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Sir Ernest Henry Wreford (1866–1938)

by D. T. Merrett

This article was published:

Sir Ernest Henry Wreford (1866-1938), banker, was born on 17 December 1866 in Adelaide, son of Henry Wreford, draper, and his wife Eliza, née Franklin. Educated at various preparatory schools and North Adelaide Grammar School, Wreford left at 16, with his wish to study law or literature thwarted, and joined the National Bank of Australasia, Adelaide, in 1882. After a series of postings to city and suburban branches, he found favour with J. G. Addison, the Adelaide assistant manager, who was impressed with his ability and mapped his subsequent career. In 1896-1906 Wreford was manager at Coolgardie on the Western Australian goldfields before being sent in 1907 to the London office as secretary; in 1909 he was appointed acting assistant chief manager in Melbourne and succeeded Addison as chief manager (1912-35); he was elected a director immediately upon retiring in April 1935 and knighted that year.

The National increased its share of business under Wreford's steady stewardship, largely through mergers with the Colonial Bank of Australia in 1918 and the Bank of Queensland in 1920. He adhered to the banks' cartel agreements limiting competition for customers. Wary of the possibility of 'unfair' competition from the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, he resented the more aggressive practices of the Bank of New South Wales under its dynamic general manager (Sir) Alfred Davidson. Wreford prized his bank's reputation for soundness above fast growth and high profits. Yet, significant innovations were made, such as missions to the East and America to boost foreign business, a travel department and a safe deposit; women customers were wooed with their own banking section in the new Melbourne office. Like most bankers of his generation, Wreford resisted the growing influence of governments in matters of finance and banking, but, even as chairman of the Associated Banks of Victoria for various terms from World War I to the Depression, he was powerless to counter the rising tide. Known as 'The Chief' within the National Bank, Wreford was unpopular with his staff, despite doing much to improve their welfare particularly through the bank's provident funds. The establishment of a bank employees' union offended him.

Success and good looks sustained his considerable pride and vanity. Some 6 ft 4 ins (193 cm) tall, he used his commanding physical presence to good effect. A controlled person and sometime youthful preacher, he lived by a strict code of conservative values. He was a foundation member of the Australian national committee of the International Chamber of Commerce and a delegate to its 1925 conference in Brussels, and a member of the Melbourne Chamber of Commerce, the Royal Colonial Institute, various Victorian war loan committees and the Australian Red Cross Society, as well as chairman of the Australian committee of the Lady Northcote Child Emigration Funds. Literature, tennis, swimming and walking with the Wallaby Club provided his recreations. On 15 August 1903 he had married Louisa Nellie Estelle Fraser at St George's Anglican Cathedral, Perth. Wreford died on 10 May 1938 at Mount Eliza, Victoria, and was cremated. His wife, two sons and three daughters survived him. A portrait by W. B. McInnes is held by the National Australia Bank, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Blainey, Gold and Paper (Melb, 1958)
  • R. F. Holder, Bank of New South Wales, vol 2 (Syd, 1970)
  • C. B. Schedvin, Australia and the Great Depression (Syd, 1970)
  • Select Committee of the Senate Appointed to Consider and Report Upon the Central Reserve Bank Bill, Evidence, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth Senate), 1929-31, 1, p 24
  • Australasian Insurance and Banking Record, Feb 1932, p 115, May 1935, p 388, June 1935, p 489
  • National Bank Staff Club, National Bulletin, May 1935, pp 1, 4
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 May 1938
  • Wreford file (held by central records dept of National Australia Bank, Melbourne).

Citation details

D. T. Merrett, 'Wreford, Sir Ernest Henry (1866–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 12 July 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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