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Sir Bede Bertrand Callaghan (1912–1993)

by Nigel Stapledon

This article was published:

Sir Bede Bertrand Callaghan (1912–1993), banker and university chancellor, was born on 16 March 1912 at Newcastle, New South Wales, second son of four children of New South Wales-born parents Stanislaus Kostka Callaghan, teacher, and his wife Amy Mabel, née Ryan. As his father moved schools, Bede was educated at various primary schools and then at Newcastle High School. He gained his Intermediate certificate in 1926 and began work in the office of a mining company. The manager told his father that Bede was bright and there was not much room for progression in the company, but he knew of an opening at the Newcastle branch of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA). In September 1927 Bede started there as a junior, ‘changing the blotting paper and filling inkwells each day’ (Hastings, pers. comm.).

From Newcastle, Callaghan moved to Cootamundra in 1934, and then to Sydney in 1935, where he was on the relieving staff before being appointed accountant (and assistant manager) at the new Double Bay branch in July 1936. In March 1938 he began his career at head office, first in the inspector's department, and then during World War II in exchange control. His poor eyesight precluded active service in the armed forces. On 31 August 1940 he married Mary (Mollie) Theresa Brewer, a typiste, at St Brigid’s Catholic Church, Coogee. In 1945 he was transferred to the secretary's department as second assistant chief clerk. Over the next six years he rose to become first assistant secretary.

In 1952 Callaghan and his family moved to England, after he was appointed assistant manager in the CBA’s London office. From London he travelled in 1954 to Washington, DC, where he was the alternate executive director to Leslie Bury on the boards of the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (also known as the World Bank). He took over as an executive director in 1956, when Bury returned to Canberra. When the Reserve Bank of Australia was created in 1960 and took over the central banking functions, the CBA was reorganised into three principal arms—the Trading Bank, the Savings Bank, and the Commonwealth Development Bank—collectively known as the Commonwealth Banking Corporation (CBC). Callaghan was appointed the CDB’s first general manager, and returned to Australia. His experience at the IBRD was no doubt a factor in his promotion. The IBRD provided long-term unsecured loans to developing countries for projects based not on security, which these countries could not offer, but rather on their assessed potential to boost growth. Under its charter the CDB was charged with providing long-term loans to businesses or persons in agriculture and manufacturing, with security less a consideration than, as with the IBRD, potential for success.

Following the death of E. B. Richardson, in May 1965 Callaghan was appointed managing director of the CBC. His tenure covered the period of Australia’s first postwar resources boom, which in 1967 saw the CBC and its private trading bank competitors establish the Australian Resources Development Bank Ltd to finance major resource projects beyond the scope of any individual bank. In partial response to government controls over banking, the CBC joined the private lenders in forming non-bank subsidiaries. With four partner European banks, the CBC set up the merchant bank Australian European Finance Corporation Ltd in 1970. The Commonwealth Bank Finance Corporation Ltd, its wholly owned finance company, was established in 1975.

Retiring in 1976, Callaghan was knighted for his services to banking; he had been appointed CBE in 1968. A member of the council of the Bankers’ Institute of Australasia (1965–76), he served as its president from 1972 to 1974. The Australian Institute of Management awarded him the 1974 John Storey medal, and in 1977 he received the Sydney Rotary Club's vocational service award.

During his time as managing director, Callaghan had given several speeches on the related issues of foreign investment and the need for capital to finance the exploitation of Australia’s natural resources. He observed in 1967 that the mineral discoveries of the past few years were only the beginning of Australia’s ‘development renaissance’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1967, 12). Foreign capital was needed to finance this expansion, but its availability should not mean Australians diminished their investment: ‘for Australia’s entrepreneurs, the chance to think big and act big has come’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1967, 12). In 1976 the Federal government established the Foreign Investment Review Board and appointed Callaghan its first chairman, a position he held until early 1993.

The Federal government asked Callaghan in 1976 to conduct an inquiry into the structure of industry and the employment situation in Tasmania. Released in 1977, his report looked into the economic problems facing Tasmania as a small, island State, and the difficult choices the Tasmanian community faced between commercial development and conservation of the environment. The report is long forgotten but its insights remained relevant in later decades.

The Callaghan name left a more lasting imprint in the field of education. Callaghan had left school at fourteen, as was usual for people who later pursued careers in banking. It was not until the 1990s that a university degree became the route to a banking career in Australia. As managing director of the CBC, he had advocated lifting the educational qualifications of the banking workforce. Of management he argued that ‘we need, above all, a new breed of broadly educated managers, who recognise that their most important raw material is not machinery … but people’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1968, 8). His bank colleagues later remembered his commitment to education, creating skills, and staff development. In 1970 the CBC named their staff training college at St Ives after him.

Callaghan’s strong interest in education came from his family of teachers, some prominent in the profession. His grandfather James Callaghan had headed the New South Wales Public School Teachers’ Association; his father had been principal of a number of schools; his mother had been a teacher; and his elder sister Gertrude (later Sister Imelda Mary) followed her parents’ occupation, as did his elder brother Murray, who became principal of Sydney Boys’ High School.

Reflecting both his personal connection with the town of his birth and his interests in education, in 1966 Callaghan was appointed to the council of the newly established University of Newcastle. In 1973 the university awarded him an honorary doctorate of science, and he became deputy chancellor. He was chancellor from 1977 to 1988. The suburb in Newcastle on which the main campus is situated was renamed Callaghan in his honour. In 2000, the New South Wales government would establish Callaghan College, a multi-campus secondary college.

Described as ‘a modest man, but with a touch of extroversion,’ (National Times 1972, 36) Sir Bede had ‘humour, warmth and understanding, plus a beguiling, silver-haired charm’ (Bank Notes 1968, 3). A fellow of the Australian Institute of Management since 1960, he was a member of the council of the New South Wales division (1966–76) and chairman of the Australian Administrative Staff College (1969–76). In retirement he was chairman of the advisory board of Lewisham Hospital (1976–88) and president of Warrawee Bowling Club (1982–84). He was awarded a papal knighthood, the knight grand cross of the Order of Saint Sylvester, in 1992 for services to the Catholic Church. Survived by his wife and three daughters, he died on 19 September 1993 at Wahroonga, and was buried in Northern Suburbs lawn cemetery, North Ryde. The Commonwealth Bank and the University of Newcastle hold portraits.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bank Notes (Commonwealth Banking Corporation). ‘C.B.E. to Managing Director.’ 9, no. 7 (July 1968): 3
  • Hastings, Mary. Personal communication
  • Matthews, John E. The Commonwealth Banking Corporation: Its Background, History and Present Operations. Sydney: Commonwealth Banking Corporation, 1980
  • National Times, 3–8 July 1972, 36
  • Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Bank Director with Foresight.’ 21 September 1993, 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Banker Urges “New Breed”.’ 16 July 1968, 8
  • Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Mr B. B. Callaghan: Australia’s Mineral Renaissance.’ 27 October 1967, 12
  • Van Gogh’s Ear: Organum Deconstructum. ‘Sir Bede Callaghan (1912-1993).’ 8th edition (October 1993): 2

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nigel Stapledon, 'Callaghan, Sir Bede Bertrand (1912–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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