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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Osborne, Henry William (Harry) (1865–1936)

by L. Lomas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Henry William (Harry) Osborne (1865-1936), journalist and co-operatives organizer, was born on 5 September 1865 at Opossum Gully between Amherst and Maryborough, Victoria, son of Henry William Osborne, law clerk turned miner, and his wife Louisa Sarah, née Dibbin, both English born. Tiring of a miner's life his father moved to St Arnaud to become a store bookkeeper and legal manager of several mines. Harry was educated at St Arnaud State School and, in an uncomfortable attempt to respect his father's wishes, briefly tried student-teaching at Stawell. He became an apprentice journalist on the St Arnaud Times and took night classes in English, Latin and French to improve his writing. In 1886 he worked on a newspaper at Echuca then moved to Warrnambool as junior reporter on the Standard. Through his work Harry immersed himself in the life of the community: on the one day he would produce a leading article on current events, agricultural notes by 'Agricola', sporting notes by 'Mentor' and a ladies' letter by 'Constance'. On 9 September 1896 he married Elizabeth Emma Cassady, a nurse, at St Peter's Church, Woodford.

Although the Standard was ultra-conservative and he was also district correspondent for the Melbourne Argus, politically Harry was a liberal, a committed supporter of Alfred Deakin. He was twice president of the Warrnambool branch of the Australian Natives' Association. In 1899 he became Warrnambool shire secretary.

The successful application of cream separating and refrigeration techniques to the export butter trade had stimulated a rapid expansion in dairy farming in the 1890s. Butter factories, usually organized as farmers' co-operatives, sprang up in most country towns and with them a small army of agents and merchants. In June 1904 Osborne accepted an invitation to the precarious position of foundation manager of the Western District Cooperative Produce Co.

Committed to the principles of co-operation, Osborne, who had written many newspaper articles in support, was now confronted by implacable opposition from established proprietary companies. He established the company's headquarters in Melbourne but travelled around the dairying towns preventing breakaway moves and urging factories to join the co-operative. Within two years 90 per cent of Western District butter was marketed co-operatively. Three proprietary firms had ceased trading, the Glenormiston Co. had become shareholders and the Gippsland and Northern Cooperative Produce Co. had been established to spread co-operative marketing to east and north Victoria.

Osborne established new company premises in King Street, Melbourne. To provide cheaper and better boxes he set up a co-operative box-making industry, and to lower premiums established a co-operative insurance company. He was a central figure in the founding of the Western and Murray Co-operative Bacon Co. to help stabilize the pig industry. In 1913, during a rest-cure trip to England, he could not resist seeking new market outlets and preparing British producer organizations to confront the peril of margarine. During World War I Osborne was a member of the Commonwealth Dairy Produce Pool Committee, and was prominent in securing prices for Australian butter comparable to those of the preferred Danish product. He was a member of the Dairy Export Board and the Australian Overseas Transport Association.

In the mid-1920s dairy farming was threatened by a price collapse of export butter. When Thomas Paterson, Federal Country Party member for Gippsland, proposed a levy on locally consumed butter to subsidize low export returns, Osborne threw the weight of his prestige with farmers behind the plan, which when implemented in 1925 kept many farmers on their land through the Depression years.

Though his health was suspect, he attended the Imperial Economic Conference at Ottawa in 1932 to represent Australian primary industry and worked strenuously with S. M. (Viscount) Bruce and (Sir) Henry Gullett to negotiate desperately needed trade preferences with Britain. Exhausted, Osborne collapsed and had to recuperate in a hospital in England.

Having established branches in all States and an office in London, Osborne retired as general manager of his co-operative company in 1936. His Memories: the Story of the Career of Harry W. Osborne was published in 1939 by the Terang Express. He died of coronary vascular disease at Malvern, Melbourne, on 20 October 1936 and was buried in Burwood cemetery. His funeral was attended by representatives of business houses connected with primary production, shipping companies and government boards as well as by fellow members of the Peninsula Golf, Melbourne Cricket, Athenaeum and Rotary clubs. A son and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. A. Grant, 500 Victorians (Melb, 1934)
  • C. McKay, This is the Life (Syd, 1961)
  • C. E. Sayers, Of Many Things (Olinda, Vic, 1972)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 June, 4 Nov 1932, 20, 21 Oct 1936
  • Colac Herald, 21 Oct 1936.

Citation details

L. Lomas, 'Osborne, Henry William (Harry) (1865–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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