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Essington Lewis (1881–1961)

by Geoffrey Blainey and Ann G. Smith

This article was published:

Essington Lewis (1881-1961), by unknown photographer, c1945

Essington Lewis (1881-1961), by unknown photographer, c1945

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24166205

Essington Lewis (1881-1961), industrialist and wartime director of munitions, was born on 13 January 1881 at Burra Burra, South Australia, third son of John Lewis and his wife Martha Anne, née Brook. Essington adored his mother, whose death when he was 13 was a deep blow, but his qualities stemmed more from his father. John Lewis had the characteristics of a seasoned bushman: stamina, courage, power of observation and skill in handling horses; in his list of values the first was hard work. He was aggressive, with an overwhelming desire for order and predictability. He insisted on punctuality and obedience, urged loyalty to one's mates and was suspicious of too much talk. In the 1870s he had taken up grazing land in the Northern Territory around Port Essington, and in a patriotic spirit he named his son Essington.

Lewis attended the government school at Burra Burra. He showed no special scholastic aptitude, preferring holidays which revolved around animals and guns, and becoming an outstanding horseman while still a boy. In October 1894 he entered the Collegiate School of St Peter, Adelaide, where he excelled at sport; he was captain of the Australian Rules football team, one of the best tennis players, the champion gymnast and a fine athlete and cricketer. He continued for years to play games with intense determination, representing Norwood and South Australia at football. The Chronicle in 1907 adjudged him 'one of the finest footballers in the Commonwealth'.

In keeping with his father's emphasis on self-reliance, Lewis's formal education was interspersed with work in the outback; he spent 1896 and 1899 at his father's cattle-station at Dalhousie Springs. He did not go on the land; his idea of becoming a solicitor was foiled by his father ('You haven't got the brain and I'm damned if I'll give you the money'); and in the end he decided to become a mining engineer, enrolling at the South Australian School of Mines and Industries in 1901. His compulsory stint as a labourer at Mount Lyell, Tasmania, in 1903 did little to endear his chosen profession to him, but he returned to Adelaide to complete his diploma and, in 1904, he signed on with the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd at Broken Hill, New South Wales. There he made steady, if unspectacular, progress.

From the mine he moved to the treatment plant as a shift boss and late in 1905 he was transferred to the smelters at Port Pirie, South Australia. By the end of 1909 he was shift superintendent of the roasters and sintering plant and had charge of the stables and the company's wharf. The new responsibilities allowed him to show his versatility and his mastery of detail.

Lewis was 5 ft 10 in (178 cm) tall, broad shouldered and handsome. Fair-haired, he was dubbed 'Snowy' by the sporting press; to his friends he was 'Essie'. In spite of an already formidable independence he was generally regarded with affection and referred to as 'big-hearted'. He often played polo at the farm of fellow worker H. C. Warren where he met Warren's niece Gladys Rosalind, daughter of wealthy mining investor and grazier James Cowan and cousin of (Sir) John Cowan. They were married at St John's Church, Burnside, on 12 April 1910 and set up home at Port Pirie. Lewis demanded methodical housekeeping from his wife; at work his obsession with order and efficiency led to his appointment in 1913 as assistant manager of the smelters.

From 1913 all the excitement in the company's offices centred on plans to develop a steel industry at Newcastle, New South Wales. Lewis's responsibility again increased when he was given the task of expanding the output of ironstone at the South Australian quarry at Iron Knob; he also organized a search for limestone deposits and supervised the opening of a limestone quarry at Melrose, Tasmania. The independence conferred by the move from Port Pirie to a base at Whyalla suited Lewis's domestic arrangements; he was now able to take up residence in Adelaide where his wife had lived since contracting tuberculosis after the birth of their first child in 1911. When the Port Pirie smelters were sold to Broken Hill Associated Smelters an attempt was made by the purchasers to recruit Lewis as works manager, but he chose to remain with B.H.P.; the managing director Guillaume Delprat had been immensely impressed by Lewis's unusual organizing ability and had probably hinted at exciting prospects.

After the steelworks opened in March 1915 Lewis increasingly visited Newcastle. Within a year he was spending half his time there on steel and munitions business. He had initially known nothing of steel-making and had copied into one of the small black notebooks, which he invariably carried, simple textbook accounts of the process. His notebooks, which bulged his suitcoat and which occupied his attention during his long interstate train trips, were an essential part of his working method. One such master notebook contained a welter of detail under hundreds of categories, penned in an extremely fine hand. It was regularly updated by the deletion of outdated pages and the insertion of loose leaves. A mass of information was ever ready in Lewis's pocket, but he did not often need to consult his books; percentages, tonnages and prices were imprinted on his memory.

Lewis's three brothers served overseas in World War I, but his own decision to enlist in 1916 was blocked by Delprat's approaches to the Federal Munitions Committee and the Department of Defence, and so he remained, perhaps uneasily, a civilian. In the war years he worked more and more as Delprat's unofficial assistant at the company's head office in Melbourne. He had moved his family to Malvern in 1915. In March 1919 he stood in for Delprat for eight months and on 23 November was appointed assistant general manager at £2500 per year.

In 1920 Lewis and Harold Darling, youngest of the B.H.P. directors, made a world tour, visiting scores of steel plants and iron mines in the United States of America. Delprat and his steelworks manager David Baker had been attracted to the new Duplex process of converting pig-iron into steel but Lewis's observations convinced him that the method was unsuitable for Australian conditions and his opinion carried enough weight with the board for his cable to halt the plans. He made a similar attempt to quash the installation of Semet-Solvay coke ovens; he was unsuccessful though later events were to prove his deductions correct. On the same day that Lewis submitted his report of the tour, 18 February 1921, Delprat agreed to step down, and Lewis was appointed general manager at a salary of £4000. He was the first Australian to hold the office since the resignation of S. R. Wilson in 1886.

When Lewis arrived at power the Australian steel industry was tottering and B.H.P. could not compete with imported steel. In June 1922 the fires at Newcastle were drawn and nearly 5000 men dismissed. Lewis used the chance to analyse the efficiency of plant, men and managerial methods. The rod mill and bloom mill were improved, open-hearth furnaces rebuilt and a new metal foundry erected. The changes, which extended to the safety code and the system of transport at the plant, were effective. But they might not have been accepted by the board had it not been for the strong support Darling gave Lewis. Darling, who had succeeded Bowes Kelly as chairman in October, was friendly with Lewis, and in Melbourne he saw him almost daily. Suave, companionable and tolerant, he was the polished foil for Lewis's bluntness; because of their differences the two men formed a powerful partnership. The steelworks reopened in 1923 on a surer footing and in 1926 Lewis, with the new title of managing director, became the first B.H.P. executive officer to take a seat on the board.

Lewis's method of management reflected his idiosyncrasies. His letters were stiffly formal and he avoided the telephone. What he insisted upon was talking to people and seeing the plants himself. Every year in the 1920s he made regular trips to Newcastle, Whyalla and Iron Knob; his visits were planned to the last detail and he adhered to his timetable, making a fetish of punctuality—his own and that of others. His constant touring of workshops, quarries, steel mills and coal-mines gave him an astonishing grip on the business and contributed largely to his success. Always observant, he was able to note the smallest alterations which had occurred between visits. He insisted on tidiness and cleanliness, would run a finger along the handrail of a cat-walk to test it for grime, and he seems to have pioneered the Australian use of shadow boards for tools, even installing them for pots and pans in mess kitchens.

It was noticeable that Lewis had more in common with a grimy labourer than a clean-shirted clerk. He knew the names of hundreds of working men. He asked one man about his greyhounds, another about his fishing, and had a standing joke with someone else, making no distinction between a loyal company man and a communist. 'What's the magnifying glass for?', he asked an old hand, pointing to a new silhouette on a shadow board. 'That's so I can see me pay', came the retort. Men who laboured for a living personified Lewis's cult of action and he could appreciate from an old workman the banter which he would not tolerate from a manager or engineer.

Lewis made an overseas tour about every five years and encouraged his senior men to travel. Rather than recruit skilled men from British or American steelworks, he preferred to select Australians and send them overseas periodically. His candidates for promotion tended to be men in his own image—forceful production engineers—but he became increasingly aware of the value of basic training and in 1927 began what was probably the most stringent staff-training scheme yet attempted for an Australian company. He insisted that all junior technical officers who lacked the relevant diploma should study in their spare time. He did not, however, show the same zeal for research and was partly to blame for the company's slowness to equip a large laboratory.

Unlike Delprat, Lewis encouraged B.H.P. to develop its own steel-based industries, the profits from which proved vital in the 1920s. B.H.P. By Products Pty Ltd was set up in 1923 to sell crushed slag and tar to roadmakers; Ryland Bros (Australia), which made nails and wire products at Newcastle, was purchased in 1925; and the company bought shares in and eventually took control of the Melbourne-based Titan Manufacturing Co., the Commonwealth Steel Co. at Newcastle and Lysaght Bros & Co. at Parramatta. In persuading the company to acquire steel-consuming factories Lewis was able to restrict the expansion of the rival steelmakers G. & C. Hoskins. A merger with the Hoskins' Australian Iron & Steel Ltd in October 1935, with Darling as chairman and Lewis manager of the new subsidiary company, established Lewis indisputably as Australia's leading industrialist. He was much sought after by public committees. In 1929 he replaced Delprat on the council of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy and joined the executive of the Victorian Chamber of Manufactures. He was South Australian delegate to the Lawn Tennis Association of Australia in 1931. Later he became a member of the University of Melbourne's appointments board and in March 1938 he was appointed chairman of the Commonwealth Advisory Panel on Industrial Organization.

Lewis was not happy with the power of governments in wage-fixing and industrial disputes and he was also critical of high government borrowing. Jack Lang was his bête noire, for he considered Lang's economic policies were not merely unsound but immoral. To Lewis the Depression displayed the complete failure of democracy. To individuals whom he believed deserving he was unobtrusively generous at this time, but generally he accepted the Depression as a 'fiery furnace' which would purify the false values fostered since World War I: 'this period of adversity, although very unwelcome and unpleasant, is necessary to put us on a proper economic basis'. Events at B.H.P. seemed to justify his attitude, as the steelworks revealed their efficiency. In 1933-34 Newcastle produced a record tonnage of steel ingots and during his overseas tour of 1934 Lewis realized that his steelworks was now far ahead of most of its European rivals.

On his way to Europe and U.S.A., Lewis visited Japan and was disturbed to learn of the swift expansion of the Japanese steel and other strategic industries. He mentioned his uneasiness about Australian defence to (Sir) John Latham, then in Japan on a goodwill mission, and on 16 May wrote to Darling: 'Japan may be described as a big gun-powder magazine and the people as fanatics and any day the two might connect and there will be an explosion'. Within a day or two of leaving Japan he drew up a plan for his fellow directors to consider, urging the creation of big stockpiles of raw materials and the manufacture of munitions. He believed that B.H.P. could build ships at Walsh Island at Newcastle and could co-operate with other companies to build aircraft. In line with Lewis's formula B.H.P. in January 1935 formed a syndicate with Broken Hill Associated Smelters to build aircraft. Next year, having been joined by General Motors-Holden's Ltd and three other companies, they were registered as the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation, and set out to build Wirraways at Fishermens Bend, Melbourne. By this time B.H.P. at Newcastle was manufacturing shell cases for 18-pounder guns and anti-aircraft guns, building a shipyard at Whyalla, and organizing the Australian manufacture of special steel necessary to make machine tools.

During World War II Lewis wielded enormous power. He was already business consultant to the Department of Defence when (Sir) Robert Menzies in May 1940 offered him the position of director of munitions. The unlimited authority Lewis promptly assumed made him in fact an 'industrial dictator'. As permanent head of the new Department of Munitions he controlled the production of all ordnance, explosives, ammunition, small arms, aircraft and vehicles and all machinery and tools used in producing such munitions. He was given a seat on the Defence Committee and had the same access to War Cabinet as the chiefs of staff. Unlike them he was exempt from the rules that regulated officers of the Crown, in particular the Public Service Act (1922). Lewis was empowered to acquire compulsorily any materials or building which he needed; he could issue contracts with private firms without calling tenders; he could spend up to £250,000 on any project without approval and he could delegate and revoke responsibilities at will.

Lewis inherited an already efficient munitions concern and he adopted the organizational procedure devised by (Sir) John Jensen. He recruited private industrial leaders as a board of directors to work in partnership with senior civil servants and appointed N. K. S. Brodribb as his deputy. The others on the board were (Sir) Harold Clapp, Sir Colin Fraser, (Sir) Edward Nixon, William John Smith, T. Donaldson, (Sir) Laurence Hartnett, Colonel F. Thorpe and Ben Chifley, the last as director of labour. The directors conferred around a massive circular table; and Lewis listened carefully to the speakers, summed up the arguments and then announced his decision. His skill in winnowing the essential from the inessential was such that his judgements were not often queried.

A nation with a common purpose, displaying Lewis's own virtues of hard work and discipline, appealed to him; perhaps he was more at ease with his environment than he had ever been. He worked harder than ever, ignoring warnings that he might jeopardize his health, and even overcoming his hatred of publicity to speak on the national radio network in June 1940 and to the leading newspaper editors in July. He was not without his critics, and in August 1941—shortly before the fall of the Menzies government—Bert Evatt and John Beasley were particularly outspoken. Although he had vacated his seat on the board of B.H.P. in 1938, Lewis was still paid by the company, remaining a large shareholder and chief general manager. His personal assistants were B.H.P. men paid by B.H.P. These arrangements in fact reflected Lewis's desire to give rather than take during the nation's crisis (and B.H.P.'s profits fell rather than rose) but the situation lent itself to the cry that he who pays the piper calls the tune.

After Menzies's resignation Lewis had to deal with a Labor ministry. But there was no curtailment of his authority. Rather, Prime Minister John Curtin increased Lewis's power by appointing him director-general of the additional Department of Aircraft Production. In this capacity Lewis hastened the output of Beauforts to replace the outmoded Wirraways, and after the Japanese bombing of Darwin on 2 February 1942 he organized the production of the new Boomerangs.

The range of munitions produced by Lewis was astonishing in its variety and versatility. His factories made grenades, land-mines, ammunition of all types, .303 rifles, machine-and sub-machine guns, including the Owen gun, and several types of heavy guns. Sophisticated optical aids were produced. Post-war critics condemned the ambitious manufacture of, as it turned out, unused tanks and torpedoes, but Lewis, without the benefit of hindsight, planned for all contingencies. Much of Australia's industrial expansion after the war was based on wartime techniques which he introduced.

Lewis had not sought honours but many came to him. In 1940 he received the bronze medal of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy; in 1942 he was made an honorary member of the American Institute of Mining and Metallurgical Engineers; he was awarded the Kernot medal by the University of Melbourne in 1943 and the Bessemer gold medal by the Iron and Steel Institute, London, next year. He refused recommendation for a knighthood, but Curtin, lavish in his praise and diverging from party policy, initiated Lewis's appointment in 1943 as Companion of Honour.

By mid-1944 Lewis's main war tasks were over and in August he left for a gruelling overseas tour. He returned in March 1945 and resigned his government appointments on 28 May. He was once again the simple steelmaster, but his attitudes to politicians and government had been modified. The deep respect he had acquired for several of the Labor leaders and his belief that an independent nation ought to be able to defend itself and could only do so with a strong central government tempered his response to future economic regulation.

Expansion and efficiency continued to be his goals for B.H.P. He led in mechanizing the coal-mining industry; he opened new ironstone quarries at the back of Whyalla and a second source of iron ore at Yampi Sound, Western Australia; from 1948 he began developing a tinplate industry at Port Kembla. After Darling's death in January 1950 he rejoined the board and became chairman, stepping down to deputy chairman in July 1952. His influence permeated important projects outside B.H.P., including General Motors-Holden's first all-Australian cars in 1948, the long-range weapons project at Salisbury and Woomera, South Australia, in 1946. He served as chairman of the Industrial Design Council of Australia and of the Australian Administrative Staff College at Mount Eliza, Victoria. An honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of Science, he chaired the fifth Empire Mining and Metallurgical Congress which met in Australia and New Zealand in 1953. He was on the council of Clyde School.

The characteristics and values which made Lewis a success in business strained his social life. He was, essentially, lonely and austere. While his brothers had successful careers—James Brook (1877-1966) as a distinguished Adelaide ophthalmologist, Gilbert as an officer in the Indian Army, and Lancelot (1885-1938) as South Australian manager of Goldsbrough, Mort & Co. Ltd—it was Essington who was regarded as head of the family after his father's death in 1923. He practised a stern paternalism, expecting the same formality from his grandchildren as he had demanded from his children. Wealthy from the age of 45, he scorned to use his money simply to breed more wealth, having a strong suspicion of the flabbiness it often fostered; he gave away large sums but went to great lengths to redress petty dishonesties. Formal social occasions irked him. He belonged to many exclusive clubs: the Melbourne, Australian and West Brighton in Melbourne; the Union in Sydney; the Newcastle, Broken Hill and Adelaide clubs; the Weld in Perth; the Ranelagh in London; and more than a dozen fashionable sporting clubs. But he was never a devoted clubman. He had no interest in dress; he continued to wear his clothes after they had gone out of fashion and was as renowned for his aversion to white tie and tails as for the workman's grey sweatrag he brought to social gatherings. Prudish, he disliked swearing and sexual jokes; he disapproved of women smoking, drinking beer or whisky, using nail polish and wearing shorts or slacks.

The rare holidays which Lewis allowed himself he spent among men rather than with his family; in 1924 he made a motoring-tour of the Northern Territory with Darling, Walter Duncan and Robert Meares and he went again to Central Australia in 1929. His love for the isolated cattle-country never waned and in the 1950s he was a winter visitor to Liveringa Station in the Kimberley, Western Australia. He was an enthusiastic tree-planter; in 1934 he had imported the Athel pine from California as suitable for the harsh Whyalla climate and the tree became plentiful in many outback towns and on countless sheep and cattle stations.

In old age Lewis mellowed somewhat, spending more time at Landscape, the 3500-acre (1416 ha) property he had bought at Tallarook, Victoria, twenty years earlier. He was more considerate and gentle towards his wife before her death in 1954; she had made her own life in social work and had been appointed O.B.E. in 1950. In August 1959 Lewis granted his only personal interview to a journalist, Graham Perkin of the Age, and on his eightieth birthday newspapers throughout the country had long articles on him.

He had once remarked that he would like to die on horseback at Landscape and thus it was, on 2 October 1961. He had always shunned photographers, but now his photograph was on the front page of every daily newspaper. The Adelaide Advertiser reported his death as if he were royalty and at Burra where he was royalty the flags flew at half-mast. St John's Church, Toorak, Melbourne, was packed for his funeral; he was cremated. His estate, valued for probate at £98,483, was mainly left to his three daughters and two sons. None of his children sought a public life but a nephew Thomas Lancelot Lewis was premier of New South Wales in 1975-76.

Among Lewis's papers was found the simple text which had ruled his life: I AM WORK. By following this precept he had made B.H.P. one of the most efficient steel companies in the world, and his influence was felt in every industry and occupation. His work in munitions was a prerequisite for many of the complex manufacturing ventures developed in Australia in the 1940s and 1950s. There can be little doubt that but for his premonition of war in the 1930s and his rare talents and dedication as an organizer during the war, Australia would have played a lesser part in fighting the Japanese in the Pacific.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, The Steel Master (Melb, 1971) and for bibliography.

Citation details

Geoffrey Blainey and Ann G. Smith, 'Lewis, Essington (1881–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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