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Frank Fancett Espie (1890–1962)

by Gilbert M. Ralph

This article was published:

Frank Fancett Espie (1890-1962), mining engineer, was born on 3 September 1890 in East Adelaide, only son of James Espie, stockbroker, and his wife Alice Maude, née O'Rielly, who had taken the surname of her adoptive parents Fancett. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, where he was a prefect, and the University of Adelaide (B.E., 1913), Frank was 'a born leader' and 'exceedingly popular with his fellow students'. In 1910 he was awarded a Blue for boats and was a member of the VIII which won the intervarsity championship. He gained a fellowship in mining (1913) from the South Australian School of Mines and Industries.

In 1914 Espie joined the Burma Corporation at Bawdwin, northern Burma. He married Laura Jean Fletcher on 6 December 1915 at Christ Church, Rangoon; they were to have three children. By 1941 he had risen to become general manager of the lead-zinc mine at Bawdwin—one of the richest in the world—which employed almost ten thousand workers.

On 24 April 1942 news arrived of the approach of Japanese forces. Espie supervised the destruction of all company property, and planned the evacuation of staff and their families. Under his direction the main party went to Nam Kham on the Chinese border. From there the women and children, and men over 45, were flown to safety. The remaining men then proceeded by road, boat and foot, over difficult mountain terrain, eventually reaching Calcutta, India, on 24 May. A company officer, R. C. (Dick) Leach, praised 52-year-old Espie's 'calm efficiency, leadership, and judgement', and noted that he 'could with every justification have also gone by air . . . but he chose to continue with us on foot'.

Back in Australia in 1943, Espie was appointed general superintendent of Western Mining Corporation Ltd at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, and oversaw the re-establishment of the firm's operations after the war. He became a director in 1947 and deputy managing director in 1952. Six years later he transferred to the Melbourne office. He was a board-member of such companies as the Burma Corporation Ltd and Broken Hill South Ltd.

It was said of Espie that his outstanding characteristic was an ability to draw out the best in people and gently guide them to a solution to their problems. Sir Lindesay Clark described him as 'an able and considerate' manager whose 'success in the industrial and other fields was shown by his sobriquet of ''Father Espie"'. Widely respected in the business community, he was a vice-president (1949-59) of the Chamber of Mines of Western Australia and president (1948) of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy; in 1953 he was awarded the institute's medal for his professional accomplishments and for his achievement in leading his staff to safety in 1942.

Espie's presidential address to the Aus.I.M.M. in 1948 had reaffirmed his confidence in Western Australia's gold industry and in Australia's potential for further economic development. Survived by his wife, son and two daughters, he died on 9 May 1962 at Epworth Private Hospital, Richmond, Melbourne, and was cremated. His son (Sir) Frank also pursued a career in mining.

Select Bibliography

  • W. S. Robinson, If I Remember Rightly, G. Blainey ed (Melb, 1967)
  • G. L. Clark, Built on Gold (Melb, 1983)
  • G. M. Ralph, A Pictorial History (Melb, 1983)
  • Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy, Proceedings, nos 148-149, Jan-June 1948, and membership records, and minutes of ordinary meeting, 4 June 1954
  • M. Smith, Espie Family History (manuscript, privately held)
  • E. D. J. Stewart, Olympian Green and Gold (manuscript, 1992, privately held)
  • E. W. Hughes personal correspondence (1954, CRA Archives, Melbourne)
  • Western Mining Corporation Archives (Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Gilbert M. Ralph, 'Espie, Frank Fancett (1890–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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