Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Harold Jack Finnis (1889–1980)

by G. L. Fischer

This article was published:

Harold Jack Finnis (1889-1980), administrator, was born on 29 August 1889 at Parkside, Adelaide, son of John Mercer Finnis (d.1909), civil servant, and his wife Florence Matilda, née Lockwood. Captain John Finnis was Harold's grandfather. Educated by a governess, at Malvern Grammar and Unley Public schools, and at Muirden College for Business Training, in 1905 Harold entered the State public service as a junior clerk. As a young man he read papers on religious subjects, sang in choirs, and joined literary societies and model parliaments; in 1911-13 he also attended lectures on economics and botany at the University of Adelaide. At Manthorpe Memorial Church, Unley, on 26 December 1914 he married with Congregational forms Gladys Muriel James; they were to have a daughter and a son.

In 1911 Finnis had moved from the Produce Department to the Agriculture Department; four years later he was assistant-secretary to the Advisory Board of Agriculture, librarian, and editor of the Journal of Agriculture; by 1921 he was secretary to the board. The work of the board grew and he claimed responsibility for two innovations: the establishment of women's branches (1917) and a press news service—'both in the face of official opposition'. In 1925 he was appointed secretary of the Royal Agricultural and Horticultural Society of South Australia. Next year he directed his first show at Wayville. As secretary (until 1955) and director-secretary (1955-59), the 'unflappable' Finnis presided efficiently and firmly over increasingly larger and more complicated annual shows, rising attendances, the construction of buildings, new uses for the grounds and, to some extent, also over his governing council. He was appointed M.B.E. in 1939.

During World War II the showgrounds were used for defence purposes. From 1940 to 1946 Finnis was secretary of the Business Administration Committee which reported to the Department of Defence Co-ordination. In 1947 he resumed his administration of the R.A.H.S.S.A.'s affairs, oversaw the restoration of buildings and grounds, and, despite continuing austerity, held the first postwar show. His personal qualities 'contributed towards the marked progress' of the organization. Through the society, he assisted the wine industry, stud breeders and country show societies, and fostered relations between primary producers' organizations.

Finnis was a founder of the Adelaide Rotary Club and president (1939-40) of the Rotary Club of Australia. With his work on the Libraries Board of South Australia (1942-74) and the board of commissioners of the National Park (1943-63), his civic service became more varied and demanding. He was a governor (1947-69) of the Adelaide Botanic Garden, a council-member (1950-75) and president (1950-53) of the State branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, president (1957-68) of the Pioneers' Association of South Australia and chairman (1961-75) of the State working party of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. As office-bearer, member, or founder, he was associated with numerous other organizations, including the Liberal and Country League, and became known as 'Adelaide's busiest man'.

A commanding figure, over six feet (183 cm) tall, Finnis had a no-nonsense, time-saving, but punctilious manner, especially during meetings. He dressed conservatively, belonged (from 1944) to the Adelaide Club and drove a Jaguar motorcar. Somewhat patrician in outlook, he was friendly and courteous, and liked the company of those who shared his enthusiasms. Gardening and collecting Australiana were lifelong interests; he also found time for historical research, and gave talks and published papers on his findings. His official, civic and private activities complemented each other in his concern for the progress, well-being and history of South Australia. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 19 August 1980 in North Adelaide and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • C. and M. Kerr, Royal Show (Adel, 1983)
  • Public Service Review, June 1920
  • Observer (Adelaide), 21 May 1921, 19 Dec 1925
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 2 Jan 1939, 21, 22 Aug 1980
  • Finnis papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • N. Adams, interview with H. J. Finnis (1969, State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

G. L. Fischer, 'Finnis, Harold Jack (1889–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 20 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024