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Richard Charles Mills (1886–1952)

by P. D. Groenewegen

This article was published:

Richard Charles Mills (1886-1952), economist and educationist, was born on 8 March 1886 at Mooroopna, Victoria, third child of Victorian-born parents Samuel Mills, schoolteacher, and his wife Sarah, née Bray. Educated at University High School and Wesley College, he resided in Queen's College while studying law, history and political economy at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1909; LL.M., 1910). At the university he won sundry scholarships, was treasurer and secretary of his college sports and social club, prize orator of the William Quick Club, and first president of the Students' Representative Council in 1907. A good footballer, he played tennis and cricket well into middle age. He tutored at Queen's College in 1909-11 and in 1911 was university lecturer in constitutional history, law, Roman law and jurisprudence.

In 1912-15 Mills studied at the London School of Economics and Political Science, winning the Hutchinson medal and graduating D.Sc. in economics. His thesis, published as The Colonization of Australia 1829-42 (1915), gave a careful account of Edward Gibbon Wakefield's plan for scientific colonization and its Australian application, and examined Wakefield's views within a perspective of leading contemporary views on the political economy of colonies. He later wrote the introduction to the Everyman edition of Wakefield's A Letter from Sydney (London, 1929) and the entry on William Hearn for the Encyclopedia of Social Sciences (New York, 1932).

Mills had enlisted in the British Expeditionary Force on 10 December 1915, and after attending the Inns of Court Officers' Training Corps and various cadet schools, was commissioned in October 1916. Before embarkation for France he married Helen Elizabeth Crawford at Ballymena, Antrim, Ireland, on 14 October. He served with the 61st Siege Battery in France and Belgium from 22 October until 17 February 1919 and was acting captain from 15 May 1917, gassed at Armentières on 9 April 1918 and mentioned in dispatches. Returning to Melbourne, he tutored in history at Queen's College in 1919 and served on the Victorian royal commission on high prices.

In 1921 Mills lectured in economics and commerce at the University of Sydney and from 1922 until 1945 was professor of economics and dean of the faculty. During the 1920s and 1930s he built up the school by appointing Frederic Benham as lecturer and later employed Sydney graduates but, recalling his own valuable postgraduate experience in London, appointed them as temporary lecturers only until they had completed advanced studies overseas. As dean, Mills laid the foundations for curriculum and staffing developments until the early 1950s. The university senate claimed that his faculty 'became the leading economics school in Australia'.

In 1924 Mills helped to establish the Economic Society of Australia and New Zealand, acting as chief adviser to the editor of its journal, the Economic Record, to which he contributed many articles. With Benham, in 1925 he published a textbook, The Principles of Money, Banking, and Foreign Exchange, and their Application to Australia, and acknowledged J. M. Keynes and Edwin Cannan as major influences. In the thirteenth Joseph Fisher lecture, Public Finance in Relation to Commerce (Adelaide, 1929), Mills put forward the then unusual view that taxes might have purposes other than raising revenue. He opposed income tax duplication by the Commonwealth and States and defended in general the appropriateness of individual and business income taxation. His second text, Money, published in 1935 with (Sir) Ronald Walker, went through thirteen editions and was used until the mid-1950s. Among the reasons for its success was its claim to be the first Australian text presenting Keynes's new theories. It remains historically and biographically interesting as later editions record Mills's views on the recommendations of the 1935 royal commission on monetary and banking systems.

A talented administrator, Mills was elected chairman of the university professorial board for four successive terms (1933-41) and was a member of the university senate in 1934-46, where he became 'a powerful figure, prominent in a number of battles'. His success arose partly from skills in 'drafting rapidly and clearly the general sense of a meeting with which he was not necessarily in accord', a talent of even greater importance in drafting government reports which occupied him from 1941 onwards.

Mills had served on the economic commission on the Queensland basic wage in 1925. However, with his wife and children, he was in the United States of America as a Carnegie visiting professor in 1930 and temporarily escaped being drawn into Depression tasks. In 1932 he was appointed to a committee to prepare a preliminary survey of Australia's Depression-induced economic problems, and in 1932-36 acted as consultant to the New South Wales Treasury and adviser to Premier (Sir) Bertram Stevens.

With Ben Chifley and others Mills was a member of the royal commission appointed in November 1935 to inquire into the monetary and banking systems. He greatly influenced the structure and large parts of the initial draft of its report, and was appointed O.B.E. in 1936. Since the commission's recommendations were largely implemented in 1945, Syd Butlin did not exaggerate when he described the effects of Mills's membership as 'deep and long lasting'. Moreover, Mills gained Chifley's friendship which from 1941 involved him increasingly in public service.

Even more enduring was his work as chairman of the Commonwealth Committee on Uniform Taxation in 1942 in replacing the existing 'eleven [State] taxes on income at widely differing rates' with a uniform Federal income tax, generating significant ideas for income tax legislation and laying the foundations for financial compensation for the States. The last connected with his work as chairman in 1941-45 of the Commonwealth Grants Commission, which considered applications from the States for financial assistance.

However Mills's most important contribution was his administration of Commonwealth education policy in its initial phase of substantial financial involvement with the universities. This grew out of Commonwealth war activities in research, technical training and education schemes for servicemen. Mills resigned from the university in 1945 to become full-time chairman of the Universities Commission and director of the new Commonwealth Office of Education. In 1947 he chaired the interim council which established the Australian National University and in 1949 persuaded Chifley of the importance of continuing financial assistance for university students beyond repatriation requirements, thereby fathering the Commonwealth scholarships scheme.

In 1950 Mills chaired a special committee on the financing of universities which recommended a grants system allowing them not only to meet their existing commitments, but also to expand their teaching and research and to lift academic standards. (Sir) Robert Menzies saw this as a most significant development in his term as prime minister. As director of the Commonwealth Office of Education Mills was responsible for activities ranging from the administration of Aboriginal schools in the Northern Territory to Australia's involvement with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and other forms of overseas educational aid.

Mills was 'tall and dignified in person' and 'commanded the respect of strangers by his appearance and bearing'. He had 'great personal charm and wit', a love of literature, poetry and the theatre, and expertise at bridge. In the 1930s he revealed his humour in a weekly column, 'Diary of a Doctor who was Told', a parody of another column also in the Sunday Sun, and anonymously published short stories. For most of his married life he lived at Mosman.

Having suffered for years from chronic nephritis and arteriosclerosis, Mills died in hospital at Mosman on 6 August 1952 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife, two daughters and two sons survived him. He left his estate, valued for probate at £12,669, to his wife. The tribute passed by Sydney's faculty of economics on his death records that Mills 'spent himself to the limits of his capacity in the service of his university and country'. The University of Sydney inaugurated the R. C. Mills memorial lecture in his honour in 1957.

Select Bibliography

  • G. E. Hall and A. Cousins (eds), Book of Remembrance of the University of Sydney in the War 1914-1918 (Syd, 1939)
  • S. J. Butlin, War Economy, 1939-1942 (Canb, 1955)
  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • R. G. Menzies, The Measure of the Years (Melb, 1970)
  • W. Prest and R. L. Mathews (eds), The Development of Australian Fiscal Federalism (Canb, 1979)
  • Economic Record, 1, no 3, Nov 1925, 23, no 2, June 1947, 28, no 3, Nov 1952, S. J. Butlin, ‘Richard Charles Mills’, 29, no 3, Nov 1953, and for publications, 60, no 171, Dec 1984
  • Faculty of Economics, Univ Syd, Economic Review '70 Jubilee Issue, Aug 1970
  • Australian Economic History Review, 22, no 2, Sept 1983
  • University of Sydney, Faculty of Economics minutes, 1933-52 and Professorial Board minutes, 11 Aug 1952 and Senate minutes, 8 Sept 1952 (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

P. D. Groenewegen, 'Mills, Richard Charles (1886–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 21 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 March, 1886
Mooroopna, Victoria, Australia


6 August, 1952 (aged 66)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.