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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Gourgaud, Percival Albert (1881–1958)

by Jan McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Percival Albert Gourgaud (1881-1958), public servant, was born on 3 October 1881 at Norton Diggings, near Gladstone, Queensland, second son of Claudius Gourgaud, a schoolteacher from France, and his English-born wife Mary Jane, née Barnes. Educated at state schools, he worked as a drover and taught himself shorthand with the aim of becoming a court reporter. In 1901 he joined the Postmaster-General's Department in Brisbane as a junior clerk; four years later he transferred to the Department of Home Affairs, Melbourne. At St Joseph's Catholic Church, South Yarra, on 2 March 1908 he married Elizabeth Anne Malcolm, a dressmaker; they were to have six children.

From 1912 to 1916 Gourgaud lived in Canberra and was involved in its early development. Back in Melbourne, he transferred to the Department of Works and Railways, and in January 1917 was chosen as the first secretary of the River Murray Commission. It oversaw irrigation, flood control and navigation, and supervised construction projects largely carried out by the States; in 1919 work began on the Hume Reservoir. In 1927 he accompanied the department's chief engineer on a trip to investigate developments in the United States of America. When Gourgaud relinquished the secretaryship in October 1928, the commissioners praised his ability and service.

With the knack of making himself useful to politicians, in 1911-12 and 1916-23 he had been detached for short periods as secretary to the Federal ministers King O'Malley (twice), P. J. Lynch, W. A. Watt, (Sir) Littleton Groom and R. W. Foster. Gourgaud was in a party that accompanied the Prince of Wales during his Australian visit in 1920 and that year travelled to Geneva where he was secretary to the Australian delegation to the first assembly of the League of Nations. In the 1930s he cultivated the friendship of Prime Minister Joseph Lyons.

On 11 June 1929 Gourgaud had been promoted secretary of the Department of Works and Railways and moved to Canberra. The Depression restricted operations and in 1932 the department was amalgamated with Home Affairs and Transport to form the Department of the Interior. In the new organization Gourgaud was appointed assistant-secretary, responsible for works and services. He was deeply hurt by being unable to provide more than sustenance employment in the Canberra region to family men whom he knew to be good workers. A nominated member (from 1930) of the Australian Capital Territory Advisory Council, he was appointed O.B.E. in 1937 and retired in 1946.

Gourgaud was a short, handsome man who dressed well and tended to be fussy. His interests were his family, gardening and golf. He preferred to be known as Percival and only his grandchildren were allowed to call him Percy. Concern for his son Claudius, a prisoner of war in World War II, and the early death of his eldest daughter Gwen placed great strains upon him. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he died on 30 August 1958 at Canberra Community Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery with the forms of the Churches of Christ.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Powell, Watering the Garden State (Syd, 1989)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Feb 1937
  • Canberra Times, 1 Feb 1937, 1 Sept 1958
  • A151/1 box F-G, A151/3 box 1, A2925/1 1937 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Jan McDonald, 'Gourgaud, Percival Albert (1881–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 24 November 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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