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Joseph Ormond Aloysius Bourke (1908–1965)

by Kenneth W. Knight

This article was published:

Joseph Ormond Aloysius Bourke (1908-1965), public servant and university administrator, was born on 14 November 1908 at Glebe, Sydney, second child of Joseph Ormond Aloysius Bourke, a lecturer at Sydney Training College for Teachers, and his wife Winifred Francis Xavier, née Maher, both native-born. His parents were teachers and young Joe grew up in an intellectually stimulating atmosphere. After her husband's sudden death on 24 November 1912, Winifred resumed teaching and Joe attended schools in various parts of the State. He rebelled against his paternal grandmother's strict Catholicism. One influence upon his drive and ambition was the wish to demonstrate that his abilities matched those of his father.

Studying at North Sydney Boys' High School, in 1924 Bourke passed the Leaving certificate with first-class honours in English and was placed fifth in the State in that subject. In March 1925 he joined the public service as a clerk in the licences reduction board, Department of Attorney General and Justice, and enrolled as an evening student at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1929) where he was influenced by Professor John Anderson. Bourke became a committed socialist and joined the Australian Labor Party in 1927. As a founder of the university's Labor club and president (1928-29) of the evening students' association, he made his mark as a debater. He married Lily Aileen Cowled on 22 December 1934 at the Methodist Church, Junee; they were to remain childless.

In 1936 Bourke was appointed acting-secretary of the correspondence courses in the teaching division of the technical education branch of the Department of Public Instruction. From mid-1942 he was executive officer, transport and communications, on the State War Effort Co-Ordination Committee and next year was seconded to the Commonwealth Department of Supply and Shipping where he served as superintendent of personnel. In October 1945 he was made registrar of Sydney Technical College.

For at least thirty years Bourke lectured and examined in university extension courses, Workers' Educational Association classes and public service training programmes. He was widely known, particularly before World War II, as a speaker at labour rallies. Tall, dark and shockheaded, he had 'an urbane manner', but was a 'firebrand when roused'; he 'spoke rather slowly, relying on the deep organ-like notes of his powerful voice for effect'. Among his friends he numbered many political figures, though he was closest to those of the left, especially C. E. Martin. Bourke had divorced Lily in 1944 and on 28 August 1948 married a 27-year-old telephonist Eva Mary Naughton with Presbyterian forms at Fullerton Memorial Church, Sydney.

From August 1947 to September 1951 he was an inspector with the Public Service Board, before becoming assistant-director of the Department of Technical Education. Bourke worked closely with W. C. Wurth towards the foundation in 1949 of the New South Wales University of Technology (University of New South Wales, 1959); he also came into contact with the university's vice-chancellor (Sir) Philip Baxter. Bourke resigned on 6 April 1954 to become the first bursar of the new university.

As bursar, his influence was pervasive. He pressed vigorously for the establishment of a faculty of arts, was closely involved in the introduction of administrative and managerial studies, and played an important part in the creation of a medical school and in building a university union; in addition, he supported improved library services and the development of residential colleges. Baxter and Bourke gradually forged a very close working relationship and, with the registrar Godfrey McCauley, made up a strong management team. In addition to being a member of many university and hospital boards, Bourke was vice-president of the Old Tote Theatre Club.

In attempting to lay down administrative procedures to cope with the pressures arising from rapid growth, Bourke drew heavily on public service practices. By so doing, he aroused considerable controversy and criticism, particularly from academic staff who resented what they saw as excessive regulation. Few regarded him with indifference, which possibly reflected the complexities of his character. He was a romantic, a lover of art, music and literature, but one who could be pragmatic, even ruthless, in resolving difficulties; he was a traditionalist, yet also a visionary who encouraged the university to strike out in new directions; he was loyal, though not silent about the faults of those he supported.

Survived by his wife, son and daughter, Bourke died of lymphosarcoma on 11 November 1965 at Little Bay; following a requiem Mass at St Anthony's Catholic Church, Clovelly, he was buried in his father's grave in Waverley cemetery. A fountain at the University of New South Wales commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • Red Tape, 25 Feb 1937
  • Technology, Dec 1965
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Nov 1965
  • New South Wales Public Service employee record cards (State Records New South Wales)
  • Baxter papers (University of New South Wales Archives)
  • Bourke papers (University of New South Wales Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Kenneth W. Knight, 'Bourke, Joseph Ormond Aloysius (1908–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


14 November, 1908
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


11 November, 1965 (aged 56)
Little Bay, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.