Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Perry, Sir Frank Tennyson (1887–1965)

by Susan Marsden

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Sir Frank Tennyson Perry (1887-1965), industrialist and politician, was born on 4 February 1887 at Gawler, South Australia, son of Rev. Isaiah Perry, a Wesleyan minister from England, and his South Australian-born wife Caroline Marie Paulina, née Roediger. Educated at public schools and at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, Frank joined his uncle Samuel Perry's foundry business in 1903. The firm moved from its Hindley Street premises in 1913 to a large site at Mile End, near the new railway yards. In 1915, after acquiring James Martin & Co.'s works at Gawler, it became the biggest engineering firm in South Australia. Perry was appointed manager, and oversaw the manufacture of locomotives and rolling stock until 1928 when the Gawler works closed and production was concentrated at Mile End.

Tall and handsome, with an athletic build, Perry enjoyed tennis, golf, yachting and Australian Rules football. In 1909 he had played for the Norwood Football Club with his brother Rev. C. J. 'Redwing' Perry. At the Lutheran Church, Mount Gambier, on 27 December 1911 he married Hildegarde Therese Matschoss; they were to have a son and two daughters. The family lived at Dawley, College Park. Perry served on the council of the Corporation of the Town of St Peters as councillor, alderman and mayor (1932-33). He was also a member of Prince Alfred College's council and the Memorial Hospital's board. When his uncle died in 1930, he became chairman and managing director of the firm, which was registered as Perry Engineering Co. Ltd in 1937.

From an early age Perry had demonstrated organizing ability and a capacity for leadership. These qualities were used to the full as he guided the company through the Depression and its aftermath. He took a leading role in advancing South Australia's industrialization. President of the local Iron Trades Employers' Association (1930-38) and the Metal Industries Association (1940-48), he was a founder (1943) and first president (1943-48) of the Australian Metal Industries Association.

Perry was keenly interested in politics. With Horace Hogben, he was a prominent member of the Young Liberal League. Elected to the House of Assembly as a Liberal and Country League candidate in April 1933, he represented East Torrens until February 1938. Perry, his business colleague (Sir) Edward Holden and the auditor-general J. W. Wainwright persuaded the L.C.L. government to shift its focus from supporting primary industry to promoting secondary industry, and were responsible for planning strategies to attract manufacturers to set up in South Australia.

Holden and Perry also pursued these objectives as president and deputy-president respectively of the South Australian Chamber of Manufactures. They formed a secondary industries committee in 1935 and replaced it in 1937 with the Industries Assistance Corporation of South Australia. Both bodies advised the government on industrialization policies, such as setting up the South Australian Housing Trust. The corporation's main objectives were to encourage the development of industry, to provide capital or credit, and to create employment. It succeeded in saving or establishing several companies which became major employers. Perry was president of the South Australian Chamber of Manufactures (1939-41) and of the Associated Chambers of Manufactures of Australia (1941-42).

The industrialization policies devised by Perry and his colleagues were largely implemented by (Sir) Richard Butler, fully adopted by (Sir) Thomas Playford and given further impetus during World War II. A member of the Federal government's defence panel and manufacturers' representative on a committee appointed to advise the State government on defence contracts, Perry threw himself into securing munitions work for South Australia. At the invitation of Essington Lewis, director-general of the Commonwealth's war supply organization in the Ministry of Munitions, he became honorary chairman (1940-45) of the Board of Area Management for South Australia. In his first three years as chairman he devoted most of his time to the job, attending the office daily and continually visiting contractors to make them increase output or to encourage them to shift to wartime production.

Perry's wartime expertise was put to further use as chairman (1952-55) of the ammunition industry advisory committee for the Department of Defence Production. He was also a member of State government committees on afforestation and on brick production, which sought to meet postwar demand for building materials. His own Mile End works, with its range of mechanical and structural engineering activity, had expanded through wartime production and the acquisition of low-cost munitions factory areas to emerge as one of the largest firms in Australia.

Perry was a member (1930-61) of the State committee of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (later Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization). He chaired the boards of several companies, served (1949-62) on the council of the University of Adelaide and belonged to the Adelaide Club. In 1951 he was appointed M.B.E. In 1955 he was knighted. Elected to the Legislative Council in 1947 as a member for the Central No.2 electorate, he remained in that House until October 1965, giving 'first consideration to the good of the state rather than a political party'. Sir Frank was leader of the government in the council from 1959 to 1960, but declined nomination as president in 1962 on medical advice.

Survived by his wife and a daughter, Perry died on 20 October 1965 at his Leabrook home and was cremated; his estate was sworn for probate at £213,796. The Australian Metal Industries Association named a lecture in his honour. In 1966 Perry Engineering merged with Johns & Waygood Holdings Ltd, a Melbourne-based firm. Johns & Waygood Perry Engineering Ltd closed the Mile End foundry in 1969 and sold its remaining South Australian plant in 1978.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Miles, A Richness of People (Adel, 1969)
  • P. F. Donovan, Between the City and the Sea (Adel, 1986)
  • G. R. Needham and D. I. Thomson, Men of Metal (Adel, 1987)
  • Journal of Industry, Oct 1946, Jan 1947, Mar 1948, Jan 1953
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Sept 1939, 21 June 1940, 1 Jan 1951, 1 Jan 1955
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 14 Nov 1939, 22 Oct 1965
  • S. Marsden, Constructing Playford's City: The South Australian Housing Trust and the Transformation of Adelaide, 1936-1966 (Ph.D. thesis, Flinders University, 1994).

Citation details

Susan Marsden, 'Perry, Sir Frank Tennyson (1887–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/perry-sir-frank-tennyson-11375/text20323, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 23 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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