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Sir Alfred Newcombe (Kem) Kemsley (1896–1987)

by Michael Ingamells

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Sir Alfred Newcombe (Kem) Kemsley (1896-1987), businessman, was born on 29 March 1896 at Prospect, South Australia, son of English-born parents Alfred Kemsley, boiler-maker, and his wife Clara Kate, née Newcombe. 'Kem' was educated at Nailsworth Public School, Adelaide, then at Howard’s Commercial and Correspondence College and the Adelaide Shorthand and Business Training Academy. He passed the South Australian civil service and railway clerical examinations. From 1911 he was employed as a clerk in the State Lands Department before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 5 March 1915. Recognising his gifts as a manager and administrator, the army employed him on supply duties in Egypt (1916) and on the Western Front (1916-19). In October 1916 he was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal and commissioned. He was demobilised as an honorary captain on 6 December 1919.

Returning to Adelaide, Kemsley entered a brief real-estate partnership before moving to Melbourne and joining the head office of Broken Hill Proprietary Ltd in 1920. On 6 September 1921 at the Pirie Street Methodist Church, Adelaide, he married Glydus Annie May Logg. In 1923-29 he was secretary of Melbourne’s Metropolitan Town Planning Commission. He was active in the Militia (1921-28) and in the right-wing White Army (League of National Security); in 1923 he became the secretary of the Special Constabulary Force deployed during the police strike in October. Widowed in 1922 he married Janet Oldfield on 22 December 1925 at St Paul’s Church of England, Bendigo.

Appointed secretary (1930-34) to the Liquor Trade Defence Union, Kemsley organised the resoundingly successful referendum campaign against the proposed abolition of licences to sell liquor—although he was uncomfortable with some aspects of the organisation and always denied responsibility for a poster featuring an image of an injured pedestrian and the caption 'A Drop of Brandy Might Have Saved Him'. In 1934 he became general manager of radio-station 3UZ and in 1935-36 also served as vice-president of the Australian Federation of Broadcasting Stations. At 3UZ he engaged Sir Thomas Blamey, with whom he had served during World War I, to give a series of regular Sunday night commentaries in 1938, 'The Perils of War'. These broadcasts, delivered under the pseudonym 'The Sentinel', provided a valued opportunity for the unemployed Blamey: such a gesture was typical of Kemsley’s support for colleagues and friends.

A foundation member (1923) of the Melbourne Legacy Club, Kemsley had exercised forceful leadership on many of its committees, and as recording secretary (1926-27), chairman of committees (1927-28), vice-president (1928-30) and president (1932-33). He sought to expand the club’s welfare activities. Together with his friend Donovan Joynt, VC, he became one of the most committed advocates for the creation of a Shrine of Remembrance on St Kilda Road as a 'worthy' memorial to Victoria’s 'unparalleled efforts during the Great War'. He played an active role in the defeat of a counter-proposal for an Anzac Square in Spring Street. In 1938 he was appointed to the trust established to administer the Shrine, later serving as its deputy-chairman (1952) and chairman (1978-84).

In June 1941 Kemsley began full-time service in the Militia (AIF from July) as director of organisation and recruiting at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, with the rank of temporary colonel (substantive in March 1943). He was seconded to the civilian post of business adviser to the Department of the Army in 1943-46, and was concurrently army representative on the Board of Business Administration. In March-April 1946 he was also business member of the Military Board. On 12 June 1946 he was transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Back in civilian life, Kemsley established a successful advertising agency, United Service Publicity Pty Ltd (U. S. P. Benson Pty Ltd after 1962). He was a director from 1946 and chairman in 1960-64. Questions of urban development again claimed his attention following his appointment to the Victorian Town and Country Planning Board (1946-68), for which he conducted a traffic census of Melbourne and its suburbs (1948) and served on the government finance committee relating to the proposed city underground railway scheme. He was an early supporter of the movement to create a national trust in Victoria, and sought to secure the board’s support for its activities. A member of the National Trust of Australia (Victoria) from 1958, he resigned in 1974 troubled that it had expanded beyond its initial functions. Already an honorary member (1941) of the Town and Country Planning Association, in 1964 he was awarded its Sir James Barrett memorial medal.

Kemsley had joined the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce in 1947 and was elected to its council every year until 1976. He became a constructive influence during years of transformation in the Chamber’s interests in social and economic policy, serving on many of its committees including those dealing with public relations (chairman 1952-53), civic affairs and environmental protection—a cause he particularly supported. In 1956-68 he represented the Associated Chambers of Commerce of Australia on the Australian National Travel Association (deputy-chairman 1967).

The evolution of Legacy also continued to concern him in the postwar years. As secretary (1948) of the club’s finance committee, he was closely involved in the establishment and maintenance of the Melbourne Army Transit House (Blamey House) and in obtaining a gift of £20,000 to purchase a house at Beaumaris for the orphan boys of deceased ex-servicemen. Aware of increasing demands and expectations, in 1960 he presented a paper reminding `legatees’ that there would still be children of World War II veterans to care for in the 1990s. On that basis he opposed any further extension of eligibility to Legacy benefits and of welfare programs. As Mark Lyons noted, for younger colleagues, keen to embrace new forms of assistance in areas such as education, his concerns seemed overly negative. While his paper expressed an older man’s exasperation with such enthusiasms, it also raised issues that in time would demand increasing attention.

Of medium height, balding, tending to a gruff appearance and capable of amazing bursts of energy, Kemsley sought to temper his views with balanced argument, sensitivity and humanity. His occasional bluntness was at odds with the geniality and approachability that encouraged many young people to seek his advice. Often taken into the confidence of political and business leaders, he declared his political independence but was open in his opposition to socialism, communism and religious bigotry.

Kemsley’s business interests included a directorship (1964-69) of Ponsford Newman & Benson Ltd. He maintained support for many charities and causes, joining the Victorian branch of the Proportional Representation Society in his youth and remaining a member for the rest of his life; serving as trustee (1948-68) of the Henry George Foundation; and being actively involved with the Free Enterprise Foundation and the Land Values Research Group. He served on the council of the (War) Nurses Memorial Centre (1948-83), the Blamey Memorial Committee from 1954 (chairman 1978) and the Discharged Servicemen’s Employment Board (1969-74). A member of Melbourne’s Naval and Military Club from 1936 (honorary life member 1983), in his eighties he would scoff at colleagues who took the lift to the dining room, climbing the stairs to arrive red-faced but victorious.

Appointed CBE (1960) and CMG (1973), and knighted in 1979, Sir Alfred could still gain headlines in 1985 by deploring the congestion that would affect Melbourne’s streets if buildings were allowed to exceed height restrictions. His second wife had died in 1972. On 16 November of that year at East Malvern he married Annie Elizabeth Copsey. Remembered by the Age as one of Melbourne’s 'great characters', he died on 24 February 1987 at Brighton, survived by his wife and the son and daughter of his second marriage (the son of his first marriage had died in 1941); he was cremated. An annual prize in his name was established for the best student in marketing communications at the University of Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Gawler, A Roof Over My Head (1963)
  • W. D. Joynt, Breaking the Road for the Rest (1979)
  • M. Lyons, Legacy (1978)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1985, p 1
  • Melbourne Legacy Bulletin, Mar 1987, p 3
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Feb 1987, p 10
  • private information.

Citation details

Michael Ingamells, 'Kemsley, Sir Alfred Newcombe (Kem) (1896–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


29 March, 1896
Prospect, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


24 February, 1987 (aged 90)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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