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Sir Willis Henry Connolly (1901–1981)

by Andrew Spaull

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Sir Willis Henry Connolly (1901-1981), electrical engineer and public-utility manager, was born on 25 November 1901 at Benalla, Victoria, only surviving child of Victorian-born parents Joseph John Connolly, farmer, and his wife Adelaide May, née Little. Young Willis’s uncle Eric Connolly and maternal grandfather, Willis Little, were horse-racing identities and Little was also a member (1903-16) of the Legislative Council. Horses, gambling and politics did not interest young Willis. He attended Benalla High School and the University of Melbourne (BEE, 1923; Dip.Com., 1936; B.Com., 1947), and while a student gained practical experience at the Carlton workshop of E. Campbell & Son Pty Ltd and at the Richmond power station of the Melbourne Electric Supply Co. Ltd.

In 1921 Connolly joined the wages staff of the State Electricity Commission of Victoria at Yallourn. Next year he transferred to the commission’s electric supply branch, Melbourne, as a junior engineer. On 20 April 1927 at St Bede’s Church of England, Elwood, he married Mary Milton Clark, a stenographer. After a secondment (1927-29) to the SEC’s briquetting and research branch under Hyman Herman, he gained a solid reputation as assistant-manager of two branches: electrical sales (1929-31), in which he formulated new tariffs; and metropolitan electricity supply (1932-37), in which he furthered the conversion of the supply to three-phase.

Appointed manager of the State-wide electricity supply department in 1937, Connolly satisfied the SEC’s political (mostly Country Party) masters, extending rural electrification and taking the first steps towards uniform tariffs. His key role in conserving electrical energy during the postwar shortages brought his work to the attention of the commissioners, who in 1949 appointed him assistant to the general manager. He had not been as popular with the public: people had put up with various inconveniences and had seen one of their footballer heroes, Jack Dyer, successfully prosecuted for ignoring power restrictions. As assistant general manager, Connolly helped increase generating capacity to meet the requirements of Victoria’s expanding secondary industries.

In September 1956 Connolly was appointed chairman and general manager of the commission. His term of office was marked by his close personal involvement in power and fuel policy. Within the organisation he cultivated the `family’ spirit that had been absent since the death of Sir John Monash. Connolly’s biggest problem was poor industrial relations in the La Trobe Valley, including the rise of white-collar militancy. He fared much better in his dealings with the premier, (Sir) Henry Bolte, with whom he developed a close relationship based on mutual regard. The government underwrote the construction of new power stations. But Connolly watched with resignation the almost total switch from brown coal (briquettes) to oil in the domestic fuel market.

Connolly brought to his tasks meticulous preparation and scrupulous attention to and memory for detail. He often personally intervened in conflicts, disarming hostility by well-placed humour or by a drink and talk. He anticipated technical, planning and personality difficulties, but was occasionally indecisive in dealing with individuals. He delegated effectively, supporting subordinates and monitoring their progress. By example and exhortation he promoted teamwork. He endeavoured to enhance the reputation of the SEC by being accessible and sociable—for example, lunching with engineers or businessmen at the Australia Club—and by allowing himself to become a public figure, although he did not crave personal recognition for its own sake.

Retiring in 1971, Connolly continued as a consultant with the SEC and retained his place on State and national power committees. He was a member of the Barbarians (a brown-coal industry fraternity), the Australian-German Association, the Australian Club of Rome, and the board of trustees of the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation in the United States of America. His principal interests were the World Power (Energy) Conference, of which he was president in 1962-68, and education; chairman (1961-65) of the State Advisory Council on Technical Education, he was interim chairman (1965-67) and first president (1967-74 and 1978-80) of the Victoria Institute of Colleges.

Connolly was awarded numerous professional honours, including the (W. C.) Kernot medal (1957) by the University of Melbourne, an honorary doctorate of engineering (1967) by Monash University, and the (Sir) Peter Nicol Russell medal (1968) by the Institution of Engineers, Australia. He was appointed CBE in 1962, knighted in 1971 and awarded the knight commander’s cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1980. Sir Willis’s chief hobby was photography. He enjoyed regular overseas travel from 1950, mainly to Germany and the USA. A `tall, brawny man’, he played tennis competitively for Elsternwick and socially at Kooyong, where he was a member of the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria. He died on 13 February 1981 at his East St Kilda home and was cremated. His wife and their daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Spaull, `Willis Connolly—a Biography’, in J. T. Woodcock (ed), Victoria’s Brown Coal (1984) and for sources
  • A. D. Spaull, The Origins and Rise of the Victorian Brown Coal Industry 1835-1935 (MCom thesis, University of Melbourne, 1967).

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Connolly, Sir Willis Henry (1901–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 30 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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