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Sir Robert David Garrick Agnew (1930–1987)

by John McIlwraith

This article was published:

Sir Robert David Garrick Agnew (1930-1987), sportsman and businessman, was born on 21 September 1930 at Nedlands, Perth, son of Western Australian-born parents Robert Gordon Carlisle Agnew, municipal engineer, and his wife Dorothy Jean, née Wilson. Garrick attended Perth Modern School and in 1949 entered the University of Western Australia to study engineering. A champion freestyle swimmer, he won the annual long-distance `swim through Perth’ race in the Swan River that year, and the 440-yards and the 880-yards finals at the Australian championships in 1950. He competed in the London Olympic Games (1948), and won the gold medal for the 440-yards freestyle at the 1950 British Empire Games in Auckland, New Zealand. In 1950 he secured a sporting scholarship in the United States of America at Ohio State University, Columbus (BS, 1952); majoring in psychology, he graduated summa cum laude. At the Helsinki Olympic Games (1952) he competed in the 1500-metres event. He undertook postgraduate studies at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Business Administration (MBA, 1954), this time on an academic scholarship, and returned to Perth.

A restless individual, with an original turn of mind, as a young man Agnew considered using tank-landing craft to ferry iron ore to bulk carriers offshore. Instead he acquired an old `tramp steamer’ and began exporting minerals and live cattle. He formed Garrick Agnew Pty Ltd and went into business as an ore broker. On 4 April 1959 at the Perth Society of the New Church, Adelaide Terrace, he married Fay Ma-belle Ferguson, a stenographer. In 1966 he established an evaporative salt and gypsum mine at Shark Bay, near Carnarvon; the enterprise ran at a loss for some years but eventually flourished. He was known as a `great gambler’ who, with little capital of his own, was able to persuade affluent partners to back his ventures. Having a financial interest (through his company, Mt Enid Iron Co. Pty Ltd) in the original consortium holding the prospecting rights to the reserves covering the Robe River iron ore deposits, Agnew acquired a 5 per cent stake in Robe River Ltd when it became a public company in 1970 and began mining. He benefited from considerable royalties before selling his interest in 1977.

In 1970 the Agnew group of companies had merged with Clough Holdings Pty Ltd to form Agnew Clough Ltd, with Agnew as chairman. Four years later the company embarked on a project to mine and process vanadium, and in 1980 announced plans to build a silicon metal smelter at Wundowie, near Perth. That year Agnew helped to found the Australian Bank Ltd, the first new trading bank in the country for fifty years, and was appointed its founding chairman. Also chairman of several Australian Bank subsidiaries, including Australian Liquid Assets Management Ltd and Australis Securities Ltd, he was a director of Qantas Airways Ltd (1981-87) and the Australian Industry Development Corporation (1974-80). Determined, far-sighted and self-effacing, Agnew was `a down-to-earth man with straightforward ideas’ and a style that was a mixture of `doggedness and flair’. He amassed a fortune estimated by the Australian as $100 million. He was appointed CBE in 1978 and knighted in 1983.

A `big healthy man, with a brown face, big forehead and curly hair’, Sir Garrick swam regularly throughout his life to keep fit. He was an outstanding big game fisherman, taking his cruiser every year from Fremantle to North Queensland in pursuit of marlin. In 1983 at Rottnest Trench he set a Western Australian record when he caught a 319-kg Pacific Blue Marlin. He was a member of the Weld, Royal Freshwater Bay Yacht and Perth Game Fishing clubs. His wife died in 1981 and his younger daughter in 1983. On 29 November 1986 at St Columba’s Presbyterian Church, Mosman Park, he married Elizabeth Margaret, née Ahern, a divorcee and an interpreter. He died of coronary artery disease on 3 August 1987 at the University of Western Australia swimming pool complex, Crawley, after a training session, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife and the two sons and elder daughter of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Financial Review, 6 May 1971, p 10, 5 Aug 1987, p 4
  • People with Pix, 29 Sept 1977, p 5
  • West Australian, 4 Aug 1987, p 16
  • Australian, 13 Feb 1981, p 19, 5 Aug 1987, p 2
  • private information.

Citation details

John McIlwraith, 'Agnew, Sir Robert David Garrick (1930–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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