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Sir Edward John Lees Hallstrom (1886–1970)

by Audrey Tate

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Sir Edward John Lees Hallstrom (1886-1970), manufacturer, zoological park administrator and philanthropist, was born on 25 September 1886 at High Park station, near Coonamble, New South Wales, eighth of nine children of William Hallstrom, a saddler from England who was of Swedish extraction, and his native-born wife Mary Ann, née Colless, a descendant of John Lees of the New South Wales Corps. Edward was about 4 when his father's farming endeavour failed and the family moved to Sydney. They lived at Waterloo near young (Sir) William McKell, with whom Edward (although never a Labor supporter) formed a lifelong friendship. The Hallstrom parents separated and conditions were hard for the children. At the age of 10 Edward was doing odd jobs to supplement the family income. He left school at 13, to be apprenticed to a cabinet-maker, but continued to study the Harmsworth Self-Educator, encyclopaedias and scientific magazines. Intelligent and hard working, he soon had charge of a furniture factory. Several years later he established his own business, manufacturing bedsteads. Fascinated with flying, he was friendly with the pioneer aviators Bert Hinkler and George Taylor; he built box kites for Taylor and was with him on his inaugural flight at Narrabeen Beach in December 1909.

On a trip to Maryborough, Queensland, Hallstrom met Margaret Elliott Jaffrey, a talented artist who shared his love of animals. They were married with Presbyterian forms on 6 April 1912 at her parents' home at New Farm, Brisbane. Edward was a strict disciplinarian, but his wife and four children idolized him. After reading an early article on refrigeration, he studied every patent in that field taken out since Federation and experimented in a makeshift laboratory in his backyard at Dee Why. He quickly saw the possibilities of kerosene-powered refrigeration for outback stations which relied on the primitive 'Coolgardie safe'. In 1928 he produced his first unit, the Icy Ball absorption refrigerator, a chest model run by kerosene, which he sold in the outback himself. He then diversified into the Silent Knight upright models, run on gas or electricity. To his family's relief, he moved production from the backyard to a rambling site at Willoughby. During World War II the factory produced munitions, as well as refrigerators for the American Army for medical purposes. By the mid-1940s Hallstroms Pty Ltd was turning out 1200 refrigerators per week and employed over seven hundred people, among them members of his family. He subsequently invented a machine for refrigerating anaesthetics which he presented to Sydney Hospital.

His entrepreneurial and inventive abilities enabled Hallstrom to manufacture an efficient, reasonably priced product at a time when imported refrigerators were costly. For all his softly spoken, affable manner, he was known as 'the Chief', someone whose word was law. Yet, he was a kind man, renowned for close relationships with his employees to whom his personal generosity was legendary. Silent Knight became a household name in Australia, supplying both domestic and export markets, and Hallstrom became a millionaire. The family moved into a harbourside home at Northbridge, although he spent much of the week in a Spartan flat at his factory.

By this time Hallstrom could afford to indulge two passions—a love of birds and animals (a childhood obsession) and philanthropy. With the proceeds of the sale of five hundred kerosene refrigerators in Africa in 1937, he bought two rhinoceroses which he presented to the Taronga Zoological Park Trust. These were the first of many gifts which gave him extraordinary influence. In 1941 he was appointed a trustee of the zoo which he was to dominate for the next twenty-six years. He was vice-chairman (1945-51) and president from 1951 until 1959, when his son succeeded him. As honorary director (1959-67) Hallstrom was still effectively in control.

Hallstrom was the zoo's greatest benefactor and most active trustee—by the time of his death he had made cash donations of over $500,000, in addition to birds and animals. He financed expeditions to New Guinea, Africa and South America, established links with overseas zoos and museums, and set up a private farm at Mona Vale to produce fresh food for the animals. He revelled in and actively sought publicity, and took distinguished visitors to the zoo in his Rolls-Royce (numberplate ZO-000). He also made the zoo more popular by exhibiting animals such as 'King Kong', the gorilla, and 'Nellie', the harmonica-playing elephant, and by introducing a successful breeding programme that included the rare black rhinoceroses which he fed with 'scones spread with butter laced with vitamins'.

By the 1960s Hallstrom's lack of professional qualifications was seen as archaic. As a self-made man accustomed to wielding authority, he clashed with scientists over management practices at the zoo and in 1966 two public inquiries were set up by the minister for lands. While paying tribute to Hallstrom as a 'great philanthropist and nature lover', he was criticized on many grounds: there was no trained zoologist or veterinary surgeon on the staff, and excessive cement had been used in the animal enclosures (which, being easy to clean, reduced parasitic disease). He was deeply offended when Dr Heini Hediger, director of the Zurich Zoological Gardens, Switzerland, referred to him in his report as 'a great amateur'. A professional zoologist was appointed director and Hallstrom was made director emeritus. Nevertheless, many of Hallstrom's ideas came from years of practical experience and the zoo's successful breeding programme 'was in itself evidence that the animals were living under suitable conditions'.

The inquiries shook Hallstrom badly. He rejected the notion that an ardent love of animals could be superseded by professional training and that 'scientists found it impossible to communicate with him'. From 1966 he was also under covert surveillance for illegal trafficking in fauna. Four years later, thirty-five people were convicted of that offence and it was thought that Hallstrom may have used his influence to have his involvement concealed. Whatever the truth, in 1968, dispirited and unwell, he donated his personal collection of birds and animals worth more than $20,000 to the zoo. That year his wife died, and he gave $22,000 to the Central Methodist Mission to establish at Leichhardt the Margaret Hallstrom Home for unmarried mothers.

Meantime, in the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, Hallstrom had been involved in several projects, such as coffee-growing and an experimental sheep-breeding station at Nondugl. In 1949 he gave £20,000 and 750 acres (304 ha) to the Commonwealth government to create a trust, setting aside land for the Hallstrom Bird of Paradise Sanctuary from which he developed a worldwide exchange programme. He also donated £10,000 to establish a library attached to the Australian School of Pacific Administration at Mosman, now the Hallstrom Pacific Library. He genuinely delighted in philanthropy, and personally assessed the begging letters with which he was daily besieged. He made countless donations to diverse projects, charities and individuals, but especially for medical research. Large sums went to Sydney Hospital for a cancer clinic and to Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for cardiac research. The Hallstrom Institute of Cardiology at R.P.A.H. was set up in recognition of his generosity. There were also donations to smaller hospitals, and he was a board-member of Sydney and R.P.A. hospitals.

Hallstrom was a fellow of the Royal Zoological societies of New South Wales and London, a member of the New York Zoological Society and a life member of the Royal Australian Historical Society. He belonged to the exclusive Explorers Club, New York. Knighted in 1952, he was named Father of the Year in 1957. He was awarded the gold medals of the Société Royale Zoologique de Belgique (1964) and the Zoological Society of San Diego (1966), and in 1966 was appointed knight commander of the Royal Order of the Northern Star for sponsoring Swedish Expeditions to New Guinea and for assistance to the Royal Museum of Stockholm. A genus of petrels was named Hallstroma in his honour by G. M. Mathews.

A teetotaller and non-smoker, Hallstrom was astonishingly active and 'never let his mind lie idle for a minute'. He enjoyed a joke, especially when in mid-life, with his stocky build and heavy glasses, he was often mistaken for H. V. Evatt. He also collected the hats of famous men, including Chaplin, Churchill, Truman, Eisenhower and (Sir) Robert Menzies. An art lover, he presented a collection of bird paintings by John-James Audubon to President Truman for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and gave paintings to the local R.Z.S. and to Parliament House, Canberra. At St Philip's Church, Sydney, on 14 June 1969 Sir Edward married Dr Mary Mabel Maguire, née McElhone, a widow and an old friend. Survived by his wife, and by the son and three daughters of his first marriage, he died on 27 February 1970 at his Northbridge home and was cremated with Anglican rites. To the public, Hallstrom was a genial philanthropist and animal lover; privately, he could be self-willed and difficult. He was both a significant figure in the history of Taronga Zoo and a practical humanitarian who reputedly donated over $4 million. His estate was sworn for probate at $974,914.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Hediger, Report on Taronga Park Zoo from the Viewpoint of Biology of Zoological Gardens (Syd, 1966)
  • N. Thompson and J. T. Quinn, Report on Administrative and Business Aspects of Taronga Zoological Park (Syd, 1966)
  • E. Hahn, Zoos (Lond, 1968)
  • E. Wilksch (compiler), The Naremburn Story (Syd, 1988)
  • R. Strahan, Beauty and the Beasts (Syd, 1991)
  • Refrigeration Journal, Apr 1950
  • People (Sydney), 12 Apr 1950
  • South West Pacific, no 17, 1951
  • Walkabout, 31, Oct 1965
  • Australian Zoologist, 15, 1970, p 403
  • Nation (Sydney), 5 Oct 1963
  • Australian, 7 May 1986
  • J. Lawrence, A History of Taronga Zoological Park (B.A. Hons thesis, University of New South Wales, 1981)
  • J. Hill, The Silent Knight—The Life and Character of Sir Edward John Hallstrom (manuscript, held by its autho)
  • Hallstrom papers (Taronga Zoological Park, Hallstrom Pacific Library, Powerhouse Museum and State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Audrey Tate, 'Hallstrom, Sir Edward John Lees (1886–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 16 April 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

Life Summary [details]


25 September, 1886
Coonamble, New South Wales, Australia


27 February, 1970 (aged 83)
Northbridge, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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