Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ernest Alfred Watts (1893–1979)

by Frank Strahan

This article was published:

Ernest Alfred Watts (1893-1979), builder, was born on 20 April 1893 in West Melbourne, second son of Henry Watts, an English-born stone-sawyer, and his wife Emily, née Cook, from Victoria. Following a state school education, Ernie was indentured to a builder, Clements Langford. On 23 October 1915 at Northcote Watts married with Anglican rites Mabel Courtis (d.1971), a trimmer. He studied building and contracting with International Correspondence Schools Ltd. Having saved £400, at age 24 he went into business for himself; at first he concentrated on houses.

In the mid-1920s Watts gained three major construction contracts in the city: a store in Bourke Street for G. J. Coles & Co. Pty Ltd, premises for Debenhams (Australia) Pty Ltd and additions to the National Gallery of Victoria. Weathering the Depression, he built many large structures, including the Chevron Hotel (1934), the southern stand at the Melbourne Cricket Ground (1936) and the Hotel Australia (1939). His election, unopposed, as president (1938-39) of the Master Builders Association of Victoria reflected his prominence in the industry. In 1940 he went into partnership with his younger brothers Frank and Frederick and with Lewis Milne and Ralph Stout.

Commercial and industrial building slowed in World War II but the Watts organization secured numerous government orders to construct defence facilities in Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania. It carried out extensive work at Fishermens Bend, Melbourne, for the Department of Aircraft Production. Flourishing after the war, the firm completed office buildings in the city for a number of corporations, among them the Bank of Adelaide and Ansett Transport Industries Ltd. Major works commissioned by industrial undertakings included an assembly plant at Broadmeadows for the Ford Motor Co. of Australia Ltd. Among other Watts constructions were the Footscray and Traralgon district hospitals. In Sydney the firm built the regional shopping centres Miranda Fair, at Miranda, and Roselands, at Wiley Park. The value of its new work in the years 1960-64 was £37,152,376.

The business had been incorporated on 30 November 1953 as E. A. Watts Pty Ltd; each of the five partners became a director, with Ernie as chairman. A subsidiary of the Watts organization (which had also operated as a partnership) was incorporated on the same date, as Collingwood Timber Joinery & Trading Co. Pty Ltd. In 1958 the Australian Institute of Builders, of which Watts was a fellow (1951), awarded him its medal for overcoming building problems associated with the geological strata beneath Melbourne. On 6 August 1964 he and his colleagues floated a public company, E. A. Watts Holdings Ltd.

Patrick Tennison had described Watts in 1963 as 'impressively agile and forceful', and quoted one of his employees as saying that 'he never asks [his men] to do anything he couldn't do himself'. Needing little sleep, Watts was usually at his huge desk in the company's Collingwood headquarters by 7.45 a.m. and was likely to have risen three hours earlier in summer to water his garden. Golf was his other principal form of recreation. On 28 April 1966 he announced his retirement. He was a life governor of the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind and the Austin, Freemasons' and Royal Children's hospitals. Survived by his five daughters, he died on 4 January 1979 at his East Ivanhoe home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Building Achievement in Australia (Melb, 1965?)
  • W. R. H. Keast, Building Victoria (Melb, 1994)
  • Australian Builder, Feb 1979
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1958, 5 Jan 1979
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 11 Jan 1963
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Jan 1979
  • E. A. Watts Holdings Ltd records, Stock Exchange of Melbourne Ltd collection (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Frank Strahan, 'Watts, Ernest Alfred (1893–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 20 July 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


20 April, 1893
West Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


4 January, 1979 (aged 85)
Ivanhoe, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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