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Sir Hugh Gerner Brain (1890–1976)

by Frank Strahan

This article was published:

Sir Hugh Gerner Brain (1890-1976), businessman and public benefactor, was born on 3 December 1890 at Prahran, Melbourne, second son of native-born parents William Joseph Brain, builder, and his wife Florence, née Payne. Self-described as 'a pretty feeble kid' who suffered from marasmus, Hugh did not attend Armadale State School until aged 8. In 1905 he won a scholarship to University High School, a co-educational private school run by Otto Krome.

During a school excursion to the Fitzroy gasworks, a platform collapsed, plunging Brain and other students onto coke beneath. His skull was fractured. Advised to take the next two years quietly, he abandoned his ambition to study law. He sat the State public service examinations in 1906 and gained employment in the office of the public service commissioner. His memoirs wryly tell of his first task. Summoned to the office of Commissioner Charles Topp, he was told, 'Good morning, kindly empty my chamber'. He taught himself the Script method of shorthand, a skill which brought quick transfer to a shorthand and typist's place in the Premier's Office where he worked closely with Premiers Bent, Murray and Watt. In 1913 horizons widened through his job with the Commonwealth government's interstate commission, Department of Trade and Customs.

A member of the Malvern Rifle Club, Brain was initially rejected as a volunteer for the Australian Imperial Force on physical grounds: he was only 5 ft 5½ ins (166 cm) tall and slightly built. He eventually enlisted on 13 July 1915 and embarked for the Middle East in November. Posted to I Anzac Corps headquarters in March 1916, he rose to warrant officer while serving on the Western Front and was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal (1917). In August 1917 he was commissioned and transferred to A.I.F. Headquarters, London, as deputy assistant adjutant general. Promoted captain in August 1918, he returned to Melbourne in June next year for duty with the business board of administration, Department of Defence. He was appointed M.B.E. (1918) and O.B.E. (1919), and placed on the Reserve of Officers on 30 September 1919.

After the war Brain took George Swinburne's advice, left the public service and joined Edward H. Shackell & Co.: the firm administered secretarial and shareholding matters for the Baillieu-engendered Collins House group of companies, based on the Broken Hill silver, lead and zinc resources, and governed from Collins Street. Shackell was the brother-in-law of W. L. Baillieu. With Aubrey Bulte, recruited from the Public Works Department, Brain worked as secretary to the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia Ltd, Metal Manufactures Ltd, Amalgamated Zinc (de Bavay's) Ltd, Minerals Separation Ltd and Hampden Cloncurry Copper Mines Ltd. On 3 June 1920 at St Mary's Anglican Church, Caulfield, he had married Monica Eva Futcher.

In 1929 Brain, Bulte, Victor Bolderman, Ellis Davies and Marsden Blackwell purchased shares in Edward H. Shackell & Co. On Edward's death in 1932, the group assumed control, with Edward's brother Harold as governing director. The company was renamed Secretariat Pty Ltd. At its peak, Secretariat administered the affairs of forty-seven firms, including over thirty gold-mining companies. The goldminers were dispensed with in the late 1930s as the company concentrated on the manufacturing firms, Electrolytic Zinc, Associated Pulp & Paper Mills Ltd, Metal Manufactures and its subsidiaries, Austral Bronze Co. Pty Ltd, Cable Makers Australia Pty Ltd and Austral Standard Cables Pty Ltd.

During World War II Brain's business talents were put to public use. He was deputy-director of hirings, Army Headquarters, Melbourne, honorary assistant-secretary, business matters, Department of Defence, and business member (1941-42 and 1944-46) of the Naval Board; he was also a member of the Naval Charter Rates Board, of the committee establishing war-damage insurance regulations and of the paper industry wartime advisory council. In addition, he performed part-time staff duties with the Volunteer Defence Corps in 1943-46.

Secretary of Gold Mines of Australia Ltd, Western Mining Corporation Ltd and Western New South Wales Electric Power Pty Ltd, Brain was a director of Austral Bronze and Cable Makers of Australia, and joint managing director of Metal Manufactures. In 1956-68 he was chairman of the Australasian Temperance & General Mutual Life Assurance Society. By 1960 Bulte, Davies and Blackwell had died. The shares of Secretariat were sold jointly to E.Z., A.P.P.M. and W.M.C. Brain retired from the company that year and established a consultancy in Lonsdale Street.

Named Victorian Father of the Year in 1959, Brain gave his £500 award to Melbourne Legacy, an organization with which he was actively associated from 1930 (president 1935). He sat on the Baillieu Education Trust from its foundation in 1935 (chairman 1941-52), and for some thirty years was a member of the Soldiers' Children's Education Board and the advisory board to the Council for Christian Education in Schools. Although not a graduate, he chaired the University of Melbourne's appointments board for twelve years and was a board-member of the summer school of business administration for fourteen; he was, as well, a councillor of Ormond College, a trustee of St Hilda's College and a fund-raiser for International House. For over thirty years he was a member of the Schools' Board and its successor, the Victorian Universities and Schools Examination Board, and chairman of its finance committee.

Among his other public positions, Brain was a trustee of the Cairnmillar Institute, a member of the advisory board of the Melbourne Young Women's Christian Association, chairman of the appeal committee of the Melbourne Lord Mayor's Fund for Hospitals and Charities, a member of committees of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria and chairman of the Anzac Fellowship of Women. He had been a special constable during the 1923 police strike and a member of a large, anti-subversion group in Melbourne during Jack Lang's turbulent premiership of New South Wales. In 1951 he was associated with Sir Edmund Herring in 'A Call to the People of Australia'. Brain was for many years a member of the finance committee of the Liberal Party, Victorian branch. In 1963 he was appointed foundation president of the Victorian Institute of Licensed Shorthand Writers. For forty-five years he was honorary secretary of Premises Ltd, the company which backed the Athenaeum Club, of which he was made an honorary life member. He was also 'moneyer' for nearly twenty years of the Beefsteak Club.

Brain was an energetic, talented and highly valued servant, rather than a leader. With a sound sense of humour, he was fond of practical jokes. As a hobby, he wrote limericks about hundreds of Legacy members. His honours, including life membership of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, culminated in a knighthood in 1972. Sir Hugh died on 31 December 1976 at Heidelberg and was cremated with Presbyterian forms; his wife, son and two daughters survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Melbourne Legacy, Bulletin, 18 Jan 1977
  • Brain papers (University of Melbourne Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Strahan, 'Brain, Sir Hugh Gerner (1890–1976)', 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]


3 December, 1890
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


31 December, 1976 (aged 86)
Heidelberg, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.