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Sir James Vernon (1910–2000)

by Lyndon Megarrity

This article was published online in 2023

Sir James Vernon, 1973

Sir James Vernon, 1973

Noel Butlin Archives, Z638-51-5094

Sir James Vernon (1910–2000), industrial chemist and company director, was born on 13 June 1910 at Tamworth, New South Wales, younger child of Donald Vernon, crown land agent, and his wife Eleanor Naunton, née Tyrell, both born in country New South Wales. In 1914 the New South Wales Department of Lands transferred Donald Vernon to Dubbo, where James attended Dubbo Public and High schools. Following the family’s return to Tamworth in 1926, he was enrolled at Tamworth High School (dux 1927), where he achieved Leaving certificate distinctions in maths and chemistry and was known by friends as ‘a good companion and a keen cricketer’ (THS 1969, 36).

In 1928 Vernon moved to Sydney to take up a position as a junior chemist with the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. Ltd (CSR). He was to spend the next fifty-four years working for the company and later reflected: ‘I was a part of CSR. It didn’t occur to me to go anywhere else. There was the ever-present feeling that I was taking part in the development of a great Australian company, working with people with whom I shared a common view’ (Burrell 2000, 20).

The 1930s were pivotal years for Vernon, both personally and professionally. On 18 January 1936, at the District Registrar’s Office, Chatswood, he married Mavis Patterson Lonsdale-Smith, a kindergarten teacher. Clearly an ambitious young man, he studied chemistry at the Sydney Technical College (1931) then enrolled at the University of Sydney (BSc, 1935), where he was awarded the Slade prizes for chemistry and physics in 1933. CSR arranged for him to gain further education at the Berlin Sugar Institute in 1936, and at University College, London (PhD, 1938), where he wrote a thesis on ‘The Velocity of the Crystallisation of Sucrose.’ Returning home in late 1938, he became chief chemist (1938–51) at CSR.

Vernon began to develop links with Commonwealth politicians and public servants during World War II. In 1942 the Curtin Labor government commissioned him and Eric Ashby, professor of botany at the University of Sydney, to investigate Australia’s scientific resources and their application to the war effort. Ashby and Vernon’s survey suggested that the armed services and other institutions requiring scientific assistance needed to be more quickly and efficiently placed in touch with the appropriate experts. Their recommendations resulted in the establishment of the Scientific Liaison Bureau, which provided military and business inquirers with information services and details of relevant scientific organisations

After the war, Vernon increasingly took on leadership responsibilities at CSR. When the company acquired a large interest in the chemical company Robert Corbett Pty Ltd in 1948, he was appointed managing director in addition to his role as CSR’s chief chemist. He rose quickly in the CSR company hierarchy, filling the positions of senior executive officer (1951–56), assistant general manager (1956–57), and general manager and board member from 1958.

Vernon’s major contribution as general manager was the diversification of CSR’s operations. Concerned about Britain’s intention to enter the European Economic Community, he and his leadership team secured significant new markets for Australian sugar during the 1960s, especially in Japan. Furthermore, his colleague Don Brown recalled he ‘was always looking for ways of hedging CSR’s position against sugar’ (Sykes 2000, 20). By 1972 the company was profiting from building materials, chemicals, shipping, distillery products, quarrying, and ready mixed concrete, and from services and investments. Vernon also encouraged CSR’s increasing involvement in the mining industry, conducting complex negotiations with overseas interests, Australian companies, and the Commonwealth government over major ventures. Partly through his initiative, CSR profited from its investment in two of Australia’s most ambitious mineral projects of the 1960s, at Mount Newman, Western Australia (iron ore), and Gove Peninsula, Northern Territory (bauxite and alumina).

Colleagues at CSR described Vernon as a kindly man who was calmness personified: ‘He has a habit of sitting back in his chair and filling his pipe while he considers your questions. Once he has his answer he talks quickly, with a distinctive, deep tone. He helps you relax’ (Sykes 2000, 20). He was nevertheless a man of strong views. In 1952 he publicly criticised what he regarded as high levels of taxation on private industry, believing it to be a deterrent to investment in labour-saving manufacturing technologies. A decade later he sounded a warning that Australia could no longer depend on primary products ‘to satisfy its ambitions for growth, for a rising population, for full employment and a rising standard of living,’ adding that a long-term policy of industrialisation with the assistance of economic protection ‘must be placed at the head of our national policies and kept there’ (Canberra Times 1962, 6).

Appointed OBE in 1960 and raised to CBE in 1962, Vernon was prominent in public life as a business leader and through his membership of various organisations, including the Australian Universities Commission (1959–71) and the advisory council of the Commonwealth Scientific Industrial and Research Organisation (1956–59). His most prominent role was as chairman of the Committee of Economic Inquiry (1963–65), which became known as the Vernon Committee. Commissioned by the Federal government led by Sir Robert Menzies, it was designed to inquire into various aspects of the Australian economy ‘having in mind … the objectives of the Government’s economic policy’ (Aust. HOR 1965, 1078), including high rates of economic and population growth, rising standards of living, and price stability.

The work of the Vernon committee was heavily influenced by its vice-chairman, the economist and former secretary of the Department of Trade Sir John Crawford, whose proposed appointment as chairman had earlier been opposed by the Department of the Treasury. The report received a frosty reception from the Menzies government. In a parliamentary statement on 21 September 1965, the prime minister politely but firmly dismissed the substance of the report, which among other things recommended tax concessions for business to encourage manufacturing, a target population growth of no more than one hundred thousand per annum, and more economically efficient use of protective tariffs. Menzies’s decision to shelve the report was influenced by the Treasury, which felt threatened by the proposed independent Advisory Council on Economic Growth: ‘Here was a chance to break the Government’s total hold on economic policy,’ one prominent journalist later commented, ‘but it was … fiercely rejected’ (Long 1969, 2). For his part, Vernon was disappointed by criticisms of the competence of the committee more than the shelving of the report.

Knighted in January 1965, Sir James was a recipient of the Leighton medal (1965) of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and the (Sir) John Storey medal (1970) of the Australian Institute of Management, and he received honorary degrees from the universities of Sydney (DSc, 1965) and Newcastle (DSc, 1969). After retiring as general manager in 1972, he remained a director of CSR until 1982 (chairman 1978–80). In 1973–74 he chaired the Commission of Inquiry into the Australian Post Office, the recommendations of which led to the administrative separation of telecommunications and postal services, and the creation of statutory corporations for each. He served on the boards of several companies, including Westham Dredging Co. Pty Ltd (1975–91) and Volvo Australia (chairman 1980–89), and was a consultant with O’Connell Street Associates from 1973.

Appointed AC in 1980, in later life Vernon pursued his hobbies of fly-fishing, cabinetmaking, and cooking. Predeceased by his wife (d. 1980) and survived by his two daughters, he died on 10 July 2000 in Sydney, and was cremated.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. House of Representatives. Parliamentary Debates, vol. 38, 1965, 1078–87
  • Burrell, Steve. ‘Sir James Vernon, AC, CBE.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 18 July 2000, 20
  • Canberra Times. ‘Warning on Primary Products.’ 29 January 1962, 6
  • Colonial Sugar Refining Company Ltd. Annual Report. Sydney: CSR Ltd, 1972
  • Cook, Malcolm. ‘The Vernon Report: 30 Years On.’ Canberra Bulletin of Public Administration 80 (1996): 46–52
  • Long, Peter. ‘An Opportunity Missed.’ Canberra Times, 5 February 1969, 2
  • National Library of Australia. MS Acc01.008, Papers of Sir James Vernon, c.1936–2000
  • Sykes, Trevor. ‘CSR’s Great Industrialist.’ Australian Financial Review, 14 July 2000, 20
  • Tamworth High School. Koala: Tamworth High School 1919–1969. Tamworth, NSW: Tamworth High School, 1969

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Citation details

Lyndon Megarrity, 'Vernon, Sir James (1910–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 17 June 2024.

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