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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wagstaff, Ernest Edward (1870–1965)

by Robert Murray

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Ernest Edward Wagstaff (1870-1965), petroleum executive, was born on 13 May 1870 at Stifford, Essex, England, son of Thomas Wagstaff, farmer, and his wife Ann Jane Jardine, née Guiver. Educated at Grays and Stratford, young Wagstaff began work as an office junior in London in 1886. Three years later he entered the petroleum industry, rising quickly in the Anglo-American Oil Co. Ltd (a subsidiary of Standard Oil), and then in the Anglo-Caucasian Oil Co. Ltd and the Consolidated Petroleum Co. Ltd (both belonging to the Rothschild group). He made his name by efficiently organizing the construction of terminal facilities for imported kerosene, then the main oil product. On 10 October 1894 at the parish church, Woodford, Essex, he had married Florence Emilie Clerc (d.1952).

In 1903 Consolidated joined the 'Shell' Transport & Trading Co. Ltd and the Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. in forming the Asiatic Petroleum Co. Ltd to distribute the products of the three parent firms in Asia, Australasia and parts of Africa. Wagstaff was sent to Melbourne in 1904 to head Asiatic's Australasian subsidiary. He named the enterprise the British Imperial Oil Co. Ltd, hoping to appeal to the imperial patriotism of his customers, and fearing that the word 'Asiatic' might be poorly received in Australia. The business was to be retitled the Shell Co. of Australia Ltd in 1927.

Wagstaff arrived in Australia just as the motorcar was about to become practical and popular. After World War I he oversaw the introduction of bulk-handling of motor spirit. His company was the biggest supplier of the commodity in Australia for most of the twentieth century. The principal reason for this success was that the crude oil which the Royal Dutch/Shell Group produced in the Netherlands East Indies and British Borneo was particularly suitable for refining into fuel for early automobile engines. As an employer, Wagstaff shared the conglomerate's paternal, gentlemanly, public-spirited values, which the colossal expansion of a profitable industry made practicable. He worked both co-operatively and competitively with other leaders of the local oil industry such as H. C. Cornforth of the Vacuum Oil Co. Pty Ltd, the chief Standard Oil outlet in Australia.

A pioneer motorist, Wagstaff helped to expand the market for his products. On an earlier trip to Australia in 1901, he had driven from Melbourne to Sydney—then a hazardous undertaking, over rough roads that deteriorated into tracks, and without roadside fuel and repair facilities. In 1908 he drove a 28-horse-power Daimler through the Ninety Mile Desert in South Australia, the extremely sandy stretch that inhibited motoring between Melbourne and Adelaide. He was an early member (life member 1958) of the (Royal) Automobile Club of Victoria.

Made wealthy by the commission basis of his remuneration, Wagstaff retired in 1927 and built up a notable collection of antiques in his home at Toorak. He died on 16 September 1965 at Kew and was cremated. Having had no children of his own, he directed in his will that the bulk of his estate, sworn for probate at £506,736, was to be used to provide incomes for his nieces and nephews in England until their deaths; the principal was then to be shared between the (Royal) Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital and the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind. The last surviving niece turned the estate over to the institutions in 1996, when its value was approximately $11 million.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, Go Well: One Hundred Years of Shell in Australia (Melb, 2001)
  • Shell House Journal, June 1951
  • Herald (Melbourne), 8, 21 Feb 1966
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Murray, 'Wagstaff, Ernest Edward (1870–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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