an associate of the Institute of Actuaries by 1896. He moved to Western Australia in search of employment and joined the State Public Service as a temporary assistant clerk in April 1897. Promoted to the Statistical Bureau in 1899, he was appointed assistant compiler and departmental actuary in July 1901, responsible for conducting the State census of that year. In 1905 Wickens constructed the first life tables for Western Australia based on census data. Next year he represented the State at the first conference of Commonwealth and State statisticians, and was awarded the Messenger prize by the Institute of Actuaries, London, for an essay on the collection and analysis of mortality and population data.

His growing reputation as a vital statistician led in November 1906 to his recruitment as a compiler by the Commonwealth statistician, (Sir) George Knibbs, to the newly created Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics. In 1913 he was appointed supervisor of census; under Knibbs, he conducted the census in 1911, 1915 and 1921. During this period Wickens constructed Australian life tables for the decennia 1881-90, 1891-1900 and 1901-10 which were published in the census reports of 1911 and 1921. These pioneering works, which enabled comparisons between the States, found that life expectancy had increased since 1890 and that female rates of mortality were generally lower than those of males. For the 1921 census Wickens introduced mechanical tabulating equipment which incorporated the 'Hollerith' punched-card system for sorting and counting data. In August 1922 Wickens succeeded Knibbs as Commonwealth statistician; two years later his title was expanded to Commonwealth statistician and actuary.

Initiating an era of greater co-operation between State and Commonwealth bureaus, Wickens convened annual conferences to ensure uniformity in the collection and tabulation of statistical data. Successfully negotiating the transfer to the Commonwealth of the Tasmanian bureau in 1924, Wickens brought a rare infusion of university-educated officers—including Lyndhurst Giblin—into the public service. In the later 1920s the bureau's activities grew significantly to meet demands for the analysis of data concerning wealth measurement, domestic finance and international trade. Wickens' role as government adviser began with the formulation of the Commonwealth superannuation scheme in 1923. In 1927 he was Commonwealth representative in London at the 8th International Actuarial Congress and at an Imperial conference which aimed to set uniform standards for trade, agricultural and other statistics. He also investigated social insurance schemes in preparation for the development of national insurance proposals by (Sir) Earle Page.

Called to advise the royal commission on national insurance (1923-27) and the parliamentary accounts committee, he represented the government before the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration on the 1930 basic wage case. Wickens, Giblin and the bureau played a major part in providing economic advice to the Bruce-Page and Scullin governments, assembling information on Australia's financial and trade position during the 1930 crisis and assisting Sir Otto Niemeyer's investigations. In collaboration with Giblin, Jim Brigden, Edward Dyason and (Sir) Douglas Copland, Wickens produced The Australian Tariff: An Economic Inquiry (Melbourne, 1929). He also wrote extensively for professional journals. A fellow (1918) of the Royal Statistical Society and of the Institute of Actuaries (1920), he was a foundation member and chairman (1928) of the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, and president (1924) of the Actuarial Society of Australasia. Finding recreation in walking, golf and bowls, he was also sometime president of the Prahran Rifle Club.

In February 1931 he suffered a stroke and was invalided from the service in April 1932. Wickens died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 30 July 1939 at Balwyn, Melbourne, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. He was survived by his wife Gertrude Emma, née Howard, whom he had married at St James's Anglican Church, Melbourne, on 3 May 1909, and by their son. Widely recognized as one of the ablest government statisticians of his generation, Wickens was respected as an economist, an indefatigable worker and a congenial colleague.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Forster and C. Hazlehurst, ‘Australian Statisticians and the Development of Official Statistics’, Year Book Australia (Canb, 1988)
  • Australian Journal of Statistics, 16, no 2, 1974, p 71.

Citation details

Cameron Hazlehurst and Margot Kerley, 'Wickens, Charles Henry (1872–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wickens-charles-henry-9091/text16029, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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