Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir William James Clemens (1873–1941)

by P. D. Gourley and M. F. Stewart

This article was published:

Sir William James Clemens (1873-1941), public service commissioner, was born on 27 March 1873 at Spring Creek, Beechworth, Victoria, eldest child of James Clemens, miner, and his wife Catherine, née Nicholls, both from Cornwall. Educated at Beechworth State School, in 1889 he became a clerk in the General Post Office, Melbourne, at a salary of £50. His advancement was slow: he modestly recounted on retirement that in his first twelve years as a public servant he had failed to obtain any position for which he had applied. On 14 September 1899 at the Baptist Church, East Melbourne, Clemens married Lillie White; they had five children.

In 1901 he transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service and in December next year joined the staff of the Public Service Commissioner as clerk to the public service inspector, Victoria. In 1916 he became senior clerk; he progressed to registrar, secretary to the commissioner and public service inspector for Victoria and Tasmania. In May 1922 he was appointed a special commissioner to report on and classify the public service of the mandated territory of New Guinea.

In 1923 Clemens became secretary and chief inspector to the new Commonwealth Public Service Board. In June 1925 he was awarded the I.S.O. Appointed secretary to the Department of Home and Territories in June 1928, he became a commissioner and member of the Public Service Board on 1 January 1929. In 1933 he was made chairman of the board; he was appointed C.M.G. next year.

Clemens's term on the board was a most difficult one. Coinciding with the Depression, it involved him in retrenchments, reductions in wages and lowered conditions. With skill and delicacy he helped to obtain agreement with staff organizations, and they acknowledged the 'courtesy and helpfulness' with which he handled these tasks. He retired as chairman of the board in March 1937 and was knighted in the coronation honours in May.

Clemens's first wife had died in 1911 and on 20 August 1914 at Elsternwick he married Bella May Webster, a nurse; they had a son and a daughter. He moved to Canberra in 1928 and continued to live at his home in Wickham Crescent, Red Hill, after retirement. He was president of the Canberra Eisteddfod and the local division of the Red Cross Society, a member of the Canberra Bowling and Golf clubs and a keen horticulturalist.

While regarded as somewhat aloof and austere with his staff, Clemens was respected for his ability to sum up situations and his determination to make the public service an efficient instrument. His period in office was one 'of extraordinary development in the sphere of co-operation between staff and management'. He was willing to discuss problems frankly with staff associations and to concede claims whenever it seemed justified, but he detested compromise when it was simply an easy path to temporary agreement.

Friends and neighbours remember him as a tall, spare, gentle person whose statements 'never needed reiteration'. Clemens died of cancer in hospital in Melbourne on 4 September 1941, survived by his wife, four daughters and three sons; his youngest son was killed in action in Malaya shortly after. He was cremated after a service conducted by the vicar of All Saints, St Kilda. His estate was valued for probate at £6654.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Caiden, Career Service (Melb, 1965)
  • Public Service Board, Report, 1936
  • Federal Public Service Journal, 30 Sept 1941
  • Canberra Times, 5 Sept 1941
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Sept 1941.

Citation details

P. D. Gourley and M. F. Stewart, 'Clemens, Sir William James (1873–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 27 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


27 March, 1873
Beechworth, Victoria, Australia


4 September, 1941 (aged 68)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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