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Sir William Walter Pettingell (1914–1987)

by Rosemary Broomham

This article was published:

Sir William Walter Pettingell (1914-1987), industrial chemist and businessman, was born on 4 September 1914 at Corrimal, New South Wales, son of New South Wales-born parents Harley George William Pettingell, cokeworker, and his wife Barbara Ellen, née Woods.  William was educated at Wollongong High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1934).  A seminal influence was an article by Sir Charles Parsons, the British inventor of the steam turbine, urging professionals to become involved in business management.  In 1935 Pettingell joined the Australian Gas Light Co. in a temporary position, and next year became a research chemist.  He married Thora May Stokes, a machine operator, on 28 March 1942 at St Michael’s Church of England, Vaucluse.  Following his promotion to production engineer in 1948, he rose rapidly to become works manager in 1950, assistant general manager (technical) in 1951 and general manager in 1952.

Talented, vigorous and forward thinking, Pettingell demonstrated a positive outlook and an indomitable will.  His first major achievement as general manager was to reverse the belief that the gas industry was headed for extinction.  He brought AGL back from the brink of collapse in spite of strikes at the works and the mines.  Blaming 'the Communist element' for the industrial instability, he appointed strong supervisors and foremen, extended superannuation to the wages staff and reduced payments to strike breakers.  Labour problems further dissipated when inadequate coal supplies made the gasworkers fear for their jobs.  Increased mechanisation and the use of petroleum products reduced the company’s reliance on both manual labour and coal.

Pettingell took risks.  Using borrowed money, he modernised the AGL fleet and service outlets and improved communication through radio and telephone.  He extended gas distribution to the fast-growing new suburbs, absorbed smaller gas enterprises and took AGL into associated fields such as bottled liquefied petroleum gas, housing developments and oil and gas exploration.  As chairman of the Australian Institute of Management advisory panel in 1958, he spurned the conventional view that Australia should concentrate on primary produce and passionately supported rapid growth of the industrial sector.  He was appointed OBE in 1959.  The next year he entered the field of town planning as provisional chairman of a businessmen’s group, the Sydney City and Metropolitan Development Association, which aimed to replace the many sub-standard dwellings in Sydney’s inner suburbs with modern buildings.

Realising that survival of the gas industry depended on natural gas, in 1961 Pettingell predicted that AGL would bring it to New South Wales—by sea if necessary. He chaired the Coal Utilization Research Advisory Committee (1959-62) and the Industries Promotion Advisory Council of New South Wales (from 1962).  In 1961 he joined the board of the Reserve Bank of Australia.  Appointed CBE in 1965, Pettingell served (1965-67) as president of the Chamber of Manufactures of New South Wales; he began to comment publicly on political matters such as federal budgets and wage awards.  In 1967-68 he was president of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia.  A fellow (1965-67) of the senate of the University of Sydney, he was president (1967-75) of the New South Wales Universities Board and he joined the new Higher Education Board in 1976.

When the State government removed the Sydney City Council in 1967, Pettingell was one of three commissioners appointed to support the master plan produced by the State Planning Authority of New South Wales.  Together with the former commissioner for main roads and SPA member, J. A. L. Shaw, and (Sir) Vernon Treatt, Pettingell passed hundreds of development applications before the restoration of a less development-oriented council in 1969.  He won the Sir John Storey medal for scientific management that year.  As chairman (1970-77) of the Sydney Cove Redevelopment Authority he planned to make the Rocks area into a high-rise business and tourist centre, a concept that threatened to destroy Sydney’s oldest residential area.  An alliance of residents and the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation saved the housing but the authority did demolish many old commercial properties in George Street north.

Pettingell’s dream of bringing natural gas to New South Wales proved difficult to achieve.  Although AGL was writing a manual for converting appliances to use natural gas and had planned the pipeline, the high price that Victoria paid for Bass Strait gas in 1967 made its purchase uneconomic.  New South Wales had to wait; Pettingell contracted to obtain natural gas from Moomba, South Australia, in 1971.  The company subsequently contracted for a pipeline but the Federal Labor government thwarted his plans when it took over AGL’s Moomba-Sydney transmission line in March 1973.  The State government caused further delays by changing the route.

Knighted in 1972, Pettingell retired from his position as AGL general manager in February 1974.  He continued to guide the company as a board member (deputy-chairman in 1977-86).  In his new role of company director, he had already joined Australian Consolidated Industries Ltd and St Regis-ACI Pty Ltd, while retaining his position at the Reserve Bank.  Deputy-chairman (later chairman) of Hanimex Corporation Ltd and of Manufacturers’ Mutual Insurance Ltd, he joined Coal & Allied Industries Ltd’s board in 1974, the Foreign Investment Review Board in 1976, the board of Santos Ltd in 1979, and later chaired such companies as Leighton Holdings Ltd, Blackwood Hodge (Aust.) (Pty) Ltd, Phoenix Prudential Australia Ltd and ACI International Ltd.  Pettingell’s dream of delivering a clean modern fuel to Sydney was realised on 24 December 1976, when natural gas finally reached the Mortlake gasworks.

Intelligent, enthusiastic and progressive, Pettingell enjoyed good relationships with staff members, whom he encouraged to use their own initiative.  Although a hard worker, he sailed his yacht on Sydney Harbour most weekends and was a regular participant in the annual Sydney-Hobart yacht race.  He led the appeal for restoration of the barque James Craig and supported the Gretel II syndicate in its America’s Cup challenge in 1977.  Golf was another recreational interest.  Survived by his wife and their son and two daughters, Sir William Pettingell died on 27 January 1987 at St Leonards and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Broomham, First Light: 150 Years of Gas (1987)
  • Australian Gas Light Co, Annual Report, 1987, Biographies of CEOs and p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 February 1974, p 14, 28 January 1987, p 4, 16-17 July 2005, 'Spectrum', p 27
  • Australian, 28 January 1987, p 18
  • Australian Financial Review, 28 January 1987, p 16
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Rosemary Broomham, 'Pettingell, Sir William Walter (1914–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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