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Sir Frederick Munro (Fred) Wiltshire (1911–1994)

by Keith Pescod

This article was published:

Sir Frederick Munro Wiltshire (1911–1994), manufacturer, was born on 5 June 1911 at Northcote, Melbourne, only child of English-born Frederick Wiltshire, bootmaker and later salesman, and his Victorian-born wife Christina, née Fielding. After completing his education at Northcote High School (dux 1926 and 1927), Fred began training as a civil engineer until his firm became a casualty of the Depression. He was then employed in his father’s business—which repaired and sold second-hand equipment to light industry—while he studied in the evenings for a Bachelor of Arts at the University of Melbourne. In 1936 he worked his passage to Europe in a tramp steamer. There he searched for a product that he could manufacture in Australia, one which required technology not easily obtainable by ‘backyard’ workshops, and which would be subject to tariff protection. By November he was in England where he sat and passed examinations for the final two subjects required for his degree. In Germany at Leipzig’s trade fair, he found a product that met his criteria—the industrial file.

Wiltshire gained the support of W. E. McPherson, of McPherson’s Pty Ltd, and Essington Lewis, of the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd; they were members of an informal industrialists’ group concerned that Australia’s reliance upon overseas suppliers for essential equipment would curtail production during the war that they anticipated. In 1938 the Wiltshire File Co. Pty Ltd was registered in Victoria with Wiltshire as managing director (1938–77). BHP and McPherson’s subscribed most of the company’s capital. Construction of the factory commenced at Tottenham, Melbourne; Wiltshire equipped it with British machinery and introduced production methods that he had observed on a visit to the United States of America. On 15 February that year he had married Jennie Littledale Frencham, a teacher, at the Holy Trinity Anglican church, Williamstown.

Manufacturing began in 1939 and by the early months of World War II, Australia was largely self-sufficient in quality industrial files. Towards the end of the war Wiltshire proposed expanding the business to include table knives and travelled to the United States to study operations there. In 1946 the Nicholson File Company, a large American producer, became the third major shareholder. By the end of that year Wiltshire had added knife manufacturing to the business. During the following decades the company extended its cutlery range, developed and took out world-wide patents on its innovative ‘Staysharp’ self-sharpening knives and scissors, and commissioned a silversmith, Stuart Devlin, to design streamlined handles and scabbards. Wiltshire believed that, ‘so long as Australia stayed at the forefront of technology, and did not let its labour costs outstrip the rest of the world, its manufactured goods could compete in worldwide as well as domestic markets’ (Carroll 1987, 20). He later established factories offshore when cheaper Asian cutlery ‘flooded 60 per cent of the Australian market’ (Canberra Times 1967, 3).

Wiltshire was energetic, well-informed, and articulate, and a staunch supporter of Australian industry. He served as a member of the Manufacturing Industries Advisory Council (1958–77) and of the science and industry forum of the Australian Academy of Science (1967–79); and on the executive of the Australian Industries Development Association (1953–80; president 1964–66 and 1972–74) and the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (1974–78). In addition to managing the Wiltshire group of companies, he was a director of Repco Ltd (1966–81), and Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd (1966–83). He was also a fellow of the Melbourne division of the Australian Institute of Management (councillor 1955–61), and the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering.

During 1968 the Australian government appointed Wiltshire to chair the committee of inquiry into awards in colleges of advanced education, and the committee on small business. He later headed (1972–74) the Commonwealth advisory committee on aircraft and guided weapons. Appointed OBE (1966) and elevated to CBE (1970), he was knighted in 1976 for his services to industry and government. In 1977 he retired as managing director; three years later Wiltshire Consolidated Ltd became a wholly owned subsidiary of McPherson's. Sir Frederick was a popular member of the Kingston Heath Golf Club, a club captain recalling, ‘on playing with him in his “Knight Cart” there was always the chance of a “wee dram” on the 15th hole’ (Rowe, pers. comm.). Predeceased by his son, and survived by his wife and daughter; he died on 1 February 1994 at South Yarra and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘Liberals Attack Tariff Policy.’ 3 May 1967, 3
  • Carroll, Brian. Australian Made: Success Stories in Australian Manufacturing since 1937. Parkville, Vic.: Institute of Production Engineers Australian Council, 1987
  • Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, CSIRO Twenty-seventh Annual Report. Melbourne: Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, 1974–75
  • Eady, Wilton McPherson. Manufacturing History—McPherson’s Limited, 1985. Eady family papers. Private collection
  • Hamer, Barbara. Nuts & Bolts: A Story of a Family and a Firm. Melbourne: McPherson’s Printing Group, 2006
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 2012.0021, McPherson’s Limited Business Records
  • National Archives of Australia. MP61/1, 5/60/4488
  • Rowe, Robert. Personal communication
  • Wiltshire, Frederick Munro. Student Record Card. University of Melbourne, Student Administration, 1995.0071. University of Melbourne Archives

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Keith Pescod, 'Wiltshire, Sir Frederick Munro (Fred) (1911–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 23 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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