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Torrington George Ellery (1872–1923)

by Robert Thornton

This article was published:

Torrington George Ellery (1872-1923), by Hammer & Co., c1914

Torrington George Ellery (1872-1923), by Hammer & Co., c1914

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 7965

Torrington George Ellery (1872–1923), town clerk, was born on 23 June 1872 at Mount Gambier, South Australia, eldest son of James Albert Ellery (1844-1905), publican, and his wife Julia Anna, née Moore. Educated at Norwood Grammar School and Whinham College, where he won the headmaster's silver medal in 1885 for proficiency in the classics, Torrington joined Adelaide City Council in 1890 as assistant to the town clerk Thomas Worsnop. On 10 September 1896 at Kent Town Wesleyan Church, Ellery married Mabel Alice Wood. He became chief clerk following Worsnop's death in 1898, then town clerk next year after Worsnop's successor (Adam Wright) was dismissed for embezzlement.

Ellery embarked on a programme of reform intended to place the city 'well abreast of modern ideas in municipalisation', especially in regard to public health and sanitation. To combat the outbreak and spread of major infectious diseases, such as pulmonary tuberculosis, a refuse destructor was installed for incinerating household garbage, previously dumped on the park lands; a steam disinfector station was opened for disinfecting the belongings of infectious disease sufferers; a central authority was established to control the quality of Adelaide's milk supplies; and the council's health department was expanded with a trained nurse employed to educate citizens about good hygiene.

More important was the enforced closure of the city's numerous, and notoriously unhygienic, privately-owned slaughterhouses, replaced in 1913 by modern public abattoirs, erected and managed jointly by the city and suburban councils. Acclaimed at the time as being 'the greatest civic enterprise in Australasia', the new abattoirs were a triumph for Ellery's pragmatic idealism; he was appointed first secretary, treasurer and general manager of the Municipal Abattoirs Board, which represented the participating councils.

A leading exponent of the Greater Cities movement, Ellery campaigned to amalgamate the city council with the surrounding local government bodies. This, he insisted, would result in improved economy, efficiency and uniformity of action in local government. Overcoming the parochial interests of the metropolitan councils, however, proved insurmountable and his vision never materialized.

In 1901 Ellery was offered the post of town clerk of Sydney but, suffering from insomnia, declined. In 1915 he became town clerk of Melbourne, where he facilitated improvements in the system of milk and fish supplies, control of markets and rat destruction. Again he advocated municipal unification to overcome divided control of public utilities such as the tramways and electricity supply. He also confronted such issues as noxious trades and the congestion and overcrowding in inner city areas—a cause pursued in a paper he contributed to the Australian Town Planning Conference in Adelaide in October 1917.

Shrewd, stoic, stern-faced, Ellery was the epitome of civic officialdom. His son later described his father as 'combative, ambitious, largely self-educated and of iconoclastic frame of mind'. An omnivorous reader, he spent most of his leisure in his private library, which included numerous works on municipal law and administration and practical sanitary science. He was vice-president of the Institute of Hygiene and Bacteriology and a fellow of the Royal Sanitary Institute, London, and lectured and wrote widely about public sanitation. Though highly regarded by most councillors, he had a despotic style of management, which won him few friends among subordinates. Reprimands, salary reductions, demotions and instant dismissals were endured by many who worked under him.

Nonetheless, Ellery's zeal and dedication made him a leader in local government in Australia for a quarter of a century. He was widely acknowledged as being one of the ablest, best informed and most progressive municipal administrators of his time. The Adelaide Observer remarked that his 'work is his hobby, and he is never so happy as when engaged upon it'. Ellery's passion for his work was also thought to have contributed to his untimely death: 'the work he had done night after night hastened his illness . . . he was a slave to the council', was how the lord mayor of Melbourne Sir John Swanson summed up Ellery's career.

Ellery died of cancer on 16 October 1923 at his home at Elsternwick, and was buried in Brighton cemetery with Anglican rites. His wife, daughter and son Reginald Spencer, who became a prominent psychiatrist in Melbourne, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Burgess (ed), The Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • R. S. Ellery, The Cow Jumped Over the Moon (Melb, 1956)
  • B. Dickey (ed), William Shakespeare’s Adelaide 1860-1930 (Adel, 1992)
  • P. Morton, After Light (Adel, 1996)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 27 May 1899, p 16, 20 Oct 1923
  • Town Clerk’s Dept records, 1890-1915 (Adelaide City Council Archives).

Citation details

Robert Thornton, 'Ellery, Torrington George (1872–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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