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Gabbedy, John Phillip (Jack) (1906–1991)

by Ken Spillman

This article was published online in 2020

John Phillip Gabbedy (1906-1991), banker and government adviser, was born on 19 September 1906 at Menzies, Western Australia, eldest of seven children of Victorian-born parents John Ernest Gabbedy, engine driver, and his wife Marcella, née Sherlock. In 1912 the family moved to Fremantle where Jack attended Christian Brothers’ College. He joined the State Department of Lands and Surveys in 1922 and was assigned to work on the newly established group settlement scheme, championed by Premier (Sir) James Mitchell with the aim of attracting British migrants to develop new farms that would boost domestic food production. Intelligent and well-organised, Gabbedy attracted the notice of William (Bill) Vickery, a key figure in the administration of the scheme. By the age of twenty-one, he was responsible for the scheme’s stock records, a task involving frequent visits to the south-west of the State. Vickery’s dictum that they were dealing ‘not with components of a scheme but with human beings’ (Gabbedy 1988, 58) resonated with Catholic social teachings Gabbedy had absorbed in his youth; he later testified that he owed Vickery ‘a great deal of whatever understanding I have of what makes people tick’ (Gabbedy 1988, 60).

When the Agricultural Bank of Western Australia assumed administrative control of the group settlement scheme in October 1930, Gabbedy became principal ledger-keeper at its Perth head office, a post he held for three years. He was subsequently appointed a field inspector, relishing country postings and taking an active part in almost every aspect of community life. A capable footballer, cricketer, golfer, and competitive woodchopper, he was described as an ‘untiring, enthusiastic worker’ (Great Southern Leader 1934, 1) for local clubs. On 16 January 1937 at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Bunbury, he married Mary Josephine Boyd, a nurse.

Having been appointed as a paymaster officer, Royal Australian Naval Reserve in 1924, rising to lieutenant commander in 1937, Gabbedy began full-time duty on 5 September 1939, two days after World War II began. He served at the shore establishment HMAS Cerberus V (renamed Leeuwin) (1939-43 and 1945), East Fremantle; aboard the cruiser HMAS Adelaide in Australian waters (1943); and at shore establishments in Queensland, New Guinea, and New South Wales (1943-45). On 7 December 1945 he was demobilised at Leeuwin.

In 1945 the development-focused Agricultural Bank was reconstituted as a State-owned trading bank, the Rural and Industries (R&I) Bank of Western Australia. Gabbedy had been identified as one of its ‘up-and-comers’ (Spillman 1989, 130) and in December 1945 was despatched to open a branch at Carnamah in the Mid-West region, where he again threw himself into community life. He later managed branches at Narembeen (1947) and Manjimup (1948–53) and, in 1953, was promoted to officer-in-charge of the securities department at the Perth head office.

Five months later the sudden death of the only R&I commissioner with rural experience opened a door for Gabbedy. His selection above others with superior banking credentials sparked ‘quite a bubble’ (Spillman 1989, 130) in parliament. Allegations of political favour arose—while in Manjimup, Gabbedy and the minister for lands and agriculture Ernest Hoar had played golf together—and it was erroneously rumoured that Gabbedy had been Hoar’s campaign manager. The issue was settled when rapidly drafted legislation expanded the bank’s board from three to five commissioners, allowing the appointment of two officers with pre-war experience of commercial banking along with the elevation of Gabbedy.

Serving as a commissioner from 1953 to 1971, Gabbedy proved an adept problem solver, combining insight into the development of primary industries with keen political instincts, affability, and wit. During his term the previously country-focused bank established a competitive presence in Perth; it became a savings bank in 1956, and introduced blue light signature verification and Western Australia’s first automated cash dispenser.

Gabbedy served on numerous government advisory bodies, including periods as chairman of the Land Board, the Greyhound Racing Control Board, the Central Zone Development Commission, and the fund-raising committee for the 1962 British Empire and Commonwealth Games. He also played a very public role in disaster relief, particularly following devastating bushfires around Dwellingup in 1961. In retirement he published a biography of Charles Mitchell (1972), a history of woodchopping in Western Australia (1981), and a two-volume history of the group settlement scheme (1988). Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died at Como, Perth, on 11 July 1991; his ashes were scattered on a lawn at Fremantle cemetery.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Gabbedy, Brian. Personal communication
  • Gabbedy, J. P. Group Settlement. Vol. 2, Its People, Their Life and Times—an Inside View. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1988
  • Gabbedy, J. P. Interview by Ken Spillman, 17 November 1987. Sound recording. State Library of Western Australia
  • Great Southern Leader (Pingelly). ‘St Matthew’s Club.’ 21 September 1934, 1
  • National Archives of Australia. A6769, Gabbedy, J. P.
  • Spillman, Ken. Horizons: A History of the Rural and Industries Bank of Western Australia. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1989

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Citation details

Ken Spillman, 'Gabbedy, John Phillip (Jack) (1906–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/gabbedy-john-phillip-jack-30455/text37765, published online 2020, accessed online 5 December 2020.

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