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Orwell Phillips (1877–1957)

by Peter Spearritt

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Orwell Phillips (1877-1957), merchant and company director, was born on 30 June 1877 at Darlinghurst, Sydney, seventh child of Louis Phillips, London-born merchant, and his Tasmanian-born wife Clara, née Moss. Like three of his four brothers, he was educated at Sydney Grammar School (1892-95) where his prowess at running and hurdling caused surprise as he was 'short and sturdy' and sometimes called 'Tubby' Phillips.

A partnership in Chown Bros & Mullholland Ltd, galvanized iron and tinware manufacturers, was purchased for him by his father in 1899; he built up the business and was chairman from 1905 to 1957. On 20 August 1902 at St Kilda, Melbourne, he married Helene Florence Hart. From 1906 to 1929 they lived in one of Sydney's most notable nineteenth-century houses, Tusculum (1831), at Potts Point. In 1915 Phillips built Warrawong at Moss Vale as a country residence. He volunteered for service in World War I but was rejected on medical grounds.

Like his father, sometime president of the Great Synagogue, Phillips became a leader of Sydney's small Jewish community, centred in the eastern suburbs. His commercial prowess was noted by its financial doyen, a relation George Judah Cohen. When Cohen retired as chairman of Tooth & Co. Ltd, brewers, in 1929, Phillips was appointed a director. Other appointments to boards of companies chaired by Cohen followed—the United Insurance Co. Ltd (1936-56) and the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney (1936-51). After Cohen's death in 1937 Phillips shared the mantle of Sydney's leading Jewish businessman with Sir Samuel Cohen.

From 1937 Phillips served as chairman of Tooth's, and from 1947 as vice-chairman. Even at the height of his business career he shunned publicity. In the early post-war years he quietly campaigned for a reduction in beer excise, which, he suggested, made more than ample contribution to Commonwealth finances. During a long commercial career Phillips guided the destinies of some of Sydney's largest companies, and also served as director or chairman of Marrickville Margarine Co. Ltd (1908?-51), Marrickville Holdings Ltd (1951-57), the North Coast Steam Navigation Co. Ltd (1933-57), sundry small companies and as a director and later chairman of the family business of M. Moss & Co. Pty Ltd, general merchants.

Noted for his unobtrusive generosity, Phillips was a trustee of Sydney Grammar School from 1928 (chairman, 1949-51) and a director of the Royal Prince Alfred Hospital for thirty years. Active in and sometime president of the Prisoners' Aid Association, he observed foreign gaols while overseas with his family in 1931-32 and was greatly impressed by the Swedish system of teaching prisoners skilled trades. A 'constant and loyal worshipper' and staunch supporter of Jewish causes, Phillips sat on the board of management of the Great Synagogue for over forty years (president, 1924-28). Growing up in an Anglo-Jewish tradition, he was non- rather than anti-Zionist and regarded himself as a 'Jewish Australian' rather than an 'Australian Jew'.

Phillips died at his Darling Point home on 28 July 1957 and was buried in Rookwood cemetery. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and son Orwell, who became president of the Great Synagogue in 1982. His estate was valued for probate at over £500,000. (Sir) Norman Cowper in the Sydneian (December 1957) commented on Phillips:

He inherited wealth and increased it; but no one could have been less prideful in the possession of it or less under its domination. He was an unassuming and modest man. His sturdy figure, clear blue eyes, open countenance, even temper, good health and good humour made him agreeable to all.

Select Bibliography

  • Great Synagogue Congregational Journal, Sept 1957, 1982
  • Sydney Grammar School, Sydneian, Dec 1957
  • R.P.A., 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Feb 1931, 28 Oct 1932, 19 Jan 1933, 4 June 1936, 2 Dec 1937, 1 Dec 1938, 28 Nov 1940, 27 Nov 1941, 29 June, 28 Nov 1946, 18 Dec 1947, 13 May 1948, 7 Aug 1957
  • L. Phillips papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Phillips, Orwell (1877–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 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]


30 June, 1877
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


28 July, 1957 (aged 80)
Darling Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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