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Leitch, Sir Walter (1867–1945)

by D. T. Merrett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Sir Walter Leitch (1867-1945), businessman, was born on 6 November 1867 at Edgerston, Roxburghshire, Scotland, son of George Leitch, farm servant, and his wife Isabella, née Wilson. He was educated at nearby Morebattle before moving to London to enter the Civil Service in 1884. Shortly after, he joined the London-based Quaker firm of Joseph Baker & Sons, manufacturers and exporters of baking and confectionery machinery, with whom he was to be associated for the rest of his working life. Leitch came to Australia in 1889 to exhibit the firm's wares and remained in Melbourne as the Australian manager of a prospering business from 1890. In 1905-08 he was also general manager of the Welsbach Light Co. of Australasia Ltd, a British company that imported gas-light fittings, but he returned full time to the service of Joseph Baker and in 1913 was rewarded with a place on the London board.

Leitch was thrust into government service soon after his return from the United Kingdom in 1914 because of his firm's large-scale involvement in war production, at first in the manufacture of field kitchens and later in munitions engineering. In June 1915 he was appointed to the Federal Munitions Committee and next year to the Directorate of Munitions whose task was to restrict the import of metals and machinery into Australia and augment Empire supplies by arranging the export of Australian steel. In 1917 he became director of the newly established Commonwealth Bureau of Commerce and Industry whose ambitious but poorly designed brief was to provide post-war assistance to Australian industries; he resigned from this ineffective body within the year. In the course of his official duties Leitch had come into contact with nearly all the leading politicians, civil servants and businessmen, and his appointment as C.B.E. in 1918 confirmed his new status in Melbourne society. He was described by Melbourne Punch that year as having 'a look of good health', 'a big frame … quick, decisive manner, and … a keen sense of humour'.

Business affairs took Leitch away from Australia in 1919-22 when Joseph Baker & Sons merged with its main rival, Perkins Engineering, and extended its operations in the United States of America, Leitch swapping his seat on the main board for a place on the board of the American subsidiary. On his return to Australia he accepted the delicate position of importers' representative on the recently established Tariff Board, remaining a member until heavy business commitments, which necessitated interstate and overseas travel and which included his directorship of Swallow & Ariell from 1924, forced his retirement in 1929.

That year Leitch was appointed Victorian agent-general in London, the first non-political occupant of the post. Always hard-working, he successfully used his commercial skills and contacts to find new markets for Victorian produce; his three-year term of office was extended for twelve months before his return to Melbourne, with a newly conferred knighthood, in June 1933. In Melbourne he joined the board of G. J. Coles & Co. in 1936 and continued to mix private business with public office by serving as a commissioner of the State Savings Bank in 1935-39 and as president of the Victorian Baby Health Centres Association in 1933-34 and of Melbourne's (Royal) Dental Hospital from March 1938. A Presbyterian, he was a leading figure in the Scots community.

Sir Walter died on 7 July 1945 at Toorak and was cremated. Childless, he was survived by his wife Emily Bertha (1873-1957), née Main, whom he had married on 23 March 1898 at Scots Church, Melbourne. After making provision for his wife, Leitch left his estate, valued for probate at £11,435, for charitable and educational purposes, including the establishment of scholarships at Morebattle School.

Lady Leitch, daughter of John Main, secretary of the Victorian Education Department in 1889-91 and later a barrister, was one of the early women graduates of the University of Melbourne's medical school. She practised at Malvern before her marriage and was an original member of the honorary medical staff of the Queen Victoria Hospital. In 1914-18 she worked at the Anzac buffet and was later associated with the formation of the district nursing service. In 1934-50 she was a member of the board of management of the (Royal) Women's Hospital (vice-president, 1940). She died at South Yarra on 10 March 1957, leaving £9216 to the Victorian Women Graduates Association which established the Lady Leitch scholarship for women graduates.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • A. Muir, The History of Baker Perkins (Cambridge, 1968)
  • Education Department (Victoria), Vision and Realisation, L. J. Blake ed (Melb, 1973)
  • Industrial Australian and Mining Standard, 18 Apr 1929, p 271
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 June 1917, 11 Mar 1922, 15 Jan 1929, 3 June 1933, 9 July 1945
  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Aug 1917, 12 Nov 1957
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 May 1918
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 June 1933
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 28 Aug 1934
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 19 Oct 1936.

Citation details

D. T. Merrett, 'Leitch, Sir Walter (1867–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/leitch-sir-walter-7167/text12383, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 27 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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