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Sir Herbert Horace (Bert) Olney (1875–1957)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published:

Sir Herbert Horace (Bert) Olney (1875-1957), manufacturer, politician and philanthropist, was born on 26 November 1875 at Ballarat, Victoria, eighth child of Charles Olney, produce merchant, and his wife Annie Elizabeth, née Capp, both English born. Educated at Macarthur Street State School and Ballarat College, Olney began work in 1891 as a chemist's clerk, after the financial crisis had ended plans to send him to the University of Melbourne. He was subsequently employed by an insurance agent and, in 1895, joined the Melbourne office of the Manchester Fire Assurance Co. He transferred to the Colonial Mutual Fire Insurance Co. Ltd and worked there as tariff clerk and insurance assessor for sixteen years. On 11 April 1898 at the Wesleyan Church, Preston, he married Annie Lizetta Trudgeon.

In 1911 Olney joined J. P. Howe to found the business of J. P. Howe & Co. Pty Ltd, manufacturers of enamelled and patent leather. The firm struggled until 1917, after which its association with H. J. Holden's motor-body-building business ensured good profits; by 1927 the company's Preston factory had 200 employees.

Olney's involvement in public life began at Preston where he lived until 1919. He was secretary in 1914 of the Preston Library Committee and of the influential Preston Advance Association. In 1927 he retired from business in order to devote his life to philanthropy. During the Depression years of 1930-31, now resident at Ivanhoe, Olney ran, for the Shire of Heidelberg, a well-organized relief scheme which provided work rather than the mere dole-payment. From 1934 hospital work took up the greater part of his time. His membership of the Victorian Hospital and Charities Board in 1934-48 included terms as chairman in 1940-43. He joined the board of the Dental Hospital of Melbourne in 1938 and was its president in 1945-57. He was also president of the Victorian Benevolent Home and Hospital (Mount Royal Hospital) for the Aged and Infirm (1934-57), the Airlie Maternity Hospital (1947-57) and of the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association (1944-52, 1953-56). He served on the board of management of the Queen's Memorial Hospital for Infectious Diseases in 1936-57 and was chairman in 1942-45. Olney was also chairman of the Zoological Board of Victoria in 1937-46, a trustee (1935-57) and chairman (1948-57) of Yarra Bend National Park Trust and chairman of the Rhyll and Phillip Island Koala Reserve trusts. In 1942, when he was knighted, he was a member of twenty-five committees, being president, chairman or convenor of twelve of them.

In June 1931 Olney stood successfully against Labor's William Beckett for the Legislative Council seat of Melbourne North. Although elected in the United Australia Party interest, Olney declared himself 'indifferent as to which side of the House I sit on so long as I can be helpful'. He saw his election as being of 'tremendous assistance' to his charitable work and cultivated good relations with politicians of all parties. His lobbying skills brought results. In 1941 he persuaded Premier (Sir) Albert Dunstan to make a public commitment to the construction of a new dental hospital; over the next sixteen years Olney fought to sustain the project against government indifference. In 1947, when the Airlie Maternity Hospital was threatened with closure, his negotiations with Premier John Cain secured its survival and expansion. His work behind the scenes was also largely responsible for legislation in 1933 creating the City of Heidelberg.

Olney's political views were liberal and conciliatory: he wished to 'level up' society. His manufacturing experience taught him that the Australian worker would 'never let you down' if given a 'fair deal'. An active member of the Anti-Sweating League, he believed workers should be encouraged to join unions and was 'rather proud' that his Preston factory had been totally unionized. His attitude to reform of the Legislative Council was more cautious. He narrowly failed to carry an amendment to the 1937 reform bill adding a referendum requirement to the deadlock provisions of the bill. Olney was a member of the Public Works Committee in 1935-43 and a parliamentary council-member of the University of Melbourne in 1939-43. He retired from parliament in June 1943.

Stocky with a round, open face, Bert Olney was a well-liked and kindly man whose favourite maxim was 'It can be done'. He was an active Freemason. Late in life he renewed his involvement with business by becoming chairman of Modern Plastic Products Pty Ltd and Saf-Pak (Aust.) Pty Ltd. He was an office-bearer of the Victorian Bowling Association and organized a popular annual tournament for charity.

Olney never retired from his hospital posts; he wanted to stay 'in harness'. He died suddenly at his Surrey Hills home on 20 July 1957 and after a service at Wesley Church, was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His wife and daughter survived him. Only days before his death the Sir Herbert Olney geriatric unit had opened at Mount Royal Hospital; it was the first of its kind in Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • H. W. Forster, Preston, Lands and People, 1838-1967 (Melb, 1968)
  • J. Uhl, Mount Royal Hospital: A Social History (Maryborough (Victoria), 1981)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 1931, p 2876, 1936, p 3646, 1943, p 3126
  • Heidelberg News, 26 Nov 1943, 26 July 1957
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Nov 1955, 22 July 1957
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Olney, Sir Herbert Horace (Bert) (1875–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


26 November, 1875
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


20 July, 1957 (aged 81)
Surrey Hills, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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