Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Spence (1878–1949)

by Ross Curnow

This article was published:

John Spence (1878-1949), by unknown photographer

John Spence (1878-1949), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 32562

John Spence (1878-1949), public servant, was born on 6 January 1878 at Riccarton, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of John Spence, machinist, and his wife Mary, née Kelly. Migrating with his family, he came to New South Wales when he was aged 8 and was later sent to Sydney Boys' High School. He joined the Department of Public Instruction as a pupil-teacher in September 1894 and in June 1897 transferred to the clerical branch of the Department of Public Works.

The period of his initiation in the clerical relieving staff was turbulent due to the methods adopted by the new Public Service Board which were 'vigorous to the point of ruthlessness'. As clerk-in-charge of correspondence and records in the Stores Supply Department (1900-12), Spence took an interest in modern filing systems and office management. In 1901 he enrolled part-time at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1904; LL.B., 1909). President of the Evening Students' Association, he won the (Sir) Wigram Allen scholarship (1906). He married Ethel May Cooke on 26 January 1909 at the Congregational Church, Woollahra, and was admitted to the Bar on 6 May.

His promotions were rapid. A council-member of the Public Service Association of New South Wales, in 1913 Spence was appointed manager of the building construction branch in the Department of Public Works; in 1915 he was seconded as chief accountant with Norton, Griffiths & Co. until its controversial financial contract with the government was cancelled in 1917. Spence filled various positions in the works department before becoming chief accountant in 1918. Although he joined the Public Service Board as senior inspector in 1919, he retained links with public works and served on numerous public service boards and committees, among them the Stores Supply and Tender Board and the Railway Service Superannuation Board (1922-25). He was made acting government printer in 1922, and promoted to director of finance in the Treasury in 1923 and to the Public Service Board in 1924.

Auditor-general from 1928, Spence was no entrepreneurial administrator: his reports showed painstaking attention to detail; he was prepared to speak plainly, supported by a sense of the moral responsibility of his position; his conduct during the economic and political uncertainties of the Depression secured his reputation for integrity and trustworthiness. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1936. Chairman of the Treasury Insurance Board (1922-25), the State budget (1928) and the taxation investigation (1933-36) committees, he was also a member of the Board of Referees under the War-Time (Company) Tax Assessment Act of 1941.

Retiring in December 1941, Spence practised as a consulting accountant and was a director of various companies, including Nestlé and Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Co. (Australasia) Ltd, Australia Silknit Ltd and Automatic Totalisators Ltd. He was chairman of Prince Henry Hospital and a trustee of the Australian Museum, Sydney. A good Scots-Australian, he enjoyed both golf and surfing. Survived by his wife and three daughters, Spence died at his Killara home on 26 June 1949 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was valued for probate at £10,028.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Eedy (ed), Official Opening of the New School, Moore Park, Sydney, June 9, 1928 (Syd, 1928)
  • H. H. Wiedersehn, Outline History of the Sydney High School, its Records and Achievements, 1883-1933 (Syd, 1933)
  • Public Service Journal (New South Wales), 15 Dec 1924, p 623
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 May 1922, 17 Mar 1923, 29, 30 Nov 1928, 1 Jan 1936, 17 Nov 1938, 10 June, 2 Oct, 24 Dec 1941, 1 Feb 1943.

Citation details

Ross Curnow, 'Spence, John (1878–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Spence (1878-1949), by unknown photographer

John Spence (1878-1949), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 32562

Life Summary [details]


6 January, 1878
Riccarton, Ayrshire, Scotland


26 June, 1949 (aged 71)
Killara, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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