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Robert Ellersleigh Nixon-Smith (1890–1947)

by John Laverty

This article was published:

Robert Ellersleigh Nixon-Smith (1890-1947), by unknown photographer

Robert Ellersleigh Nixon-Smith (1890-1947), by unknown photographer

Brisbane City Council Library, BCC-B120-32907

Robert Ellersleigh Nixon-Smith (1890-1947), businessman, was born on 14 April 1890 in South Brisbane, son of John Nixon Smith, an English-born commercial traveller, and his wife Zara Blanche Barbara, née McDonnell, who came from Melbourne. Educated at state and private schools, Robert began work in 1907 with the Australasian United Steam Navigation Co. From 1911 he was employed as a commercial traveller, first with Thomas Heaslop & Co. and then with Thomas Brown & Sons. In 1914 he set up a general broking business with W. H. Espenett. At St Andrew's Anglican Church, South Brisbane, on 3 September 1913 Smith had married Florence Margaret Akes; they had four children before she divorced him in August 1920. Styling himself Nixon-Smith, he married Genevra Mary Mabel Cross on 21 December that year at St Mary's Church, Kangaroo Point.

After becoming a shipping agent for A. H. Hassell, Nixon-Smith had formed a partnership with William Bellgrove on 5 June 1920. The Brisbane City Council leased them sections 2 and 3 of the Circular Quay wharves at Petrie Bight in June 1921. Severing their relationship with Hassell, they took over as agents for James Patrick Steamship Co. Pty Ltd. Nixon-Smith acquired Bellgrove's share of their joint assets, and the partnership ended in December. In 1923 the Nixon-Smith Shipping & Wool Dumping Co. Pty Ltd was established with a capital of £75,000. Next year the firm secured the agency for Messageries Maritimes. Nixon-Smith's company prospered. In 1928 the council extended his lease to include section 4 of the Circular Quay wharves.

In the 1930s and 1940s the company's business declined. Construction of the Story Bridge at Kangaroo Point disrupted shipping at Circular Quay, and the wool-trade eventually moved downriver to New Farm, Teneriffe and Newstead. Nixon-Smith had a sharp eye for new opportunities, and pursued them with determination. In addition to being managing director of his shipping firm, he was Queensland manager of James Patrick & Co. Ltd, director of Circular Quay Stevedoring Pty Ltd and the local director of the Liverpool & London & Globe Insurance Co. He was also founder and managing director of the Sumana Pastoral Co. of Central Queensland, and a member of the Brisbane Chamber of Commerce. In October 1934 he was appointed consular agent in Brisbane for France. The French government conferred on him the Palmes Académiques.

Nixon-Smith had entered municipal politics in 1931 at a time when the 'Greater Brisbane' concept had come under attack, the Brisbane City Council had fallen into debt and the Depression had severely cut revenues. Non-Labor forces fragmented into the Civic Reform League, the National Citizens' Party and the Progress Party. Standing for Logan Ward, Nixon-Smith was one of only two National Citizen candidates elected. Although conservative aldermen constituted an overall majority, the Nationalist and Progress parties combined with Labor to keep the Civic Reformers (the most numerous conservative group) out of office. Nixon-Smith was elected vice-mayor and executive-member for the transit, electric-light and power-house departments. Firm and capable, he upheld the interests of the city and the ratepayers. He played a leading role in unifying the non-Labor parties, but was defeated in the 1934 elections.

A big man with an imposing presence, 'Leigh' Nixon-Smith gave the impression of being larger then life, yet he retained the ability to make people feel at ease and important. He was kind and generous to those close to him and equally charitable to strangers in need. A warden of St Stephen's Anglican Church, Coorparoo, and a member of the Brisbane diocesan synod and council, he made fund-raising his forte, especially for the Church of England Grammar School, East Brisbane, of which he was a councillor (1934-47). Nixon-Smith was a keen sportsman: he served on the council of the Queensland Amateur Boxing and Wrestling Union, and belonged to the Royal Queensland Yacht and Brisbane Golf clubs. His other pastimes included fishing and gardening. He died of septicaemia on 22 June 1947 at Beerwah Private Hospital and was cremated; his wife and one of their two sons survived him, as did the two sons and two daughters of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Men of Queensland (Brisb, 1929, 1937)
  • Queensland and Queenslanders (Brisb, 1936)
  • G. Greenwood and J. Laverty, Brisbane 1859-1959 (Brisb, 1959)
  • J. R. Cole, The Making of Men (Brisb, 1986)
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 23 June 1947
  • Brisbane City Council minutes, 1920-21, 1928, 1948, 1970-71 (Town Hall, Brisbane)
  • Brisbane City Council newsclippings book, 1932-35 (Brisbane Central City Library)
  • Register of Companies 24/17-34/21, 5 June 1917-5 May 1921, A/18945
  • Principal Register of Firms, Card Register of Brisbane and Country Firms, 1903-42 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

John Laverty, 'Nixon-Smith, Robert Ellersleigh (1890–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Robert Ellersleigh Nixon-Smith (1890-1947), by unknown photographer

Robert Ellersleigh Nixon-Smith (1890-1947), by unknown photographer

Brisbane City Council Library, BCC-B120-32907

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Smith, Robert

14 April, 1890
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


22 June, 1947 (aged 57)
Beerwah, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.