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Claude Massey (1889–1968)

by Chris Taylor

This article was published:

Claude Massey (1889-1968), public servant and inventor, was born on 1 November 1889 at Footscray, Melbourne, second son of Victorian-born parents Herbert John Massey, draper, and his wife Fanny, née Tolson. Claude left Footscray College at the age of 15 and was employed in the accountancy branch of the Victorian Railways. On 11 May 1905 he transferred to the Commonwealth Public Service. Joining the new naval administration in July 1911, he shifted to Sydney in 1914, but found that his duties prevented him from enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force. He studied at night, gaining a diploma in economics and commerce (1919) from the University of Sydney and qualifications in factory inspection and public health from Sydney Technical College.

In November 1917 Massey was promoted assistant victualling store officer, Royal Edward Victualling Yard, Darling Harbour. At St Peter's Anglican Church, Sydney, on 7 December 1918 he married Dorothy May Broadbent. He became officer-in-charge of the R.E.V.Y. in 1923. The yard bought goods from Australian growers and manufacturers, and supplied food, mess kits and clothing to naval ships and establishments. During the Depression, when the R.E.V.Y. was threatened with retrenchments and other cuts, Massey stressed its importance to Australia's security and independence.

Massey had studied naval logistics in Britain, Europe and the United States of America in 1923-25. He was seconded to Navy Office, Melbourne, as acting-director of victualling in 1926-28, and again from 1938. Early in World War II he invented a life-jacket which could be rapidly inflated and worn comfortably in most situations. Described as the 'Australian ''Mae West"', the jacket had a large flotation area around the chest which gave its wearers 'something of a pouter pigeon appearance'. His 'Mae West' saved the lives of countless Australian and allied servicemen. Massey donated the patent rights of his invention to the Commonwealth.

As chairman of the defence services foodstuffs committee (later defence foodstuffs advisory council), Massey advised the government in 1941 against purchasing the Abbco Bread Co. Pty Ltd; a royal commission dismissed allegations that he had demanded bribes to approve the sale. On loan to the Department of Commerce, in June 1943 he was appointed deputy controller-general of food and director-general of food supply. He helped to manage the production of food and its distribution to civilians and armed forces personnel.

In March 1946 Massey became Australian commissioner for Malaya, based in Singapore. He urged the Australian government to assume a larger role in the region, and advocated that the White Australia policy should be modified to allow limited Asian immigration. Appointed Australian minister to Egypt, he arrived in Cairo in March 1950. The plight of Palestinian refugees attracted his attention and he felt that world peace might be endangered if they were not found a homeland.

By late 1952 Massey had begun to show the first signs of Parkinson's disease. He left Egypt in April 1953 and spent his retirement in Sydney. In 1957 he was master of the Lane Cove Masonic lodge. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he died on 21 May 1968 at Collaroy and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • E. R. Walker, The Australian Economy in War and Reconstruction (NY, 1947)
  • G. H. Gill, Royal Australian Navy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1968)
  • MP 472/1, items 19/17/9030 and 19/21/8018, MP 692/1, item 569/219/144 and CRS A4231, ministerial dispatches from Singapore and Cairo (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Chris Taylor, 'Massey, Claude (1889–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 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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