Jack Ellerton Becker was admitted a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1961 as a generous benefactor and in recognition of his 'leading part in the application of scientific methods to primary industry'. His financial contributions to the Academy were not only munificent, they were most timely. They were made at a time when the Academy's general scientific activities were seriously impeded by the need to make payments towards the cost of the new Academy Building which houses its conference chamber, subsequently named Becker Hall. For this and his many other achievements, Becker was knighted in 1962.
Becker was born in Adelaide on 4 October 1904, the only boy in a family of three. His father, Percy Harold Becker, has been variously described in newspapers, by an old school-mate, and by a commercial associate as 'a leading city accountant', a music teacher in North Unley, and as a prison administrator. It seems probable that several of Becker's Australian forebears were indeed prison administrators. Men, and a woman of that surname, served in senior positions at Port Augusta and Wallaroo gaols and, as late as 1922, a photographic record of staff at Yatala Labour Prison shows an elderly man surnamed Becker (initials unclear, but probably F.E.) as superintendent. It seems unlikely, however, that Jack Becker's father, P.H. Becker, who is described as 'clerk' in his son's birth certificate, ever served as a prison officer. Most probably Becker senior had some sort of office job.
Becker's mother, Mabel Martha (nee Gully) was also a South Australian. His wife, Gladys Sarah Duggan, whom he married on 1 November 1928, in Adelaide, came from Hobart, Tasmania. Lady Becker, who became seriously ill after the death of her husband on 10 May 1979, in Bermuda, still lives in that country. The only child of the marriage was estranged from her parents as a young woman.
Becker was educated in government schools and, according to a close school friend, Charles Smith, had an undistinguished and rather retiring, colourless career at Unley High School. Even at that time, however, his perfectionist attitudes, tenacity, enquiring mind and strict common sense were apparent. He was meticulous in his dress and speech, and he 'knew what he was talking about'. He had no particular hobbies though he liked collecting knick-knacks.
After leaving school, Becker became an apprentice in an old-fashioned jewellery firm, S. Schlank and Co Limited – Mr Michael Schlank, his next door neighbour, was a close friend of his father. As an apprentice, Becker studied the techniques of manufacturing jewellery and developed a long-lasting interest in its design. In his later years he designed much of the jewellery which Lady Becker now wears. In conjunction with his apprenticeship, Becker studied part of the course in elementary chemistry at the School of Mines, and at the University of Adelaide.
During his period of apprenticeship and as a part-time occupation, Becker opened a music studio in Victoria Square, Adelaide, and became a music teacher for a variety of instruments. He was chiefly interested in wind instruments though he played the banjo, mandolin and violin as well as the saxophone.
It was through his activities related to music that Becker set the financial foundation for his later career. However, he was not, it appears, deeply interested in music itself.
At the age of 21, Becker left Adelaide for the USA where he spent a happy year and made many lasting friends working at the Conn Musical Instrument factory in Indiana. When he left the management presented him with a 'truly magnificent' gold-plated saxophone which he had made himself during his time at the factory.
On returning to Adelaide in 1927, Becker took a job at Allans Ltd, an Australia-wide firm selling musical instruments and sheet music. During his six years at Allans he started encouraging school children to take an interest in music. As a result, a large number of schools set up fife bands which Becker assisted for more than a decade. He even arranged the manufacture of the fifes, of his own design, which were sold to the schools. Within a short time the school fife bands were extended and, in 1928, the Adelaide Drum and Fife Band was formed. For many years this band gave public performances from recruits selected from the bands of 53 metropolitan schools.
Up to 1943, Becker spent much of his time promoting these musical activities and, as Director of the Music League of South Australia, supervising large-scale theatrical productions, largely of young performers. He was also Principal of the Adelaide College of Music, into which his modest studio had developed. It is clear that the two institutions were closely related even though the League was entirely philanthropic and the College largely commercial.
When it was sold in 1942 the Adelaide College of Music had 17 lecturers and 643 students. Some of the teachers were full-time employees of the College, many were distinguished musicians from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra or came from the local popular dance bands. Instruction was given for a large variety of musical instruments, for orchestral and choral work, and for players in popular music groups of various sorts. At various times the staff included teachers of dramatic arts, ballet, vocal training and languages.
Though Becker, as Director of the Music League, was assisted by committees and people outside the College, it was clearly his energy, enthusiasm and ability which built it up, during the decade of the deepest world depression, to a successful organization of wide interests. Becker's first big musical presentation was given in 1932 by the Adelaide Drum and Fife Band, followed by annual productions in Adelaide and concerts in Melbourne (1936) and Sydney (1937). What started as stage performances of a drum and fife band were greatly extended so that the later 'On Parade' productions included the Adelaide Boys Military Band, the Adelaide Boys Saxophone Band, the Adelaide Banjo Club, the Adelaide Drum, Bugle, and Baton Corps, the Rhythm Pups Dance Band, the Adelaide Boys Choir and solo dancers and ballets.
All these groups, it seems, were wildly successful, but the most notable was the Boys Military Band. Becker founded the band and was its conductor. The patron of the band was Lieutenant-Colonel H.E. Adkins, Director of Music of the Royal Military School of Music, London; and Major George Millar, Musical Director of His Majesty's Grenadier Guards co-operated in its foundation. Becker made two trips abroad to consult these people, and others, about his activities associated with music. It was during one of these trips, in 1937, that he obtained the sheet music agency of Boosey and Hawkes for South Australia, which he later sold to Allans Ltd.
The most spectacular productions directed by Becker were the yearly 'On Parade' performances given in the late thirties and early forties. All were a great success but the most notable was 'On Parade, 1941' in the Tivoli Theatre, Adelaide, in which over 1,000 performers were involved and which drew a full audience throughout its season of nine performances. The 1939 'On Parade' provided funds to supply the Adelaide Children's Hospital with 16 fully-equipped cots; later performances raised large sums for war charities especially the YMCA Red Triangle War Services Appeal. A number of groups maintained by the League gave frequent performances on the wireless. The Adelaide Banjo Club of 400 members for example, provided for some time the 'Showboat of the Air' – a programme heard every 'Sunday at Six' on a local station.
During the latter part of its life the activities of the Music League were described in a four-page news sheet – the 'Music League News Bulletin' – which was published several times a year in the early forties. It reads as if from another age – bursting with youthful enthusiasm and the self-confidence of established success. There is no doubt that Becker's enterprise, unselfish concern for young people, and undoubted theatrical skill, made a deep impression on the young South Australians of that time. Mr G.P. Auld, who later became manager of his stud properties and lifelong friend told me: 'As a small boy, I saw him, resplendent in his red and gold uniform conducting a band of several hundred boys. He appeared to me to be at least eight foot tall and almost Godlike. He performed with great dignity and with a sense of great drama'.
I have heard from one of Becker's acquaintances of that time that the Music League was 'small-town stuff'. Of course it was: Becker, it seems to me, wanted it so. It was designed primarily to educate and enthuse the Adelaide youngsters of that time about music, and to support charities – and it succeeded brilliantly. I have no doubt that Becker could have become a distinguished musical entrepreneur if he had wished. But his interests were unselfish and patriotic. From news reports of that time it is clear that he sought little personal publicity though it is certain that he enjoyed himself enormously. Two of his older friends told me that this was the time of his life he enjoyed most. He was the driving force of the Music League. After he turned his attention to his next major interest, primary industry, it lost its vigour.
Becker's interest in primary industry became clear in 1930 when, with two others, he formed the Leabrook Pastoral Co and leased a property at Lower Light, north of Adelaide, where the company conducted a Dorset Horn stud. The venture failed and was sold in 1939. In 1934 Becker exchanged his house in Adelaide for a property called Willow Dene in Aldgate (from where he ran the Adelaide College of Music). Though the total area was only 4 hectares Becker attempted to set up a Jersey cattle and pig stud. Not unexpectedly, this proved unsatisfactory and he again sold at a loss in 1940. In this year he first entered primary production on the large scale – and again failed. He bought at Dongara, 80km north of Geraldton in Western Australia, a homestead property of 200 hectares with a number of adjacent large leasehold areas. With a manager in charge Becker tried to run the project – beefcattle, sheep and cereal production – from Adelaide. But this proved unsatisfactory and after 3 years he sold out. Though he lost money on them Becker was able later to refer to these experiences with considerable humour.
By 1943 Becker's whole attention was turned to the development of a property, later called 'Beckersfield', which he bought at a price of 27/6d per hectare. This 'poor, despised land', 3080 hectares of it, was 13km west of Keith in the 'Ninety-mile Desert' which stretched from South Australia into Victoria. Though it received an adequate rainfall of 45cm the region was unproductive. Native plants were dwarfed and pasture and cereal production, where it was attempted, was low. The reason for the poverty of the soil – largely leached silicious sand (Laffer sand) – was unknown at the time Becker made his purchase. But it was at a time when the effects of 'trace-element deficiency' on pasture and on grazing stock had been established in parts of Western Australia, South Australia and New Zealand. Indeed deficiency diseases due to shortage or unavailability of manganese, copper, zinc and molybdenum had been demonstrated in South Australia before 1943 and, in some instances, a decade before by research workers in CSIR (later CSIRO) and at the Waite Agricultural Research Institute. It may seem possible, then, that the purchase of land at Keith was made with astute foresight – it was an area which might properly have been selected as having great potential.
Becker's actions, taken soon after he had bought the property, may also seem to support this supposition: he sought advice from a friend, Mr Graham Clarke at Adelaide Chemical and Fertilizer Ltd, about the proper treatment of the land and was told that Mr David Riceman, of what was then the CSIR Division of Biochemistry and General Nutrition, could probably help him.
Riceman had been involved previously in trace-element work in South Australia. His experience in working with calcareous aeolian sands at Robe proved most valuable. An acute deficiency of copper had been demonstrated for these soils. Later it was shown that there was also a less marked but significant deficiency of zinc. The work at Robe had been conducted on the property of, and with the help of Mr R. Dawson who was later awarded an MBE for his contribution to agricultural research. Riceman was well aware of the possibility of trace-element deficiency in the area of Keith, and his subsequent actions showed that he had in mind, before Becker's visit, the correct solution to the problem. Moreover, he knew how valuable access to a large property with a co-operative and enthusiastic owner could be. The advice that Becker received, that he should seek advice from Riceman, was the best possible. However, Becker himself had no inkling of the real nature of the problem or its solution although it seems that even after his first talk with Riceman he sensed the great possibilities of development in the area.
At Becker's invitation, David Riceman inspected the property at Keith and decided to test his hypothesis concerning the deficiency in Laffer sands. Becker, for his part, offered to provide free for CSIR the land, plant, labour and any other assistance necessary to make the experiments possible. In January 1944, the research project was commenced and, under Riceman's direction, the land was prepared. The first experimental plots were sown on 24 and 25 May. In the first season it was shown that cereal and pasture species responded to heavy dressings of super-phosphate, but more important, the addition of trace amounts of copper and zinc had profound effects. Riceman's first paper on his work, published in 1945, set down the conditions for transforming the productivity of a large area of South Australia and Victoria. In this and in later associated papers the assistance of Becker who provided 'the land and facilities for these experiments' was acknowledged. During the War and immediately afterwards the materials needed for establishing the experimental plots were difficult to obtain but Becker's ingenuity and commercial skills were equal to the problems and the project was seldom delayed.
Riceman's work was of great importance; farm and pastoral yields were greatly increased and scientific understanding was advanced. As a result, a number of struggling farmers in the area became affluent, and those who owned large areas became very wealthy. The prices of land in the area rose from about 25/- per hectare to about £25! Becker's contribution was considerable. There is no doubt that the work would ultimately have been carried out but he provided the stimulus and the facilities for getting it started in 1944. The Ninety-mile Desert became first the Ninety-mile Plains and then Conalphyn Downs.
Experiments were carried out on 'Beckersfield' until 1948 but, from the first year of Riceman's work, the success of the trace-element work was assured. So, during the later years, Becker himself examined other means of improving productivity of pasture. Especially he examined the production of high quality pasture seeds and their harvesting. His most important successes were obtained with Clare Subterranean Clover and Perennial Veldt Grass.
In 1941 Mr J.E. Butler of Clare sent a sample of clover to the Waite Agricultural Research Institute where Professor H.C. Trumble examined the characters of the new strain. It was found that the Clare clover would be most useful in providing an early growth on alkaline soil during cool weather in areas of yearly rainfall 40-55cm. In 1947 all the seed that was available was given to Becker; but by 1949 Becker had produced enough to sow 48 hectares. This was the first lot of Clare Subterranean Clover to be grown on a commercial basis and to be registered under the South Australian seed certification scheme. In achieving this Becker overcame minor technical problems so that during the next twenty years commercial seed production by a number of farmers was highly successful and the variety became well established over a large area of South Australia.
Before Becker became interested in harvesting the seed, commercial lines of Perennial Veldt Grass were rare. The seed that was available was of low purity and low germination capacity (0-20%) – a reflection of the technical difficulties of harvesting a crop which ripened over a long period of time and which had a number of other undesirable characters. Becker carried out a number of experiments and finally developed a method of obtaining seed of a satisfactory purity and germination capacity. He then, in conjunction with Mr Alf Hannaford, a manufacturer of agricultural machinery in South Australia, modified orthodox harvesting machines to suit the special characteristics of the seed and put the whole exercise on a commercial basis. The 'Unarlee' strain of veldt grass, as Becker himself named it, was at first highly successful, though its failure to stand up to heavy grazing has led to decreased use in recent years.
The Unarlee Pastoral Company, which was involved in the sowing, harvesting and sale of the pasture seed, became a substantial business. It was financed largely with money obtained by the sale of part of the Keith property in 1945. At its most active phase the Company produced seed over a wide area. The most suitable land at 'Beckersfield' was used and, in addition, Becker bought the right to use parts of several neighbouring properties. For the last few years of this operation – from 1947 onwards – Becker lived in Adelaide. He returned to Keith where he and Mrs Becker lived in a caravan for the periods of sowing, harvesting and preparing seed for sale.
The sale of his property at Keith (parts were sold in the late forties and early fifties) made Jack Becker a rich man, and outwardly at least, his style of living changed greatly. Before this, he and his wife had lived in modest, or even harsh, conditions. Mrs Becker had shared with her husband much of the work – she sewed costumes for players in the drum and fife bands; she carried out all the domestic chores in a household of three; and shared some of the lighter farmwork at Keith. From 1948 onwards life became easier; in 1952 Becker purchased from Mr Napier Birks, a large old-English style house in Springfield, one of Adelaide's wealthier suburbs, which he furnished comfortably with good taste, and he drove an expensive motor car. However, it seems that wealth did not much affect the Beckers' social aspirations. They lived apart from the rest of the farming community at Keith and the move to Springfield did not cause much change. They continued to live a quiet private life and shunned social activity. Nor did acquisition of wealth mean a retirement or even a curtailment in Becker's interests. During the next decade he broadened his agricultural pursuits: notably he established or bought a number of stud-breeding properties; he became a noted breeder of high-class thoroughbred race horses, and he took part in the development of commercial enterprises such as Timor Oil Limited. In all these ventures, Becker took a close and active interest but the very multiplicity of his activities made change essential. Though still personally involved, especially with his agricultural interests, he took on a much more managerial role. Moreover, it must have been a time of great financial planning. Even as a young man, according to his friends, Becker showed special interest in money-making schemes. With his newly increased financial resources, diverse large-scale investment became possible.
A further experience from this period of his life stood Becker in good stead. He became involved in litigation with the Federal Commissioner of Taxation. The sale of part of the Keith property in 1945 had not been questioned, but sales of the remainder, in 1947 and 1949, at prices greatly in excess of those originally paid, led the taxation authorities to argue that Becker had bought the land for the purpose of resale at a profit and assessed his tax accordingly. In a series of cases before the High Court in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney – the Commissioner appealed against the first judgement – in 1951 and 1952, it was decided that Becker did not buy the land at Keith with the purpose of resale at a profit.
In 1948, when he was 44, Becker set out to establish a thoroughbred stud. So he obtained stallions from England and New Zealand and a number of brood mares (about 20, it is said) from England and Australia.
The stud was widely scattered in South Australia and Victoria and fees for agistment were considerable, so Becker sought a place where all his horses could be conveniently housed and handled. In 1949 he bought a property of about 2 hectares, well-equipped for its purpose, in what is now the Adelaide suburb of Findon. This he named 'Ellerton Lodge'.
By 1951 the stud had so increased in size that it could no longer be housed at Ellerton Lodge and Becker decided to sell both the horses and the property. His blood-stock agents, however, persuaded him to keep the stud. The property was sold at a handsome profit in 1952. Soon after this Becker bought 800 hectares at Meningie, about 150km south of Adelaide on which he hoped he might at least temporarily accommodate his thoroughbreds and also for the production of veldt grass seed. But because of the shortage of water, and for other reasons this property proved unsuitable and Becker was again searching for land appropriate for his purpose. The Meningie land was sold, at a modest profit, in 1955.
In the meantime Becker had tried to buy stud properties in Victoria. Failing in this he decided to buy 93 hectares of land, 13km north of Adelaide, on which the owner was already breeding thoroughbred horses. The sale was completed in 1955. Initially Becker had hoped to use this land for his horse stud and as a place where he could store and clean the seed of veldt grass preparatory to its sale. But the death of some of his brood mares and some of his foals, and difficulties in raising an overdraft for the expensive job of reestablishing and running a horse stud led him to change his mind. In March 1955 he sold his horses; and later that year the property with its stables, yards and stallion boxes. Thereafter Becker sought safer and more conventional areas in which to make his investments.
The importance to Becker of this incursion into the exotic world of the racing and breeding of thoroughbreds was indirect but considerable. His last horse stud property was close to a proposed new satellite town between Salisbury and Smithfield. And though it did not figure among the land which later was sold for sub-division, it was this initial purchase, clearly made with no intention of entering the lucrative field of dealings in real estate, which brought Becker to the area and sharpened his desire to establish his pastoral interests there. The rationale behind his purchases at Smithfield, and the step by step development for its use as a merino and cattle stud must have influenced quite strongly the decisions made later in courts of law about Becker's liability for taxation on his profits from sales of land in the area.
Among the many interests of Becker's varied and energetic life the breeding of high quality stock – Dorset Horn and Merino sheep, Hereford cattle, thoroughbred horses, and even pigs and goats – predominated. At various times he owned numerous large and small stud properties but the most noteworthy were at Smithfield and Angle Vale in South Australia, Brewarrana and Castle Bend in New South Wales, and Aldersend in England. As a breeder of stud animals, especially Merino sheep and Hereford cattle, Becker showed skills and judgement beyond that of the astute businessman and entrepreneur. Mr G.P. Auld who was himself an expert judge of stock gave me this account:
I was manager of the North Bungaree Merino Stud at Andrews, South Australia. Becker had purchased a property at Smithfield and wished to begin stud merino breeding, employing some of the then radical ideas he had developed in the fields of animal nutrition and fertility. He came to North Bungaree seeking to purchase 3 top rams and 200 cast for age ewes. After the selection of the ewes, which he left entirely to me, we moved to the ram shed. In this shed were some 60 rams, all of top selection, carefully fed and trimmed to show them at their best. To our surprise and concern, Becker insisted on making the selection himself. To a layman, rams are rams and look much the same, but Becker with his incredible eye for conformation and balance selected the three top rams in the shed, an extraordinary feat. Hawker, the owner of North Bungaree, and with a very different background from Becker, was fascinated with the man.
In 1963, I witnessed a similar performance at the Sydney Royal Show. Becker, in 1962, purchased the famous 'Brewarrana' property on the banks of the Murrumbidgee at Narrandera, New South Wales, together with its top poll Hereford stud. We had decided to strengthen the sires and it was necessary to buy a bull. We walked through the cattle shed in which there were some 150 show bulls. Becker selected a bull – Castle Bend Apex – which next day was to become the Reserve Champion of the Show and later was sold at auction to Becker for the then record price of 8,000 guineas. The bull went on to sire progeny which sold for over 300,000 dollars.
Of all Becker's stud breeding projects, that carried out at Smithfield seems to me the most interesting. Before this time, Becker had little experience in breeding high-class sheep or cattle for stud purposes. His ventures during the nineteen thirties with Jersey cattle at Aldgate and Dorset Horn sheep at Lower Light had evidently been on a small scale. He had, of course, been concerned with thoroughbred horses. But this was, and perhaps still is, an arcane, highly specialised activity with a jargon, social structure and technology almost of its own.
At the time of its formation Becker was chief shareholder of the Smithfield Pastoral Company. A well known lawyer and a practising accountant, both close friends of Becker's, held small parcels of shares in trust for him. The company's activities were carried out, in the first instance, on a property of about 480 hectares on the northern boundary of metropolitan Adelaide from about 1955 to 1960 when it was sold to the Housing Trust.
Much of the property was capable of considerable improvement. It had been bought as a number of small parcels from several different sections and it was divided by the main North Road from Adelaide. Fences were renewed, pasture improvement was started and it was stocked with Merino sheep and Border Leicester rams. Becker, it seems, at first wished to use it as a Dorset Horn stud; later he changed his mind and decided to use Merinos.
In 1957 Becker visited the famous South Australian Merino stud, North Bungaree, and bought 230 stud ewes and 3 outstanding rams. Two other North Bungaree rams were purchased in 1958; something over £6,000 for the two.
Auld was manager and stud master at North Bungaree when Becker made his visit. He had been one of a party of students at Roseworthy Agricultural College many years before to whom Becker had demonstrated the use of the 'Elastrator Ring' for castrating lambs and calves, a method developed in New Zealand and in which Becker had a commercial interest. Auld's early favourable impression of Becker was reinforced when they met the second time. And in 1959, when he decided to leave North Bungaree, Auld was pleased to enter Becker's employment as manager and stud master at Smithfield. Later Auld became manager and stud master of Becker's valuable Merino and Hereford holdings in New South Wales and England. He also became a co-director in Becker's companies and acted as his agent in many commercial enterprises. It is clear that Becker greatly valued his advice.
The establishment of better pastures, especially lucerne, continued under Auld's guidance; and other improvements with the view to long-term benefits were continued. This was expensive and yearly financial losses were considerable. They rose from about £2,000 pa over the first three years to £13,900 and £10,195 in 1959 and 1960 when drought conditions necessitated the purchase of fodder. In the year 1960-1961 a profit of £15,807 was obtained and, as it is probable that the actual value of the stock was a good deal higher than the book values, the true financial position of the company was much better than these figures indicate. If the Smithfield venture had continued there is little doubt that, building on the expensive preparatory work, it would have been highly successful in the years following 1961.
However, certain limitations and difficulties became clear about that time. Becker's hopes for an extensive irrigation system from underground water were dashed by a report from the Department of Agriculture which indicated that the prospect of finding sufficient water for this project was poor. In addition, the growth of the adjacent township of Elizabeth led to increasing losses due to trespassers and sheep-killing dogs. Not only were large numbers of lambs injured or killed, but the lambing percentage, due to harassment by dogs dropped from an anticipated 75% to 52%. These factors led to a decision to sell the land at Smithfield and to move the stud elsewhere. Following an approach from the South Australian Housing Trust the whole property was sold to it for £853,000.
During the later years at Smithfield, Becker, chiefly with advice from Auld but also from some overseas visitors, established a number of changes in the management of the feeding and breeding of his stud sheep. The most publicised of the innovations was the use of free choice feeding. This was described by Mr Auld to visitors at a field day held at Smithfield in early 1961 as a plan 'to give sheep an even balanced diet – food known to be preferred from paddock observation of the sheep'. The three main components of the diet, oats, lucerne or any other good quality hay, and calcium were fed ad libitum from paddock feeders. But sheep also had access at all times to growing pastures. Under these circumstances the genetic potential of high-class sheep was exploited: wool production and quality was lifted, and body size and conformation was improved.
At about this time also, at the suggestion of Dr G.B. Sharman of the University of Adelaide (now Professor Sharman, FAA, Macquarie University), experiments on the transplantation of eggs were conducted at Smithfield. The exercise was aimed at devising and testing a method of bringing into Australia the developing ova of South African stud Angora goats. 'Carrier rabbits' were to be used for transporting the fertilised ova. So it seemed possible that the importation of blue tongue-free eggs from mohair goats of the highest quality might be achieved by this method. Becker was enthusiastic and, in association with Mr C.F. Smith, a pastoralist at Balhannah, South Australia, he argued the case with the Minister responsible for the quarantine regulations in Australia. Despite the support of the South African authorities permission to import the ova was refused and the experiments were discontinued. They were restarted later with Mr F. Holt, a veterinarian from England in charge, in attempts to transfer ova from sheep at Smithfield to sheep in NSW. Bovine egg-transfer was practised also.
The sale of the Smithfield property did not signal a halt in Becker's ambitions as a pastoralist. During the nineteen sixties he acquired properties which had established reputations as producers of some of the world's finest Hereford cattle. Nor did he abandon his innovative plans: forward-looking ideas were tested on his newly-acquired properties and special efforts were made to improve breeding practices with his Hereford cattle. However, as Becker became more and more recognized as one of Australia's leading stud breeders his high quality animals, especially his poll Herefords, gained increasing publicity and less was heard about his innovative practices.
In the early nineteen sixties there took place a rapid expansion in Becker's pastoral interests. His financial activities, always highly complex, became more widespread, and Lady Becker's affairs also became more involved. Several factors evidently influenced these changes. With the large sale of land to the Housing Trust Becker became very wealthy; there was a need to find a new home for the Smithfield Merino stud and an increasing recognition of Pat Auld's outstanding ability as an advisor on pastoral and financial matters.
On Auld's advice 504 hectares at Angle Vale, close to the Smithfield land, was bought for £330,000. It was to accommodate the Merino stud, and a new venture, a Hereford cattle stud as well.
While seeking suitable cattle for the Angle Vale stud Auld found that Brewarrana stud near Narrandera in New South Wales together with the property was for sale. Early in 1962 Brewarrana Pty Ltd which became a member of the Smithfield group of companies, purchased the 4,800 hectares and the poll Hereford stud established there. The Beckers thus became owners of Brewarrana itself and two adjoining properties, Weir Park and Gum Creek.
Two further proprietary companies became subsidiaries of Smithfield. In 1962 Aldersend Ltd (UK) was formed, followed by Castle Bend Pty Ltd in 1964.
Aldersend was a 240 hectare farm at Tarrington, Herefordshire, and carried a world-famous Hereford stud. Shortly after this transaction, Becker, who was a member of the Royal Commonwealth Society, spoke feelingly in an interview about relations between Australia and 'the Mother country' – 'one big family' – his aspiration, he said, was to produce in both countries some of the highest-quality Hereford cattle. The Aldersend property was sold privately in 1967. The stock was sold by auction and much of it went to New Zealand.
Castle Bend at Bendooley near Bowral, New South Wales was a poll Hereford stud. On its purchase Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker became owners of the 'top two poll Hereford studs in Australia'.
These properties in New South Wales with Angle Vale in South Australia comprised the principal pastoral interests jointly owned by Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker.
Gladys Becker however, in conjunction with her company, the Adelunga Pastoral Company, also owned 168 hectares of valuable land at O'Halloran Hill on the southern border of metropolitan Adelaide. This land, bought in 1954, had been developed with Jack Becker's help as a poll Hereford and Merino stud. Though it was not sold until 1976, long after most of the Smithfield Properties, it did not achieve the publicity as a high quality stud of its more famous counterparts in New South Wales.
Becker's activities as a pastoralist were spectacular. And there is no doubt that in terms of quality of the actual stock he produced he was highly successful. It is doubtful, however, whether he was so successful financially. The running costs of his properties were high and were increasing; and severe droughts, especially in New South Wales, cut his profits, so that by 1966 the deteriorating financial position led to the decision to sell Angle Vale as broad acres. No suitable buyer could be found, however, so the Narrandera land – Brewarrana, Weir Park and Gum Creek – was sold by public auction in Sydney on 16 May 1967; Castle Bend was sold soon after. By early 1968 the stock from all properties had also been sold. These factors – financial difficulties and the sale of the stud properties – led to the increasing importance of transactions in real estate in the affairs of Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker.
At the time Becker began buying land at Smithfield in 1955 it was clear that the area had considerable potential for subdivision into building blocks. The region, 13km north of Adelaide, had been used for agricultural and pastoral purposes for many years. But about 1950 it became generally known that the Government of South Australia was planning to establish a satellite town, later known as Elizabeth, in that area. Moreover, reports indicating that the Housing Trust of South Australia would be seeking land for housing sites had appeared in local newspapers so that the region was considered as promising for development as real estate.
Becker was aware of this. But his purchases in the area were dictated by the circumstances of the expansion of his thoroughbred stud and later of the establishment of his sheep stud. Indeed his first purchase in the area, though it had been offered to the Housing Trust, was later sold to a company which previously bought Ellerton Lodge and which proposed to carry on with the breeding of horses on the Smithfield land.
Several requests, including one from the Housing Trust, were received by Becker in 1955 and 1956 for the purchase of other parts of the Smithfield property. However, the company rejected all of them. The Trust was informed that the property had been acquired for pastoral purposes and that the company was not inclined to change its plans. In February 1956 the Housing Trust again sought an option on 25 hectares – part of the 480 hectares Becker had bought in 1955 for £256.5.0 per hectare. At first Becker refused to consider the sale. The Trust was told that the area it sought contained the best of the company's land and that if it were sold it would be necessary to replace it with land bought at a much higher price. The Housing Trust was persistent and informed Becker that failure to secure the land would jeopardize the Trust's plans for the region. Finally, in May 1957, the Trust bought the land at a price of £750 per hectare.
As a result of the difficulties in maintaining a sheep stud in the area the remaining part of the Smithfield property (some 500 hectares), was sold during 1960 to the Housing Trust. The total cost of the land bought by the Company in the period 1955 to 1957 was about £149,000. The Housing Trust paid £853,000 for it.
It was against the background of these events that the subsequent case of Smithfield Pastoral Company Pty Ltd versus the Federal Commissioner of Taxation must be considered. The litigation concerned the profits made by the company at Smithfield for the sale of the land in 1957 and 1960. The Commissioner held that these profits were part of the company's assessable income because, it was argued, the land had been bought for the purpose of resale at a profit. The company, in an appeal to the High Court against this view, claimed that the land was purchased for agricultural and pastoral purposes with the object of establishing a sheep stud. The judge decided to allow the appeal with costs and set aside the assessments. An attempt by the Commissioner of Taxation to have his decision reversed was unsuccessful. Becker saved £350,000 in taxation.
The next large scale venture in real estate started in 1957. Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker, who were then the main shareholders in the Smithfield Pastoral Company, decided to realise all the properties of the company. In the sale of the Narrandera property the part known as Gum Creek was in effect exchanged for Kelway Park, a property of some 70 hectares situated at Salisbury East, just outside a developed housing area. So the company then became owner of two areas at Angle Vale and Salisbury East which were nicely placed for development as real estate.
After the failure in 1966 and 1967 to sell the Angle Vale land as broad acres it was decided to go ahead with the sub-division using money obtained from the sale at Narrandera to finance this highly expensive operation. Sixty-two 4-hectare allotments were developed and, by the end of 1969, they had all been sold. The remainder of the property was sold in due course as vineyard country which, together with a winery, had been developed by Angle Vale Vineyards Pty Ltd a brainchild of Auld's.
At this time a further difficulty arose when the sub-division and sale of Kelway Park was frustrated by the South Australian Commissioner of Highways who compulsorily acquired the land.
By this transaction Becker was denied the possibility of selling the land as building blocks. In addition, considerable investment in the form of interest in loans, mortgages and the costs incurred in the management of the land was not realised. As a result Brewarrana Pty Ltd sought compensation from the Commission of Highways in the Supreme Court. After prolonged hearings in 1972 and 1973 the company was awarded some £275,000 plus interest, minus the £195,000 already paid by the Department of Highways.
About this time Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker moved from Darling Point, Sydney, where they had lived since leaving Adelaide, and moved to their final home in Pembroke, Bermuda. It was in anticipation of this move that they had decided to realise on their investments in Australia. Their final and most prolonged litigation in Australia concerned their last large real estate deal. This was the sale of 186 hectares of land at O'Halloran Hill, on the southern border of metropolitan Adelaide, which was owned by Lady Becker.
Sales of parts of the property were relatively uncomplicated. It was the desire of Lady Becker to sub-divide 26 hectares, much of it on the Hills Face Zone near Seaview Downs which led to prolonged and complex litigation.
The dispute started in 1970 when Lady Becker lodged a 'proposal plan' for the sub-division with the Director of Planning, and continued for six years before the Planning Appeal Board, the Supreme Court of South Australia and finally the Privy Council.
The Privy Council decided in favour of Lady Becker but the sub-division was never effected. The area was bought by the State Planning Authority and the character of the Hills Face Zone was preserved. The purchase was made, however, at a price appropriate for residential building sites.
Though Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker had other dealings in real estate it was those largely concerned with development for housing on the fringes of Adelaide which provided most substantially towards their financial success and illustrate again Sir Ellerton's skill in planning and carrying out his business ventures.
On 23 March 1961 Becker wrote to the President of the Academy, Sir John Eccles, to say that he had decided to make a donation 'to establish a Fund for the benefit of the Academy' – the fund was later named the J. Ellerton Becker Fund. The donation, £100,000 to be made in annual payments of £10,000, was to come from Becker's private company, the Smithfield Pastoral Company Ltd of which he was the Managing Director. He also provided an audited balance sheet covering the affairs of the company, that of his wife who traded as the Adelunga Pastoral Company, and of his private investments. To ensure that the Academy had a proper understanding of his financial standing he urged that this report should be examined by the Academy's solicitors.
The donation was the outcome of discussions between Becker and Dr I.W. Wark (later Sir Ian Wark) who was Treasurer of the Academy at that time. Letters about the Academy of Science had been sent, in hope of attracting donations, to a number of people, largely solicitors, who might be concerned with the affairs of wealthy people. One of them was Mr Gavin Laver, a Melbourne solicitor, and a lifelong friend of Wark's. In a private conversation, Wark had impressed on his friend the importance of the Academy's role in Australian science and its need for financial help. Copies of the Academy Year Book and a brochure describing the Academy building, then partly completed, were sent to Laver after he had requested more information.
Among Laver's clients was Mr R. Dodson who had been closely associated with Becker in getting a concession to 'prospect, develop and exploit' the oil resources of what was then Portuguese Timor from Mr Jose du Veiga Lima. Dodson and Becker were two of the Australian Directors, and du Veiga Lima was one of the overseas Directors of Timor Oil Ltd for which the concession was obtained. It seems that Dodson told Laver of Becker's great wealth and how it originated from solution of the problem of trace-element deficiency.
This had established in Becker's mind the importance of science in the development of Australia's resources and he was deeply impressed when he was shown copies of the Year Book and the building brochure. At any rate, Laver got in touch with Wark and told him that Becker was giving serious consideration to leaving part of a large fortune to the Academy and that he would also consider making a substantial donation in cash. Wark acted promptly. After a telephone call he visited Becker in Adelaide on 29 December 1960. This was the beginning of a cordial relationship between the two men which resulted in financial gain for the Academy. Becker, it seems, was quick to appreciate the role of the Academy in the scientific and technological affairs of Australia: and he soon had a firm grasp of the Academy's financial problems. In the letter he wrote which accompanied the statement of the gift from the Smithfield Pastoral Company he said:
My wife and I are most impressed by the literature and information we have received relating to the Australian Academy of Science and to the various aspects of scientific research which its Fellows are carrying out both individually and as Fellows of the Academy as a National body. My appreciation of this work is stimulated as a result of experiments concerning the improvement of merino sheep, and other research being carried out by Smithfield Pastoral Company Limited, of which I am Chairman and Managing Director; also from my previous collaboration with CSIRO on my property at Keith in the four years of experiments which led to the discovery of the trace element deficiency in the Ninety Mile Desert.
After a number of discussions between Becker, Wark, Professor T.M. Cherry (who had succeeded Eccles as President) and other members of the Council it was decided that the donation of £100,000 offered by Becker should not be used to pay off the debt on the Academy building but for the advancement of the scientific interests of the Academy. It seems that this proposal came largely from Becker himself: he thought that the building was most likely to attract donations from other sources.
Younger Fellows of the Academy who are now involved in the wide-ranging often time-consuming, activities of the Academy may not appreciate the frustration and feeling of inadequacy which affected many Fellows during the early years after the granting of the Charter. As a member of Sir John Eccles's Council, 1958-1960, I felt, with others on the Council, that we had no real recognition among most scientists or the Australian public, that we lacked an effective role, and that Council meetings were concerned with internal matters of little consequence to science. This feeling is borne out by a comparison of minutes of early meetings and those of today when important scientific matters dominate agendas. Of course this was partly due to the youth of the Academy but recognition and real usefulness in science required money. It was needed for conferences, scientific reports and investigations, publications, fellowships and so on. In addition to grants from the Australian Government the Academy received in its early years some generous gifts. With the help of Mr Essington Lewis (Broken Hill Propriety Company Ltd), Mr W.S. Robinson (Zinc Corporation of Australia, now CRA Ltd) and Sir Ian Potter (Potter Partners, stockbrokers) substantial donations had been obtained. Mr (later Sir) Adolph Basser had provided £25,000 for the establishment of the Adolph Basser Library of the Academy. In 1959 the Selby Fellowship was started as an annual endowment by H.B. Selby Australia Ltd and there were also a number of smaller gifts. But these donations, helpful as they were, did not provide sufficient money for the Academy to complete the building of its administrative and conference centre in Canberra as well as to meet, to a proper degree, its varied obligations to assist in the development of Australian and international science. It was the magnificent donation from Becker's Smithfield Pastoral Company which entirely changed the outlook. Not only was the Academy in a position to do something actively to promote the role of science but the confidence of the Fellowship was strengthened generally and the future role of the Academy seemed to be established without question.
Becker's first gift of £100,000 from the Smithfield Pastoral Company was followed within a few months with another gift of the same amount, this time directly from Becker himself. Cherry, in announcing the second gift on 8 November 1961, warmly thanked the donor and said that the total of his gifts to the Academy 'was substantially greater than any single gift that a scientific academy had ever received, including the Royal Society of London, which was granted its first Charter by King Charles the Second three hundred years ago'.
The purpose of the second donation was primarily to enable the Academy to pay its debt on the building in Canberra – the Academy's bankers who provided part of the finance were pressing for repayment. Ultimately, when payment was completed in June 1977, $185,000 had been used from the Becker Fund for this purpose. In appreciation of Becker's gift the conference chamber, which is the major feature of the building, was named 'Becker Hall'.
Up to June 1982, $157,200 from the Becker Fund has been used to support scientific ventures, chiefly: senior fellowships, $43,800; symposia $16,000; scientific discussion meetings and public lectures, $60,000; on the school biology project, $9,500. A less expensive but important use of the Becker Fund ($9,000) was to initiate exchange visits between the Academia Sinica and the Australian Academy of Science, an action which has greatly assisted in establishing the pleasant relationship which now exists between scientists in the People's Republic of China and Australia.
In addition to support for more expressly scientific exercises, the Becker Fund has been used to meet part of the costs of the Special General Meeting on the occasion in 1962 when Prince Philip visited the Academy ($2,500) and for the Jubilee Celebrations attended by Prince Charles. The final payment, $75,000, from the Smithfield Pastoral Company, was made in 1981.
Becker made clear the reasons for his gift to the Academy in many conversations with Fellows after his election. But his views are best summed up in the words of his long-time associate and friend, Mr G.P. Auld. 'His gift to the Academy was based on two premises – firstly, that he was certain that his money would not be wasted – that it would be put to a creative and productive use for the benefit of all Australians and secondly because he believed that the very cream of Australia's intellect and brains were gathered in the body of the Academy disciplined by the ethics of their calling. His position as a member of the Academy Council gave him great satisfaction principally because he was in social and business contact with those who had similar intellectual capacity. His respect for his fellow members was very obvious.'
In April 1961 Becker was made a Fellow of the Academy by 'special' election. On the certificate of nomination it was stated that Becker had 'taken a leading part in the application of scientific methods to primary industry' and 'that his election would be of signal benefit to the Academy and the advancement of science'. This latter phrase derives directly from the Bye-laws dealing with the qualifications of candidates for special election, thus:
From time to time the Council may deem it desirable that the Academy should elect to Fellowship a person who has rendered conspicuous service to the cause of science or whose election would be of signal benefit to the Academy and to the advancement of science.
The Bye-laws outline the strict conditions under which such an election may be effected, and also, in 1962, stated that no more than four persons could be specially elected in any ten consecutive years.
The chief contribution that Becker made in the application of science to primary industry lay in the initiative he had shown in offering facilities for large-scale experiments on possible trace-element deficiency in the soils of Keith, South Australia. It was this offer which stimulated Dr David Riceman of CSIRO immediately to undertake the extensive research programme he already had in mind to test his hypotheses about the nature of the soil in that region. The personal successes that Becker achieved in developing commercial production and harvesting of seed of Clare clover and veldt grass were notable but they certainly were not of general scientific or technical importance. Also, the work on the nutrition and breeding of the Merino stud at Smithfield, carried out under the supervision of Mr G.P. Auld, though it created considerable interest and produced some results illustrating the value of good stock management, was not important scientifically. The Fellows of the Academy who overwhelmingly supported the special election of Becker to Fellowship were aware of the extent and value of Becker's scientific interests, and though his achievements in this field were not discounted, the support for his election came, quite properly in my view, for the great financial help he had given the Academy, so encouraging, in the best possible way, the advancement of science in Australia. Not only did his donations allow for the first time the development of major scientific activities by the Academy, they also had a profound effect on the morale of the Fellowship – the Academy could, and did, from then on, assume with confidence a leading role in the development of Australian science.
One Fellow of the Academy opposed the special election of Becker. Dr H.R. Marston who was Chief of the Division of Biochemistry and General Nutrition – Dr Riceman was a member of his staff – regarded the basis of Becker's candidature as unsatisfactory and predicted that his election to the Academy would cause irreparable harm. To put it in its crudest form, Marston believed that the references in Becker's certificate of candidature, to his 'leading part in the application of scientific methods to primary industry', and the assertion that 'in co-operation with scientists he pioneered the investigation which led to the discovery of trace-element deficiencies in the Ninety-mile Desert of South Australia', were devised by those who prepared the certificate to mislead the Fellowship. Becker's gifts to the Academy were in Marston's view the price of his election, and this he found distasteful.
There is no doubt that Marston acted with proper regard to the ideals and status of the Academy. But subsequent disclosures and events proved him wrong. Wark, who was primarily responsible for Becker's interest in the Academy, had taken great care to examine Becker's contributions to primary industry and many of the fellows were aware of his findings. Becker himself made no improper claims and though he did, I believe, attach somewhat more importance than was warranted to the work on nutrition of sheep carried out at Smithfield, this was because in laymen's eyes it certainly would look spectacular. So Becker became a respected Fellow of the Academy and an effective member of its Council (1965-1968). And his action in providing the money which allowed the Academy to enlarge greatly the scope of its activities certainly led to the advancement of science in Australia.
Early in his discussions with Gavin Laver, Wark had made the point that a generous donation to the Academy would earn the approval of the Prime Minister, Mr R.G. Menzies. Indeed there is evidence indicating that Menzies did, in a 'gentleman's agreement' with Sir John Eccles, consider the recommendation of a civil award for Mr Becker at the time the gifts to the Academy were made – a time 'when the pressing need for payments towards the cost of the Academy building threatened a financial scandal'.
Becker's extensive philanthropy – his decade of fund-raising for the Music League of South Australia, for the Children's Hospital and the YMCA, as well as his gifts to the Academy – and his assistance in stimulating the application of science to primary industry were recognized by the Queen in 1962. He was created a Knight Bachelor and received the accolade from Her Majesty at Buckingham Palace.
In l971 Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker left Australia never to return. Becker had disposed of his Australian interests: his last home, a luxurious penthouse at Darling Point, Sydney was sold. He retired to live in Bermuda where he set up his new home 'Blue Highway' at Point Shares, Pembroke and obtained local citizenship. The perfectionist attitudes which had characterised his life were there expressed in the house, its beautiful antique furniture and works of art and the magnificent garden he created on what was at first a stony, spare soil surrounding it.
Becker's retirement was complete. His urge to succeed and achieve in large-scale business ventures apparently had been satisfied by his dealings in Australia.
What sort of man was he? Though I met him many times our discussions, seen in retrospect, were narrow and limited. They were chiefly about the experiments on egg transplantation which were being carried out at Smithfield, and about the affairs of the Academy. So I have few first-hand impressions of him; I think of him now as a quiet, somewhat introspective man who guarded his own thoughts and personality with great care – a man who was difficult to know well.
My reading of papers relating to his life and my talks with people who knew him at school and in his later life have not helped me much. Sometimes the views expressed to me have made me wonder if people were talking about the same man. Thus what I have written here comes partly from inferences I have drawn from the factual account of his activities, and from opinions I have heard expressed by his friends and acquaintances, particularly G.P. Auld, one of his close friends, an associate in business, pastoral activities and court procedures.
The little I have been able to discover about Becker's forebears gives no indication as to his character or ability. His great-grandfather and grandfather, it seems, held responsible jobs as governors of important gaols in South Australia; evidently they were men of integrity and administrative ability. I know nothing of his mother's kinsfolk. But it seems that his mother was the dominating influence in his life. She was a strong disciplinarian and inculcated in her son a perfectionist attitude which was apparent in many of his later activities. (Even the screws in his house in Adelaide had the lines of their heads carefully aligned horizontally.)
Jack Becker was brought up in a middlle class, non-professional family which was comfortable enough, but not wealthy. And he seems to have learned and accepted the middle class mores of the Australia of that time. He was honest, hardworking, respectful of religion but not religious. He was patriotic and thought highly of the British Commonwealth and the Royal Family. Both he and Lady Becker were puritan in outlook – they disapproved of the permissive society; pornography and 'dirty story talk' revolted Becker. He observed strictly the social courtesies, but he was not himself, nor was his wife, socially inclined. His social activities were confined very largely to business dinners and contacts with a few friends. But there is no doubt that he got great pleasure and satisfaction from his knighthood, a distinction he must have coveted greatly.
His relations with his wife were close; they were very dependent upon each other and completely devoted. During their early days together Gladys Becker helped her husband in many practical ways. And when Becker's increasing wealth made life easier she became involved in his financial activities, often advising him about the character of the people he dealt with, and taking part in business decisions as director of her own Adelunga Pastoral Company. Later she became a major creditor of the Smithfield group of companies and probably had an active but not initiative influence in family affairs.
It seems that the major driving force in life for Becker was the urge to make money. Even the friends of his early years have commented on his consuming interest in the detailed planning of possible money-making schemes – his careful consideration of the profitability of possible ventures. This thoughtful financial planning was given practical expression in many different areas: manufacturing industry, oil development, the sale under franchise of various products, as well as his more publicised large-scale operations. But what brought his attention in the first place to his more spectacular money-making projects?
How Becker's interest in music arose is unclear. Soon after he left school he bought a mandolin which he learnt to play using a 'self-tutor'. By the age of seventeen he had also taught himself to play the violin and was giving music lessons – often only one lesson ahead of his students. So young Becker evidently had unusual skills as a musician which, coupled with his natural business acumen, made for the rapid and dramatic growth of the Adelaide College of Music. But I doubt if the College can be regarded as arising from a deep interest in music itself: if it did, it soon became much more of a commercial enterprise than a cultural undertaking.
The parallel development of the Music League of South Australia showed clearly the entrepreneurial leadership, theatrical skills and musicianship which Becker possessed. And though here again his capacity to make money was demonstrated, this time it was devoted wholly unselfishly to philanthropic ends. Becker's desire to foster an interest in music in school children, which he pursued with outstanding success at that time, also illustrates an interest in public welfare and the more generous side of his character.
There is no evidence that Becker's interests in agriculture, stud stock and real estate were in any way dependent upon his family background. Just as his concern for music was self-generated, so it seems were his interests in these other areas.
Becker evidently had a liking for agricultural pursuits quite apart from their financial aspects. His skill in assessing the quality of stud sheep and cattle seems to have been a natural gift. But why he turned to agriculture as an avenue for his business activity is unclear. At the time when he first showed an interest in this direction, the early nineteen thirties, agricultural land like almost everything else during the depression, had fallen in value. And even in 1940, when he made his first large-scale essay into farming at Dongara in Western Australia, land values were still depressed. But it seems likely that his motive for this venture was resale at a profit. Indeed the farm in Dongara was sold in 1943 before substantial rises in price had occurred: it was sold at a considerable loss. And his smaller agricultural enterprises of that time were similarly unsuccessful. It seems almost as if the young Becker's enthusiasm for agricultural pursuits at first outweighed his financial judgement. He did not hesitate, however, to sell at a loss in order to invest in more profitable areas.
Though the sale of the Adelaide College of Music first made Becker a wealthy man it was his success in engineering Riceman's brilliant trace-element work which established him as a man with an interest and understanding in the technical problems of agriculture. It is clear that he did not anticipate the precise nature of Riceman's solution to the problem of the infertility of the region; however, there is also no doubt that he realised that a solution was not far off and that Riceman would know how to get it. At Keith, Becker also demonstrated his own innovative skills in agriculture by solving the technical problems of growing, harvesting and marketing the seed of Clare clover and 'Unarlee' veldt grass, and, in smaller ways, in overcoming the shortages of war-time Australia, using steel scraps from the manufacture of pocket knives for the reinforcing of his concrete posts and so on. And it was when he sold the Keith property that he learnt the value of careful business planning to overcome the limitations the law might set in the realisation of his profits.
In some respects Becker's entry into the highly competitive and expensive field of breeding and racing thoroughbreds seems out of character. The press attributed his interest to a love of horses rather than to any hopes of financial reward. That may have been true. Becker's good eye for the conformation of high-class stud stock could well have been translated into an aesthetic appreciation of the thoroughbred. No doubt the social distinction awarded to outstanding figures in the racing world would also have given him great satisfaction. I do not imply that Becker would have wished to exploit such a distinction socially; but he would, I believe, have enjoyed the more formal courtesies of the upper crust racing world. On the other hand, for people of Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker's outlook, the gambling associated with horse racing would have been distasteful. It certainly would have lessened his aesthetic appreciation of the spectacle of the race course. The fact that Becker's connection with the breeding and racing of thoroughbreds was for a relatively short period, less than a decade from beginning to end, suggests that the rewards he gained from the exercise were not worth the financial stress and the worry associated with the care of his brood mares and their foals. The alternative explanation that Becker's need to achieve and succeed, quite outside his desire to thrive financially, had been satisfied so that he could divest himself so abruptly of his racing interests implies that the aesthetic and social rewards were unimportant to him.
Becker's remarkable acumen as a businessman, his outstanding ability as an organizer and his capacity to handle a variety of pressing problems simultaneously were surely demonstrated during his time in the nineteen sixties as a pastoralist and breeder of stud stock. It was a period in which he greatly expanded his pastoral holdings (in South Australia, New South Wales and England), a period when his stud stock, increased by purchase and by his carefully-planned breeding programmes, reached peak numbers. Drought, unprecedentedly severe in New South Wales caused serious losses; the Smithfield Pastoral Company and its complex of subsiduaries became highly complicated, pressing 'liquidity problems' arose and the legal battles of the Company versus the Commissioner of Taxation and his subsequent appeal were fought and won. Early in the decade Becker made his donations to the Academy of Science and served on its Council; later he sold most of his properties and his stock. Such turmoil and stress would surely have marked most men: on Becker apparently it had little outward effect although it probably influenced his decision to leave Australia and to retire in Bermuda. As money-making exercises Becker's activities as a pastoralist and breeder of stud stock were not outstandingly successful. Indeed a good part of Becker's wealth came from the sale, as real estate, of his pastoral properties near Adelaide.
Becker's philosophy about money is illustrated by his own business activities and by his attitude to taxation and profit-making. To him money was not so much to be enjoyed but to be made to work. As Mr Auld told me: 'His approach to money was an obsession with him. He believed that to hand money to Governments in the form of taxation was to see it wasted. One of the reasons for his gift to the Academy was that he was certain that the money would be used in the best possible way for the benefit of fellow mankind. It was not that he was opposed to taxation in principle – he could not see how public servants, who, he always said, had no motivation, could use money in the most efficient way. This obsession was, of course, the main reason for his many jousts with the Taxation Department from which he emerged mainly victorious but somewhat battered emotionally.'
But Becker believed that profit-making should not be taken to excess. Once when Auld had told him of a sale of sheep he had just brought off he was rebuked: 'You are a fool. Remember that a good business deal is one in which all parties make a profit. Always leave something for the other fellow'. He often took great pains to explain how the end-result of his transactions would benefit all those concerned. He was meticulous in meeting his commitments: Charles Smith recalled Becker's forceful instruction to his agent that payments for stock should be prompt and courteously transacted. He always expected to be treated himself as he treated others. Becker's business associates with whom I have spoken all thought highly, though one somewhat grudgingly, of his integrity. Mr David Cole who acted as an agent for several of his land deals in or near Adelaide found him to be a well-organized, straight-forward and acute businessman.
Becker was no colourful tycoon. He had no formal administrative staff and he did not preside over impressive boards of directors. His enterprises, it seems, were conducted largely from his own home not from impressive offices in big-city buildings. Becker was an individualist, a strictly private, self-made man in business affairs and in his social life. Certainly his early achievements, the setting up of the Adelaide College of Music and his successes in the Ninety-mile Desert, were more akin to the exploitation of a 'frontier society' of the town and country rather than feats of a modern tycoon.
In no instance during Becker's long history of litigation were his activities in any way discredited but he still has a rather unsavoury reputation among some people who never had any direct dealings with him. Certainly some of my colleagues think poorly of him: 'a rather shady character – that taxation business, you know', was one retort I got. And of his work at Keith one said: 'Yes, Becker made a fortune, got a knighthood and a fellowship of the Academy: David Riceman got a DSc and three papers'. Well yes: but that was the difference between Sir Ellerton Becker and Dr David Riceman. For Becker the pleasure of success was measured at the end-point; for a scientist much of the pleasure is in the process, in the intellectual fondling of the hypothesis and the fitting together of the facts to get the whole story. To my knowledge Becker was not so much interested in science as in what it might achieve. In the work on egg transplantation it was the importance of the end-product, a way of making more use of the outstanding dam or sire, which intrigued him: it was not the biology and physiology which might make this possible.
I doubt if Becker could have been a successful scientist. He was a poor student at school, university and technical college. To me, at any rate, he lacked an aesthetic appreciation of science and he never sought to pursue scientific matters by reading or in detailed discussion. Though Becker admired the discipline and ethics of scientific thinking I believe his interest was superficial rather than philosophical. But it would be unwise to suggests limits to Becker's possible intellectual horizons; he was so involved in his own complex affairs that he could have had little time for the serious study of scientific matters.
Becker's most generous gesture in terms of money was his donation to the Australian Academy of Science which was made in anticipation of the award of his knighthood. Apart from this and the help he gave, as Director of the Music League of South Australia, in raising money for the support of public and patriotic institutions, Becker's philanthropy was more personal and he rarely made gifts of money. He often became concerned about the troubles of his friends and associates but his help was indirect rather than in the form of cash.
Of course Becker had his weaknesses. He was extremely impatient of any opposition: his violent reaction to even the slightest criticism destroyed many of his friendships. Auld believes that it was his resentment of criticism which led Becker to leave Australia and to 'bury himself in Bermuda'.
A mild conceit is indicated by the way his name changed as he became more successful. He was first the Jack Becker of the Adelaide College, then J.E. Becker of the Music League and of his early years as a pastoralist. Then came the thoroughbred breeder, J. Ellerton Becker. To the Fellows of the Academy he met he was Jack Becker but when his knighthood was announced, the President of the day remarked with a smile, 'I somehow don't think he'll be known as Sir Jack!'
Another more revealing weakness was his naive acceptance of dietary and medical fads. Vitamins, quack diets, elaborate fasting – 'it cleansed the body of all poisons' – had magical qualities for him. He even patronised, at great expense and for many years, an institution in Bulgaria which claimed to be able to restore youth. Lady Becker accompanied him on these extravagant excursions.
Becker was a shy and modest man though in later life he concealed his shyness behind a gregarious and flamboyant facade. The dramatic headlines which in the press so often described his activities, 'He made the desert bloom', 'The master of Ellerton Lodge', 'Clare clover has come to stay', and so on, did not affect him greatly. His press statements, often accompanied by rather expressionless photographs, were usually modest and to the point. But at times when he was with the young, or talking to friends, or later to newspaper reporters, he was self-indulgent enough to exaggerate his position and his achievements.
So Jack Becker remains something of an enigma. Shy and retiring, he was also a public figure; relentless in the pursuit of money he was generous and helpful; though he was ambitious of social distinction he shunned most social activities. He was '...a great Australian...a man of vision, sensitivity, creativity and of great energy, qualities that dominated his life and his activities.' (From the eulogy, delivered 14 May 1979 at St John's Church of England, Pembroke, Bermuda, by G.P. Auld).
This memoir was originally published in Historical Records of Australian Science, vol.5, no.3, 1982. It was written by William Percy Rogers, Emeritus Professor, University of Adelaide (having held there the Chairs of Zoology and subsequently Parasitology). Elected a Fellow of the Academy in 1954 (Council 1958-60 and 1970-73; Vice-President 1971-73).
I wish to thank the many people who have given me information about Sir Ellerton Becker, several of whom also checked parts of my manuscript. I am especially indebted to Mr G.P. Auld of Killara, NSW, Mr J. Deeble of the Australian Academy of Science, Mr A.D. McClure, Town Clerk of the Corporation of the City of Marion, Dr D.S. Riceman formerly on the staff of CSIRO, and Sir Ian Wark, Treasurer of the Australian Academy of Science, 1959-1963.
Personal reminiscences and comments about Becker's activities from the following people have proved most helpful:
Mr Noel Allison, pastoral inspector for the Australian Mutual Provident Society in South Australia; the assistant to the Head Master, Unley High School; staff of the Records Office, University of Adelaide; Mrs J. Baldwin, Adelaide Technical College; Mr Stewart Cockburn, journalist and author, Adelaide; Mr David Coles of Adelaide, Managing Director, the Australian Breeders Corporation; Mr Mike Davies, personnel officer, Department of Correctional Services, South Australia; Professor C.M. Donald, FAA, Waite Agricultural Research Institute; Sir John Eccles, FAA, Nobel Laureate, President, Australian Academy of Science, 1957-1961; Dr W. Gallusser, librarian, Music School, University of Adelaide; Mr H.S. Green, one-time owner of the Adelaide College of Music and secretary of the Music League of South Australia; Mr P.E. Geytenbeck, Waite Agricultural Research Institute; Mr H.J. Lee, one-time member of the staff of CSIRO, Division of Biochemistry and General Nutrition; Dr J.M. Melville, one-time Director, Waite Agricultural Research Institute; Mr A.P. Moore, Chairman, Law School, University of Adelaide; Mr I.G. Ridgway, Waite Agricultural Research Institute; Mr Kevin Sadler, South Australian Jockey Club; Mrs B. Schlank of Adelaide and her sister-in-law, Mrs J. Young of Melbourne; Professor G.B. Sharman, FAA, Macquarie University, NSW; Dr J.H. Silsbury, Waite Agricultural Research Institute; Mr Charles F. Smith, pastoralist, Balhannah, South Australia; Mr A.J.K. Walker, Department of Agriculture, South Australia.
I have also obtained useful information from press reports, articles, advertising brochures and company prospectuses provided from the archives of the Australian Academy of Science, from the minutes and records of the Marion Council, and Sir Ian Wark from his own files.
The publications of Dr D.S. Riceman which appeared in the Journal of CSIRO and CSIRO Bulletins in the years 1945 to 1948 and which are summarised by Riceman, D.S. (1977) in 'Animal to Human Nutrition', CSIRO Jubilee Year, 1926-1976 (H.J. Lee, ed.) CSIRO, Melbourne, were most helpful.
The following law reports to which I was referred by Mr Justice Fisher of the Federal Court of Australia not only gave details of the various judgements involving Sir Ellerton and Lady Becker but also provided succinct summaries of many of their business activities:
Federal Commissioner of Taxation v Becker, 1951-1952, 87 Commonwealth Law Reports 456-469; Smithfield Pastoral Company Pty Ltd v Federal Commissioner of Taxation, 1966, 24 Australian Taxation Decisions, 170-183; Brewarrana Pty Ltd v Commissioner of Highways, 1973, 5 South Australian State Reports, 476-503; The Corporation of the City of Marion v Lady Becker, Director of Planning and State Planning Authority, 1973, 6 South Australian State Reports, 13-68; Becker v Corporation of the City of Marion and the Director of Planning, 1974, 9 South Australian State Reports, 560-575; Gladys Sarah Becker v City of Marion Corporation and Another, 1977, Privy Council (appeal cases) 271-286.
© 2019 Australian Academy of Science