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Arthur Sydney Victor Smith (1893–1971)

by Judy Poulos

This article was published:

Arthur Sydney Victor Smith (1893-1971), public servant and businessman, was born on 22 January 1893 at Coburg, Melbourne, son of Victorian-born parents Oscar Victor Smith, printer, and his wife Mary, née Collins. Arthur began work at the age of 14 as a telegraph messenger in the Postmaster-General's Department and transferred to the Department of Defence in 1910. At St John's Church of England, Sorrento, on 11 June 1918 he married Gladys Lavina Muriel Ford, a typiste. On being appointed secretary of the Contract Board in 1925, he began a long association with (Sir) John Jensen and A. E. Leighton.

In 1933 Smith became secretary of the Principal Supply Officers' Committee. He was to play a key role in planning Australia's industrial mobilization in the event of war. Promoted departmental assistant-secretary in 1938, he moved to the new Department of Supply and Development in the following year. When World War II broke out, he was chairman of the Contract Board, and a member of the Factories Board and the Defence Supply Planning Committee. From 1940 he was also a member of the Aircraft Production Commission. Smith travelled to New Delhi in October 1940 as a member of the Australian delegation to the Eastern Group Conference, and revisited India in 1941 to assist Sir Bertram Stevens in forming the Australian section of the Eastern Group Supply Council which co-ordinated logistic support for the war effort. An unpretentious man, Smith responded to a request from Indian officials for biographical details: 'I was born in Carlton, educated in Fitzroy, and by choice . . . should still be living in Footscray'.

On 1 July 1941 Smith was appointed secretary of the Department of Supply and Development (Supply and Shipping from 1942). With an annual expenditure of over £200 million, the department was responsible for the control of shipping and navigation, the supply of stores and materials (other than munitions) to meet defence and civilian requirements, the production and export of minerals, and the management of liquid fuels, coal and goods in short supply. It also monitored the nation's industrial capacity.

In March 1942 Smith accompanied Dr H. V. Evatt to Washington in an effort to secure greater collaboration between the United States of America, Britain and Australia in fighting the war in the Pacific. The mission led to the establishment of the Pacific War Council. While Evatt proceeded to London, Smith remained in Washington as Australia's representative at council meetings, and communicated directly with Prime Minister John Curtin on the acquisition of equipment and supplies for Australia's armed forces. Allan Dalziel considered that Smith's and W. S. Robinson's efforts to negotiate with American supply and service chiefs, to obtain shipping space, and to speed up production of essential equipment were 'invaluable factors in Australia's race against time as the Japanese drew nearer'.

Back home in June 1942, Smith served as chairman of the Allied Supply Council, as secretary of the Standing Committee on Liquid Fuels, and as a member of the Allied Consultative Shipping Council and the Oil Advisory Committee. Appointed chairman of the Commonwealth Disposals Commission in 1944, he oversaw the sale of surplus matériel. He resigned from the public service in April 1945 on the grounds of ill health.

Moving to Sydney, Smith became a director of a number of companies, among them Electricity Meter & Allied Industries Ltd, Associated Rural Industries Ltd and Petroleum & Chemical Corporation (Australia) Ltd. Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies appointed him to the National Security Resources Board in 1950 and, next year, informally commissioned him to investigate security resource management in the United States. In 1951 Smith was appointed C.B.E. Two years later he was engaged as business adviser to the minister for supply on matters relating to long-range weapons projects.

Smith was stocky in build and had a distinctive walk—'a sort of deep sea roll of the shoulders with a habit of carrying his head forward in a semi-aggressive manner'. He was 'a clear thinker, and a quick thinker, with no trace of swank in his make-up' and a smile which came 'suddenly and cordially'. A trusted and competent official, he typified the group of able public servants who had administered Australia's war effort in 1939-45. Survived by his wife and their son, he died on 9 February 1971 at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $250,557.

Select Bibliography

  • S. J. Butlin, War Economy 1939-1942 (Canb, 1955)
  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • A. Dalziel, Evatt the Enigma (Melb, 1967)
  • T. Lawrence, The Department of Supply, Its Origins and Functions (Canb, 1971)
  • S. J. Butlin and C. B. Schedvin, War Economy 1942-1945 (Canb, 1977)
  • A. T. Ross, Armed and Ready (Syd, 1995)
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 29 May 1943.

Citation details

Judy Poulos, 'Smith, Arthur Sydney Victor (1893–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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