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David York Syme (1876–1963)

by G. R. Henning

This article was published:

David York Syme (1876-1963), businessman, was born on 24 November 1876 at Williamstown, Melbourne, fourth child of David Yorke Syme, clerk and later shipowner, and his wife Mary Eliza, sister of (Sir) George Reid. Educated locally and at Scotch College, Melbourne, David worked in 1893 as a junior clerk in his father's Melbourne Steamship Co. and then gained experience with other firms. Appointed manager of M.S.Co. in Perth, Western Australia, in 1904, he returned to Melbourne as joint manager in 1909. On 10 December 1912 he married Jessie Mary Laycock with Presbyterian forms at Trinity Church, Camberwell.

During World War I Syme was chairman (1917-18) of the Australian Steamship Owners' Federation. He became general manager of M.S.Co. in 1918 and managing director in 1919. That year, as a member of the Commonwealth Shipping Board, he was appointed deputy controller of shipping and was later a member of the board's interstate central committee. When Prime Minister Hughes intervened in the marine engineers' strike of 1920, he summoned Syme and hastened the referral of the dispute to a tribunal. Syme was an Australian delegate to the International Conference of Shipowners (1921) which did the ensuing work of such previous maritime law conferences as the International London Convention (1914) and the Hague Rules (1921). Concentrating its effort on deck cargoes, load-lines and shipowners' liability, the conference succeeded in having regulations approved in these areas.

In 1932 Syme succeeded his father as chairman of the M.S.Co. In the same year he was appointed honorary consul for Japan in Melbourne, a position in which he took pride and from which he drew satisfaction. In October 1937, while visiting the Far East with his wife and daughters, he was granted an audience with the Emperor of Japan and met the Emperor's brother, Prince Chichibu. Both showed interest in Australia and Syme found them well informed. In November the Emperor conferred on Syme the Imperial Order of the Sacred Treasure (fourth class). Having ensured that an agreement for the purchase of that season's wool clip (500,000 bales) would be honoured, Syme went to Manchukuo (Manchuria) where he was impressed by development projects. On his return to Australia he became an apologist for the puppet state. Together with Japanese consulate officials in Melbourne, Syme received menacing letters and death threats after Japan's pact with Germany in October 1940.

From 1939 to 1945 Syme was a member of the Commonwealth Shipping Control Board which had wide-ranging powers over water transport. In 1942-45 he was appointed chairman of the New South Wales Cargo Control Committee. He was equally occupied with other problems of the industry, such as the change to diesel motors (which he had advocated since 1934), cargo pillaging and the shortage of skilled labour. After 1945 Syme helped to address issues like the shortfall in shipowners' wartime earnings, the effect of continuing pillaging on rising cargo-handling costs, and the slow shipping turnaround due to the shortage of wharf labourers.

A commissioner (1929-52) of the Melbourne Harbor Trust, Syme was an associate member (1936) of the Institute of Naval Architects (Great Britain). He sat on the board of several companies, including the National Bank of Australasia, the Mount Lyell Mining & Railway Co. Ltd and the Metropolitan Gas Co. Syme was also active in charitable and philanthropic work. For forty-four years a member of the board of management of the Royal Melbourne Hospital, he was an executive member of several other organizations and a benefactor of the Mission to Seamen. He belonged, as well, to Melbourne Rotary Club.

Predeceased by his wife, Syme died at his Kew home on 8 May 1963 and was cremated; two sons and two daughters survived him; his estate was sworn for probate at £165,188. With his death the shipping industry lost an autocratic financial magnate of 'acumen, rigid honesty and soundness', and an outstanding personality.

Select Bibliography

  • History of Scotch College, Melbourne, 1851-1925 (Melb, 1926)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Jan 1920, 26 Nov 1921, 20 Nov, 6 Dec 1937, 16 Feb, 5 Sept 1939, 14 Oct 1940, 3 Sept 1942, 25 Feb 1943, 28 Aug 1947, 24 Feb 1949, 30, 31 Aug 1951, 9 May 1963
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 26 Oct 1932, 10 Dec 1937
  • Herald (Melbourne), 1 Oct 1934, 15 Aug 1936
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 May 1963.

Citation details

G. R. Henning, 'Syme, David York (1876–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 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

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