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Sir Herbert William (Bert) Gepp (1877–1954)

by B. E. Kennedy

This article was published:

Herbert William Gepp (1877-1954), by unknown photographer

Herbert William Gepp (1877-1954), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/1542

Sir Herbert William (Bert) Gepp (1877-1954), mining metallurgist and manager, public servant, industrialist and publicist, was born on 28 September 1877 in Adelaide, eldest son of William John Gepp, clerk, and his wife Marian, née Rogers. His grandfather, a veterinary surgeon, was a pioneer settler of 1836. 'Bert' Gepp was educated at state schools and won a scholarship to Prince Alfred College but family indigence prevented him from proceeding to the University of Adelaide. In 1893 he became a junior chemist with the Australian Explosives and Chemical Co. at Deer Park, near Melbourne, soon taken over by Nobel's Explosive Co. of Glasgow, Scotland. During this period he rode a bicycle, three mornings a week, from Deer Park to the University of Melbourne to attend (Sir) David Masson's chemistry lectures. Such early trials gave him the disciplined toughness of the self-made man and, less commonly perhaps, a sympathy for the underdog. In 1898 he went to Nobel's Glasgow factory for two years; throughout his life he benefited much from regular trips to Europe and North America and always insisted on the broadening effect of 'sabbaticals' for businessmen. At Hawthorn, Melbourne, on 5 July 1905, with, Congregational forms he married Jessie Powell Hilliard; they had a son and four daughters.

Gepp's long and fruitful association with the Collins House group began in late 1905 when he joined the staff of the Zinc Corporation Ltd and went to Broken Hill to help solve the 'sulphide problem'. In 1907 he became manager of the de Bavay's Treatment Co. Ltd and played an active part in the development of the flotation process. Gepp demonstrated an early interest in the industry's more serious labour problems and took steps to improve the safety and welfare of his men. He urged the companies to increase their subsidies to the local hospital and in 1913, after an overseas trip, initiated the Broken Hill Progress Association in order to ameliorate living conditions in the neglected town. In spite of the opposition of militant unions and apathy of company boards, Gepp's organization built some playgrounds, spent money on gardens, and arranged a seaside holiday for miners' children. More importantly, it laid the groundwork for the welfare schemes pursued by the companies after World War I.

An ardent nationalist, Gepp enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at the outbreak of war and went into camp at Fort Largs near Adelaide. Early in 1915 he was released from the army on the initiative of Billy Hughes and William Baillieu and went with his family to the United States of America to sell zinc concentrates and to investigate the manufacture of munitions on behalf of the government. The experience of these two years greatly stimulated him and he remained a fervent admirer of American business efficiency. While in North America he met many industrial 'experts' and recruited Charles Warner, Guy Riddell, and Gilbert Rigg for the new smelters at Port Pirie; his knowledge of the electrolytic zinc process developed by the Anaconda Copper Co. also proved to be a major asset when Collins House moved into the manufacture of refined zinc after the war. But it was the evident success of American companies in labour relations that most impressed Gepp, and on his return to Australia he persuaded (Sir) Colin Fraser to launch the first concerted attempt to tackle labour unrest on the Barrier. Gepp's own contribution stressed the importance of housing, co-operation with management, and the role of industrial 'experts'.

In 1917 Gepp became general manager of the Electrolytic Zinc Co. of Australasia Ltd and, with the support of W. L. Baillieu, led that company through its difficult early years. The venture was comparable in scale to the creation of the Newcastle steel industry and Gepp figured prominently in the mastery of its metallurgical problems. In six years at Risdon, Tasmania, he was responsible for the design and supervision of a pilot plant, then a ten ton (tonne) plant, and finally a 100 ton (tonne) plant to produce zinc of 99.95 per cent purity from Broken Hill and Port Pirie zinc tailings using hydro-electric power. In 1924 Gepp was elected president of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and with Gilbert Rigg received the gold medal of the London parent institution. That year he represented Australia at an Empire congress of the institute in London, and served as a commissioner for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

Bored and restless after his return from abroad Gepp began a new career in 1926 as a public servant. Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce appointed him chairman of the Development and Migration Commission, which, like the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research, formed the same year, was to apply scientific methods to economic and political problems in the interests of national development and efficiency. The new role provided ample scope for Gepp's boundless energy, inventive mind, and commitment to industrial growth. Incessant daily work, constant travel, continual conferences, lengthy reports written and redrafted and drafted again preceded his recommendations to the government on a variety of national problems. In 1930 the Scullin government terminated the commission but Gepp was retained as a part-time consultant on development. In 1933 he was knighted. He chaired the royal commission on the wheat, flour, and bread industries which reported at length in 1934-36, and in 1934 he became director of the North Australian Aerial Geological and Geophysical Survey.

Gepp was also an effective publicist and in lectures, articles, and broadcasts promoted the cause of science in industry and agriculture: reafforestation and soil erosion were two of his major concerns. At this time he read J. M. Keynes and turned increasingly to national economic planning as the solution to many of Australia's problems. He regarded laissez-faire as a policy of 'drift'; it was the lack of social responsibility which was 'the root cause of political unrests and upheavals, wars and rumours of wars, exploitations and economic distress'. When war came Gepp made a significant contribution. A friendship with John Curtin contributed in part to his influence as an advocate of central planning and an architect of post-war reconstruction. From 1942 to 1945 he served as chairman of the Central Cargo Control Committee.

Meanwhile he had returned to private industry. From 1931 he was technical consultant to Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd and in 1936 became its general manager: the Maryvale pulp mill in Gippsland came into production in 1939 under his direction, and the housing scheme for the mill-workers was his conception. He retired in 1950.

While not tall—he was 5 ft 8½ ins (174 cm)—Gepp had a dominating and impressive presence. He had a 'large-featured, rather lowering visage', penetrating dark brown eyes and thick, wavy dark hair which was hardly touched with grey at his death. He never wore a hat, and would dress unconventionally if he felt like it. He was proud of his children but his work habits left little time for family, who according to one who knew him, felt the strains of his driving energy more than most. Farming, reading and golf were his major recreations. He died suddenly on 14 April 1954 at his farm at Kangaroo Ground where he had spent many happy hours indulging his passion for improvements. He was buried in the local cemetery. Survived by his wife and children, he left an estate valued for probate at £91,702.

Gepp made significant contributions to the solution of the great metallurgical problems of the mining industry in the 1900s; he was a pioneer in the application of enlightened labour policies in industry; he was an apostle of the role of science in industry, government, and the economy, and helped to established the C.S.I.R., the Royal Australian Chemical Institute, the Australian Institute of Management, and the Institute of Public Affairs; and he was an influential transmitter of advanced British and American ideas to an Australian public. His selected addresses were published as Democracy's Danger, 1939, and When Peace Comes, 1943. Promethean in abilities and interests, Gepp was driven by a 'divine discontent' which made few concessions to the softer side of his nature or to the complacency of his generation.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D. Kemp, Big Businessmen (Melb, 1964)
  • B. Kennedy, Silver, Sin and Sixpennny Ale (Melb, 1978)
  • T. Rowse, Australian Liberalism and National Character (Melb, 1978)
  • Gepp papers, MS390, and miscellaneous papers, MS1548 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

B. E. Kennedy, 'Gepp, Sir Herbert William (Bert) (1877–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 17 April 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

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