Australian Dictionary of Biography

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William Henry Geake (1880–1944)

by Peter Burness

This article was published:

William Henry Gregory Geake (1880-1944), research engineer and service officer, was born on 23 February 1880 at Earley, Berkshire, England, son of John Venning Sandercock Geake, tea merchant, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Gregory. He was educated at All Souls College, Reading, and as a young man migrated to Australia.

Geake had a remarkably inventive mind. While employed as a buyer and agent for a Sydney wholesale firm he constantly sought ways to improve its merchandise. In 1906 he lodged his first application for an Australian patent and during the next thirty-five years applied for patents for over 120 industrial and household devices. Shortly before World War I he opened his own importing and wholesale business in Pitt Street, Sydney. He married Sybilla Isabella Charlotte Marsh at Christ Church, Springwood, on 18 March 1909.

On 18 January 1916 Geake enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force and was posted to reinforcements for the 13th Battalion. He was promoted acting sergeant in April and in July was sent to the officer training school, Royal Military College, Duntroon. During training he displayed his inventiveness and, working with Mr Alfred Salenger, developed a bomb-thrower. Plans of this were sent to London and the two Australians were invited to present their ideas to the Ministry of Munitions. Geake sailed for England on the troopship Kaiser-I-Hind in December. In March 1917 he joined A.I.F. Administrative Headquarters in London and in August was promoted lieutenant and appointed commander of a new inventions research section with its own facilities and experimental ground. The A.I.F. Research Section was responsible for assessing inventions submitted to it and for designing special equipment and weapons to order. The latter was particularly important work which was performed successfully. The section often worked with dangerous explosives and under conditions and deadlines which would have been unacceptable in peacetime.

In 26 September 1917 Geake was outside an explosives packing shed when an explosion occurred. Ignoring the danger from fire and igniting ammunition, he rushed into the building and helped out an injured man. He then returned and dragged out a mortally injured soldier and, although suffering from burns, went back a third time to check that no one was left behind. For his action in saving life he was awarded the bronze Albert Medal. The day after the rescue Geake himself was severely injured during a weapons demonstration and did not resume duty until 17 December. In the New Year honours for 1918 he was appointed M.B.E. for his contribution to the war effort. He continued to head the research section and to produce valuable inventions. Among those attributed to him were a message-carrying rocket, a floating naval flare shell and a rod gun. The message rocket was his most successful military invention; it was in use on the Western Front at the time of the Armistice.

Promoted captain in January 1919, Geake embarked for Australia in August and was demobilized in December. After the war he was employed as a refrigeration representative and later as an industrial research engineer. Royalties from his many inventions supplemented his income. His work was affected by the Depression and he tried a number of ventures including a small manufacturing business in partnership with his son. During World War II, by concealing his age, he enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force and was commissioned as a flying officer in July 1940, and promoted flight lieutenant in 1941 and squadron leader in 1942. From October 1940 he was stationed at R.A.A.F. Headquarters, Melbourne, and was involved in assessing inventions and carrying out inspections. He died of cancer in the R.A.A.F. Hospital, Richmond, New South Wales, on 14 March 1944 and was buried in the war cemetery at Rookwood.

William Geake was a man of energy and imagination who also displayed rare courage. His Albert Medal was one of only three such decorations awarded to Australians in World War I. He was survived by his wife, a son and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • London Gazette, 22 Nov 1918
  • Sabretache, Apr 1978
  • North Shore and Manly Times, 19 Jan 1918
  • Daily Mirror (London), 23 Nov 1919
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar 1944
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Burness, 'Geake, William Henry (1880–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 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]


23 February, 1880
Early, Berkshire, England


14 March, 1944 (aged 64)
Richmond, New South Wales, Australia

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