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Herbert Robinson Brookes (1867–1963)

by Alison Patrick

This article was published:

Herbert Robinson Brookes (1867-1963), by Falk Studios

Herbert Robinson Brookes (1867-1963), by Falk Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3586376

Herbert Robinson Brookes (1867-1963), businessman, pastoralist, public official and philanthropist, was born on 20 December 1867 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, second son of William Brookes and his wife Catherine Margaret, née Robinson. His younger brothers were Harold Eric (1875-1953) and (Sir) Norman Everard. William Brookes, born in Northampton, England, came to Victoria in 1852 aged 18, made his way to Sandhurst as a bullock-driver and amassed a fortune through mining ventures, notably the Golden Fleece claim; he settled prosperously in Melbourne in 1871. He took up large pastoral leaseholds in Queensland between Longreach and Muttaburra, founded the Australian Paper Mills in 1882 with Archibald Currie and later became a director of Austral Otis Engineering Co. Ltd. He died on 4 September 1910 leaving an estate valued for probate at £172,000.

William Brookes had apparently intended that the family should become absorbed into a leisured upper-class society. The son who came nearest accepting this dream was Harold, who took some interest in A.P.M. but concerned himself mainly with the Queensland holdings and his own Woodend property, Flinthill. Herbert diverged from the pattern, notably through his early experiences, professional interests and personal character.

In 1878-80 William Brookes, then in partnership with (Sir) Simon Fraser, had taken his family to South Australia on a railway-building contract north of Port Augusta. In 1879 the eldest boy William, aged 13, was killed by a fall from a tree. Harold and Norman were too young to be affected by their outback experience but Herbert worked as timekeeper and storekeeper, mixed with the men, and acquired knowledge and sympathies which influenced him for life. In 1881-85 he attended Wesley College where he showed considerable sporting ability; he graduated from the University of Melbourne with honours in civil engineering (B.C.E., 1890). After about year spent mainly on the Queensland properties, he went at his father's instigation into the management of a series of small Victorian mines.

For some years Herbert attended Dr Charles Strong's Australian Church. On 27 October 1897 he married Strong's daughter Jessie (known as Jennie) Denniston; her tragic death on 6 April 1899 affected him deeply. Alfred Deakin befriended him and persuaded him to accompany the Deakin family on a trip to England. On 3 July 1905 in Melbourne Brookes married Ivy, Deakin's eldest daughter. At this time he left Hollybush near Bendigo, where he had been assistant manager of Glenfine south mine and came to Melbourne to improve the management of Austral Otis. He was highly successful and by 1912 was a director of the firm. He grew interested in the problems of Australian secondary industry; in 1913-17 he became president of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures. While his brothers were absent on war service he carried on as chairman of A.P.M.; in 1921 he handed over to Norman. As well, he was continuously concerned with the William Brookes & Co. pastoral holdings, both in Queensland and in marginal country near Wiluna, Western Australia (purchased in 1929).

Brookes's life was divided between the business career in which he rapidly became an outstanding spokesman for secondary industry, pastoral affairs, responsible public service posts (mainly part-time), political activities, and an active social and cultural life at his homes, Winwick in South Yarra and Penola at Mount Macedon. His personality made this diversity quite natural. His temperament was serious; he was intellectually independent, with deep, if unorthodox, religious convictions; constitutionally shy, but the reverse of self-centred; his public responsibilities grew from morally based concern, as well as a genuine interest in other people which engendered, on their side, respect and admiration, and then great personal affection. Throughout his life he made lasting friendships with men whom he had first met casually, on committees or organizations; revealingly, one of these wrote of him, years after Brookes had left the committee concerned, as 'the most appreciative listener of all ages'. To this human quality he added intelligence and much hard work. It was predictable that he was three times offered a knighthood, and also that he always declined.

Brookes's chairmanship of the Chamber of Manufactures had led to his involvement after 1914 in a series of wartime committees of which the Munitions Committee was the most important. After the war he was appointed to the newly established Commonwealth Board of Trade (1918-28), and the Tariff Board (1922-28), which entailed Australia-wide travel. In 1929 the prime minister (Viscount) Bruce appointed him commissioner-general to the United States of America, to promote Australian achievements in economic, musical, artistic, literary and intellectual fields. Brookes found this work absorbing, sacrificing his post only to save a Depression-cursed Australia the expense of maintaining it. He was a foundation member and vice-chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1932-39); among associated activities were the promotion of Victorian orchestral music and the initiation of A.B.C. celebrity and children's concerts. He was active in such organizations as the League of Nations Union and the English-Speaking Union. In 1933-47 he was a valued council-member of the University of Melbourne, especially of its finance committee.

Brookes was an able, creative committee-member, whose character could however limit his effectiveness. He would not accept formal leadership even when it was offered him, and even when his refusal later facilitated the adoption of policies he did not approve. This pattern of behaviour was evident on the Tariff Board, and perhaps more importantly on the A.B.C., whose chairmanship he refused in 1932; he then failed to secure for the commission the independence he desired it to have. In two university defeats his stance was determined partly by personal loyalties which perhaps influenced his judgment, and partly by dislike of factional intrigue: he ultimately accepted the 1938 appointment of Jack Medley as vice-chancellor as an excellent one, but always deplored the way in which his friend Sir James Barrett was replaced as chancellor in 1939.

An intense admirer of Deakin, Brookes was associated with the foundation of the Commonwealth Liberal Party (1908) and the People's Liberal Party (1911). He founded and edited the Liberal (1911-14), and was P.L.P. president from 1912 until the party dissolved in 1916. He was later prominent in the National Union. Brookes saw Billy Hughes, Sir George Pearce, Deakin and Bruce as the outstanding Australian statesmen of 1900-40, and later respected and supported (Sir) Robert Menzies. His own working principles were illustrated by his establishment of adult education facilities at the Hollybush mine, his campaign against miners' phthisis and his 1917 introduction of profit-sharing in A.P.M. Soon after joining the Board of Trade in 1918, he demanded information on European social insurance and profit-sharing practices. A belief in sexual equality made him insist that managers' wives on Brookes-owned stations be paid for the work they did. He distrusted the Labor Party as extremist, but in old age was willing to admit that his fears had not yet been realized. He was also an Empire loyalist, and it was this, focused by the conscription controversy in 1916-17, rather than simple sectarian prejudice, which brought him into collision with Archbishop Mannix and 'Irish' Catholicism. This was the only unremitting feud of his public career; he backed the Protestant newspaper, Vigilant, from its inception. The conflict seems also to have led in 1918 to a suggestion, from him, that a kind of counter-propaganda network of people with the proper outlook be set up, to pounce on and expose what he saw as insidious subversive propaganda; his interest in this had faded by about 1923, but he could never have intended to take a prominent role himself, since he stipulated that to avert any suspicion of government influence, the leadership should have no connexion whatever with the government institutions.

Living, and dispensing hospitality, in unostentatious comfort, Brookes was unobtrusively generous to employees, friends and causes. With his wife Ivy he financed a wing of the university conservatorium; he suggested a vice-chancellor's house and, with George Nicholas, built it. Money existed to be used, he held, on travel within and without Australia (he made minimal claims on the public purse), on children and their education, on books, on pictures (he was an admirer of E. Phillips Fox and Rupert Bunny), on other people; never on superfluities.

His second marriage brought him lifelong companionship, emotional fulfilment, and children: in his two sons and a daughter, born between 1906 and 1920, he took unusual pleasure. Ivy Brookes (1883-1970), born on 14 July 1883 at South Yarra, was musically gifted, crowning her conservatorium career with the Ormond Scholarship for singing (1904); she played in Marshall Hall's orchestra in 1903-13. The musical interests which she shared with Herbert produced a joint participation, from 1908, in the work of the Lady Northcote Permanent Orchestra Trust Fund. She was a foundation vice-president of the ladies' committee of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and a member of the university faculty of music in 1926-69.

Their long marriage was a partnership of joint and separate interests mutually recognized as significant. Politics they shared, and Ivy held executive office in the League of Nations Union and the Empire Trade Defence League. Musical interests were developed partly through their T. E. Brown Society (1906-21), which added music to its basically literary activities, and also through their hospitality to many musicians, notably (Sir) Bernard Heinze. Sir Walter Murdoch, whose work and outlook Brookes enjoyed and admired, was the closest of friends; their correspondence was uninterrupted for fifty years. For two generations the Brookes household was a place where creative ideas were exchanged and developed. Their social life reached into the university through Herbert's friend (Sir) Ernest Scott and Ivy's brother-in-law (Sir) David Rivett, and thence to most of the professorial board and the council; the Winwick Saturday tennis-parties were famous. Herbert's position on the council was paralleled by Ivy's foundation membership of the boards of physical education (1938-70) and social studies (1941-67). Her particular concerns were the National and International councils of Women, the Playgrounds' and Housewives' associations of Victoria, and above all the Women's Hospital, on whose board she sat for fifty years. She founded the International Club of Victoria, and presided over it for its lifetime (1933-58). In the United States with her husband, she gained recognition as an individual who spoke well and had her own interests.

Brookes died in Melbourne on 1 December 1963, and his wife on 27 December 1970; both were buried in St Kilda cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Rivett, Australian Citizen: Herbert Brookes (Melb, 1965)
  • H. Brookes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Alison Patrick, 'Brookes, Herbert Robinson (1867–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Herbert Robinson Brookes (1867-1963), by Falk Studios

Herbert Robinson Brookes (1867-1963), by Falk Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3586376

Life Summary [details]


20 December, 1867
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


1 December, 1963 (aged 95)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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