Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir John Klunder Jensen (1884–1970)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published:

Sir John Klunder Jensen (1884-1970), public servant, was born on 20 March 1884 at Sandhurst (Bendigo), Victoria, eldest child of native-born parents Thomas Peter Henry Jensen, draper and later publican, and his wife Margaret, née McNamara. John attended several state schools for broken periods and St Kilian's Catholic school, Bendigo, until the age of 11. He helped to support the family by taking odd jobs before joining the Post Office and Telegraph Department in 1898 as a messenger-boy. In 1900 he was transferred to Melbourne as a junior messenger in the Defence Department's ordnance stores branch, Victoria Barracks, at a time when it was dispatching equipment for the South African War. Next year he was appointed clerk in the same branch of the new Commonwealth Department of Defence. Jensen, who throughout his life was assiduously self-educated, attended classes in mathematics, engineering and chemistry at the Working Men's College and was promoted clerk (central administration) in December 1908.

In February 1911 he was appointed accountant and chief clerk of the Small Arms Factory, Lithgow, New South Wales, having been sent in the previous year to the United States of America for management training. Responsible for organizing the accounts and general administration of four factories, Jensen, an instinctive bureaucrat, pioneered 'scientific management' and made cost accounting his forte. On 27 September 1911 at the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Randwick, Sydney, he married Maria Ruby Gordon; they were to have two sons and three daughters. Recalled to Melbourne in 1914 as a senior clerk, Jensen was promoted chief clerk. The administration of the department laboured under severe wartime pressures and, while managing the central registry, he initiated a new system of classifying and distributing inwards correspondence; he was also responsible for handling industrial disputes. In 1918 he was sent to Britain, by way of the U.S.A., to assist A. E. Leighton at the British Ministry of Munitions. Jensen investigated the ways in which Britain had mobilized for munitions production in World War I.

Despite the international disarmament movement, the Australian government was committed to national self-sufficiency in munitions production. As a result of an agreement negotiated by the minister for defence (Sir) George Pearce, Jensen returned to Melbourne in 1921 with a bargain collection of surplus British plant. He had been one of the advocates of a scheme to build an arsenal at Tuggeranong, Federal Capital Territory, but the plan was abandoned, and in 1921 the Department of Defence established the Munitions Supply Board to install the newly acquired machinery and organize production. Jensen was the M.S.B.'s foundation secretary (1921) and controller (1937-39). In addition, he was chairman (1923-39) of the Defence Contract Board. The functions of these offices were transferred to the new Department of Supply and Development in 1939. As assistant-secretary (factory production), Jensen introduced a filing system based on cards instead of cumbersome book-registers.

Following the creation of a separate Department of Munitions in 1940, Jensen was its assistant-secretary and secretary (1942-48). A compulsive worker, he presided from his office, flanked by a 'tin hat', Bren-gun and portable typewriter. Tall, spare, and somewhat cadaverous, he was identified in the press as the 'human nerve centre of munitions manufacture in Australia'. In April 1948 he returned to the Department of Supply and Development as secretary. From 1943 he had been foundation chairman of the Secondary Industries Planning Commission in the Department of Post-War Reconstruction: the dubious procedures by which he encouraged General Motors-Holden Ltd to begin manufacturing motor vehicles in Australia have been criticized. He retired on 31 July 1949. Three months later he joined the Commonwealth Immigration Planning Council, Department of Immigration. A fellow (1929) and life member (1949) of the Australasian Institute of Cost Accountants, he became a director of several companies. He had been appointed O.B.E. in 1938 and was knighted in 1950.

An adroit administrator, Sir John showed shrewdness in discovering ways and means, and his 'stubborn but subtle will' was no secret to colleagues. Energetic but withdrawn, he could appear 'grim and humourless' in pursuit of his duties, but privately harboured romantic and sentimental notions. Jensen numbered 'wandering in the bush' among his recreations and claimed a presence 'somewhat athletic in appearance'. He was an avid reader and writer, in his enthusiasm offering literary advice to Miles Franklin. In December 1969 the Victorian headquarters of the Department of Supply was named Jensen House. Survived by a son and two daughters, Jensen died on 17 February 1970 at Hawthorn, Melbourne, and was buried in Box Hill cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin, War Economy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1955)
  • L. J. Hartnett, Big Wheels and Little Wheels (Melb, 1964)
  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1977)
  • Melbourne Walker, 38, 1967, 46, 1975
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7 Jan 1942, 26 Nov 1943, 31 Dec 1941
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Apr 1948, 18 Nov 1944
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Dec 1969
  • Australian, 19 Feb 1970
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Feb 1970
  • Nation (Sydney), 11 Oct 1958
  • A. T. Ross, The Arming of Australia: The Politics and Administration of Australia's Self Containment Strategy for Munitions Supply 1901-1945 (Ph.D. thesis, 1986, Australian Defence Force Academy)
  • J. L. Knight, Explosives in Australia (manuscript, Australian National University Archives)
  • Jensen papers, 1918-69 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Jensen, Sir John Klunder (1884–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 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

Life Summary [details]


20 March, 1884
Bendigo, Victoria, Australia


17 February, 1970 (aged 85)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.