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Reginald Theodore Kleeman (1901–1979)

by Suzanne Edgar

This article was published:

Reginald Theodore Kleeman (1901-1979), engineer, was born on 4 May 1901 at Mile End, Adelaide, only child of native-born parents Theodore Richard Kleemann, clerk, and his wife Mary Jane, née Wadey. Reginald attended Woodville Public and Adelaide High schools before studying mechanical engineering, both at the School of Mines and Industries and the University of Adelaide (B.E., 1923). He represented the university in Australian Rules football. Blue eyed and fair haired, 'Snow' was a tall young man, with a jutting jaw and a strong brow. In January 1923 he joined the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd as a draughtsman at Whyalla, a place he would help to transform from saltbush plains to steel city.

Two hills, Iron Monarch and Iron Knob, lay 33 miles (53 km) north-west of Whyalla and contained rich deposits of ore. Kleeman was assistant (from 1924) to the quarry officer at Iron Knob and officer-in-charge (from 1927). The demand for iron soon exceeded the scope of the old steam-shovel and hand-loading methods. Kleeman's task was to oversee the installation of modern plant. In 1928 bench 'E' went into production at Iron Monarch, with electric locomotives, revolving shovels producing 400 tons of ore an hour, and a primary crusher capable of breaking down 1000 tons an hour. The ore was taken by rail to Whyalla and thence by ship to the company's steel works at Newcastle, New South Wales. Kleeman revised quarry practices and directed improvements for the settlement at Iron Knob: the streets were paved and trees were carefully cultivated. On 23 April 1927 at St James's Anglican Church, West Adelaide, he married Stella Mary Coligan (d.1960).

In 1930 Kleeman moved to Whyalla as assistant to the superintendent; within three years he was chief engineer. During the Depression he supervised relief work which involved regrading part of the Iron Knob 'tramway' and tunnelling to determine ore reserves in Iron Prince and Iron Baron, 28 miles (45 km) south-west of Whyalla. He was close to the managing director Essington Lewis who, after visiting Japan in 1934, planned an immense war effort for the company. Kleeman spent 1937 at head office, Melbourne, and was promoted acting-superintendent at Whyalla in 1938. The annual output of two million tons of ore from Iron Knob and Iron Baron stimulated the iron and steel industries, and their subsidiaries, providing employment for 30,000 people throughout Australia. In 1940 Kleeman took on the new position of superintendent of B.H.P.'s South Australian operations. He was later responsible for constructing plant to mine iron ore on Cockatoo Island, Western Australia.

At Whyalla a munitions annexe, heavy forging plant and heavy machine shop were built. In 1938 work on a blast furnace had commenced, and the harbour was dredged to allow slipways for shipbuilding which began in 1940. After the State government passed the Northern Areas and Whyalla Water Supply Act (1940), a start was made on the Morgan-Whyalla pipeline to bring River Murray water, vital for the works and town. In 1941 the blast furnace was lit and four corvettes were launched; forty-three vessels were built over the next twenty-five years.

The town grew rapidly through the years of World War II due to the co-operation of its citizens, the company, and the Federal and State governments. Kleeman's diplomacy with the premier (Sir) Thomas Playford and key public servants was crucial: he had a knack of getting to know people and invariably allowed others to state their case. Kind and generous, and a man's man, Snow had a sense of humour so dry that seconds could pass before listeners grasped the effect of his remark.

He came to be seen as the man at the heart of Whyalla, partly because municipal government was non-existent before the Whyalla Town Commission was established in 1945. Until then he ran the works, the company town and the essential services. The South Australian Housing Trust and B.H.P. introduced an extensive construction programme to provide residential accommodation, and the company also built hostels for single men. Recreational facilities were created; Kleeman promoted an aero-club to train pilots; noisy industries were separated from domestic areas; and a brick factory, an abattoir and a model dairy were set up. B.H.P. subsidized the building of Whyalla Hospital (1940) and Whyalla Technical High School (1943); Kleeman chaired the hospital board and the school council. President (1962-70) of the council of the South Australian Institute of Technology, he was its first honorary fellow (1974) and encouraged the institute to establish branches at The Levels and at Whyalla.

Kleeman had been appointed O.B.E. in 1946. In the following year he travelled abroad to investigate modern machinery. A member of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (1936), and of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers (1943), he was a fellow (1949) of the Institution of Engineers, Australia. From 1960 he was vice-chairman of Australian Mineral Development Laboratories.

In 1956 he had become B.H.P.'s South Australian manager, and visited North and South America. Back home in 1957, he organized new blasting and drilling methods: by using ammonium nitrate and fuel oil, the size of the blast was increased five-fold. Work on the site for a steel plant at Whyalla began in 1961 and the first steel was produced in 1965. On 2 November 1960 Kleeman had married Doris Edith Pocock, née Goerecke, at the Wesley Methodist Church, Wollongong, New South Wales. He retired in 1966, took up several directorships and consultancies, and had time to follow horse-racing and go sailing. In 1959 he had joined the Adelaide Club.

Snow Kleeman oversaw Whyalla's massive expansion whereby raw material was converted to final product within South Australia. Although he maintained meticulous standards, he delegated responsibility, shunned publicity and protected his employees' welfare. Survived by his wife, and by the daughter and son of his first marriage, he died on 31 May 1979 at Largs Bay and was cremated. The Institute of Technology holds his portrait by David Dridan.

Select Bibliography

  • BHP Recreation Review, Sept 1933
  • PRGSSA, 42, 1940-41
  • BHP Review, Feb 1940, June 1946, June 1947, Oct 1956
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 13 June 1946, 2 Sept 1966, 4 June 1979
  • Whyalla News, 6 June 1979
  • BHP Billiton Ltd Archives, PM/1105 (Port Melbourne)
  • private information.

Citation details

Suzanne Edgar, 'Kleeman, Reginald Theodore (1901–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 29 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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