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Harold Neil (Neil) Smith (1907–1996)

by Patrick Buckridge and Peter Osborne

This article was published online in 2022

Harold Neil Smith (1907–1996), public servant, poet, and historian, was born on 21 January 1907 at Launceston, Tasmania, only son and second of three children of Tasmanian-born parents Harold Neil Smith, orchardist, and his wife Eliza Ida May, née Hardwicke. Educated at The Hutchins School in Hobart, Neil did well in sport and academically, gaining creditable results in the 1921 junior public examination. By 1925 he was studying for an arts degree at the University of Tasmania; he passed subjects in economics and English, but did not graduate; he also rowed (1927–28) for the university in intervarsity competitions. Concurrently, he progressed his compulsory military training, which he undertook with the Citizen Naval Forces; the navy was a career option he later regretted not pursuing.

Having been recruited as a worker aboard the Norwegian whaling factory ship Nielsen-Alonso, Smith embarked, in October 1928, on a four-month cruise to the Ross Sea, during which the ship resupplied Sir Hubert Wilkins in his pioneering aerial survey of Antarctica. The main purpose of the voyage, however, was commercial whale-hunting, and Smith would later advocate strongly, in newspaper articles and radio talks, for the development of a national whaling industry to compete with those of the Norwegians and Japanese. In 1929 he embarked on an even more challenging adventure, sailing first to Vancouver, Canada, and then up the west coast to Alaska, United States of America, prospecting in the Yukon and working his way through western regions of both countries.

After returning to Australia, Smith settled in Queensland. On 16 January 1932 at the Presbyterian Church, Currumbin, he married Lorna Bailes, from Palm Beach. Shortly afterwards they moved to Brisbane’s near North Coast, where Neil found ‘pick-and-shovel work’ (Advocate 1987, 17) with the Queensland Main Roads Commission, rising to clerk of works for the region. In 1935 he was transferred from Caboolture to Landsborough, and in 1937 to the commission’s head office in Brisbane. Part-time study at the University of Queensland (BA, 1939) occupied some of his leisure hours. He was to develop a long and close relationship with (Sir) John Kemp, the commissioner for main roads. When, in 1939, Kemp became the State’s co-ordinator-general of public works, he made Smith his assistant secretary. In 1942 Kemp assumed the World War II post of deputy director-general, Allied Works Council, Queensland. Smith joined the council’s staff and was given responsibility for liaison with local authorities.

In 1945 Smith was appointed as secretary to the State Electricity Commission, which was charged with the general direction, control, and development of the electricity industry throughout Queensland. On 12 October 1950 he succeeded S. F. Cochran as commissioner for electricity supply. One of the SEC’s priorities was to extend electrification in rural and regional areas, which was lagging behind other States. In 1952 the commission gained the power to engage in public borrowing to finance the expansion of supply. This innovation accelerated progress and marked the beginning of Smith’s ‘long and illustrious career at the head of the industry’ (Thomis 1990, 52), a hallmark of which was his loan-raising ability.

Another prime objective of the SEC was to assume public ownership of the industry and, concurrently, to rationalise the supply of electricity to Brisbane and surrounding areas, which had been divided for many years between the Brisbane City Council and the City Electric Light Co. Ltd. In 1952 Smith took a crucial step towards achieving this goal, with the conversion of the CEL into a public utility, the Southern Electric Authority of Queensland. The Brisbane duopoly persisted, however, until he finally succeeded in unifying supply in 1963, by severing the link between generation, which was ceded to the SEA, and distribution, for which the council acquired sole responsibility. That year the same model was applied in the north of the State, where the Northern Electric Authority of Queensland was created to consolidate generating capacity, while using the older regional electricity boards to operate and extend local distribution networks. In a public lecture, Smith called this ‘the most efficient structural organisation where distances are so great, and the economy so decentralised as in Queensland’ (1969, 24).

A firm believer in the use of ‘power and more power’ (Smith 1969, 24)—in industry and the home—as the only way to raise living standards, Smith oversaw the commissioning of new coal-fired power stations, including Bulimba B (1953–54), Tennyson (1955), and Swanbank (1967–70) in the south-east, Callide (1965) in Central Queensland, and Collinsville (1970) in the north; hydro-electric stations at Kareeya (1957), near Tully, and the Barron Gorge (1963), near Cairns; and the first gas turbine station in Australia, at Roma (1961). He also investigated and advocated the development of the State’s first pumped-hydro project at Wivenhoe; sought to create synergies with the big mining companies in the north; and, as one of his last actions as commissioner, proposed a government subsidy of $2000 per property to provide electricity to the few remote users still outside the vast regional network he had built. In 1970 he was elected as a companion of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, London, a category of membership for distinguished persons who were not electrical engineers. He was appointed ISO in 1972, immediately before retiring on his sixty-fifth birthday.

The previous year Smith had publicly reprimanded a mining lobbyist for asking whether one potential powerhouse site was more politically attractive than another. This consideration, he declared, had never been, and would never be, a factor in his decisions as commissioner. He had had to resist party-political pressures and inducements since the start of the Bjelke-Petersen administration in 1970 (Smith 2016).

For some years, the Smiths’ marriage had been unhappy, and in 1966 Lorna, who suffered recurrent psychiatric problems, took her own life. At St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Evandale, Tasmania, on 4 January 1967, Neil married Elizabeth (Betty) May Wallis, née Brodribb, whom he had known when they were young. On his retirement, they moved from Brisbane to Longford, near Launceston. Warmly welcomed into the local community, Smith threw himself with enthusiasm into the history and heritage of the district. He became an active member of the Norfolk Plains group of the National Trust of Australia (Tasmania), using his knowledge and negotiating skills to contribute to the preservation of many of Longford’s historic features and the recording of much of its history. His projects included the restoration of an 1897 iron horse trough and lamp standard. He researched and wrote ‘Longford Water: An Historical Sketch’ (1987) about the town’s water supply.

Described at the time of his retirement as ‘a brawny six-footer [183 cm] with hardly a grey hair’ (Courier-Mail 1972, 6), Smith wore a clipped moustache, smoked a pipe, and had a quietly spoken manner that belied a powerful and determined personality. His older son remembered him as somewhat aloof and a strict disciplinarian. A gentler aspect of his character appeared in his poetry, for which he won a Fellowship of Australian Writers award in 1978, and of which he self-published a slim volume, Small Occasions, in 1987. The poems—traditional in form and language—had appeared in journals over a sixty-year period, and are mainly lyrical reflections on the natural world (trees, birds, the sea), with a few personal love poems, and ‘Song of Rowing,’ which won the University of Queensland’s Ford memorial prize in 1936; it posed the whimsical question, ‘Did galley-slaves dream on Aegean Seas … That their sons would row for the love of rowing?’ (Smith 1987, 42). He died on 20 July 1996 at Longford and was cremated. His wife and the two sons of his first marriage survived him.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Advocate (Burnie, Tas.). ‘Small Occasions Should Inspire.’ 11 July 1987, 17
  • Chalmers, Sterry. Personal communication
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane). ‘State Is Losing Poet with a Talent for Power.’ 11 January 1972, 6
  • Smith, H. Neil. The Organisation of the Electricity Supply Industry in Queensland. Brisbane: H. N. Smith, 1969
  • Smith, Neil. Electricity in Queensland. Brisbane: Royal Australian Institute of Public Administration, 1988
  • Smith, Neil. Small Occasions. Longford, Tas.: Northcote Publishers, 1987
  • Smith (aka Maclulich), Noel. Interview by Peter Osborne, 28 October 2016. Notes. Copy held on ADB file
  • Thomis, Malcolm I. A History of the Electricity Supply Industry in Queensland. Vol. 2, 1838–1988. Brisbane: Boolarong Publications for Queensland Electricity Commission, 1990
  • Trust News Tasmania (National Trust of Australia (Tasmania)). ‘The Norfolk Plains Group.’ December 1996, 3

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Patrick Buckridge and Peter Osborne, 'Smith, Harold Neil (Neil) (1907–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 13 June 2024.

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