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Goldfinch, Sir Philip Henry (1884–1943)

by Andrew Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Sir Philip Henry Macarthur Goldfinch (1884-1943), businessman and politician, was born on 13 April 1884 at Gosport, Hampshire, England, son of Lieutenant Henry Goldfinch, Royal Navy, and his wife Elizabeth Maria, née King, daughter of Philip Gidley King. He spent much of his childhood in New South Wales at Dunheved, the King family property at St Marys, and was educated at Sydney Grammar School. In 1902 he enlisted as a trooper in the South African War but arrived after the war was over. His marriage to Mary Medora Cowper, great-granddaughter of Sir Charles Cowper, on 7 March 1911 at St John's Anglican Church, Camden, further cemented his ties with colonial patrician families.

Goldfinch had joined the Colonial Sugar Refining Co. in 1902. He gained practical experience of its affairs in Queensland in 1911-13 as a cane inspector at Macknade and in 1914-18 at the Homebush plant near Mackay, where in 1915 he was appointed manager. In 1919 he returned to C.S.R.'s head office in Sydney, his zest and energy impressing E. W. Knox, to whom he became personal adviser. In 1928 Goldfinch became general manager. He was more inclined to seek expert advice and more subject to the opinions of the board of directors than previous general managers, but he remained an implacable opponent of government interference and public accountability in the industry. He steered the company towards diversification, mainly the manufacture of building materials. It is a tribute to his business acumen that though sugar consumption declined significantly during the Depression, C.S.R. paid its customary dividends and bonuses.

Goldfinch's interest in political affairs gradually developed. In the late 1920s and early 1930s he was associated with the Constitutional Association of New South Wales, the All for Australia League and the Primary Producers' Advisory Council. In November 1930 he helped to form a secret counter-revolutionary organization, the Old Guard, which maintained a discreet vigil lest a serious disturbance should swamp the police and the armed forces. The Old Guard came perilously close to mobilizing, but the dismissal of the Lang government by the governor, Sir Philip Game, dissipated much of the political tension. Except for a curious article which appeared in Smith's Weekly in 1936, headlined 'Sir Philip Goldfinch's Secret Service', the organization disappeared without leaving a trace. In June 1934 he had been appointed K.B.E.

In November 1935 Goldfinch won Gordon in the Legislative Assembly for the United Australia Party. He intended to prove that it was possible for someone with 'a man sized job in civil life to take on politics'. But his spirited maiden speech was reviled by Lang who suggested that, 'the “boss” himself was coming on the job' and that the 'fountain head of the great octopus, the sugar combine' had no right to sit in parliament. This set the pattern for a brief and inglorious political career, Goldfinch defending the profits of C.S.R. and criticizing unemployment relief, family endowment and other welfare enterprises, the Labor Opposition finding the titled 'sugar daddy', with his spats and monocle, an easy target for sarcastic criticism. In July 1937 he resigned.

His experience as an overseer was called upon in World War II when, in 1940, he was appointed chairman of the Board of Area Management for New South Wales, Ministry of Munitions, responsible to Essington Lewis for the planning and production of munition projects and supplies. Again Goldfinch instigated a minor controversy by attacking the 'red-tape' of officialdom, the lack of decentralization of munition factories and the propensity of politicians to pester him about allocating defence projects to their electorates. During World War II Goldfinch became president of the Union Club; he was also a member of the Australasian Pioneers' Club and of Royal Sydney Golf Club. He had bought a property at Sutton Forest near Moss Vale but he did not live to enjoy its rural charm. On 7 April 1943 he died of cardiovascular disease at Roseville and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by a son and two daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £36,284, and included pictures and antique furniture, some belonging to the King family.

Goldfinch was an archetypal Anglo-Australian. As chairman of the British Settlers' Welfare Committee he was keenly interested in Empire migration. His speeches and radio addresses reveal an intelligent grasp of world affairs although his attitude to the Fascist powers was somewhat ambivalent. He enjoyed club life, golf, fishing, tennis and rifle-shooting. But essentially he was a serious man, unsympathetic to frivolous behaviour, straight laced and conservative. Throughout his career and particularly during the Depression, Goldfinch served the state and the employing class in a loyal, untiring and uncompromising fashion.

Select Bibliography

  • A. G. Lowndes (ed), South Pacific Enterprise (Syd, 1956)
  • R. Goddard, The Union Club 1857-1957 (Syd, 1957)
  • D. P. Mellor, The Role of Science and Industry (Canb, 1958)
  • E. Campbell, The Rallying Point (Melb, 1965)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1936, p 145, 538
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 4 June 1934, 19 Mar, 28 May, 5, 17 Nov 1935, 5 June 1940, 22 Apr 1941, 8 Apr 1943
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 22 Aug 1936
  • Sun (Sydney), 2 Feb 1941
  • Colonial Secretary's file B32/2669 no 2082 (State Records New South Wales)
  • CSR Archives (Sydney)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Goldfinch, Sir Philip Henry (1884–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/goldfinch-sir-philip-henry-6414/text10967, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 26 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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