Herbert William Gepp


The newly built Zinc Works in 1920 (AOT, PH30/1/7109)

Herbert William Gepp (18771954), chemical and social engineer, born in Adelaide, began his career in industrial chemistry in 1893. From 1905 he worked for the 'Collins House' mining interest, first at Broken Hill. His prime professional achievement there was in extracting mineral concentrates from tailings, but he also developed interest in resolving socio-industrial problems through welfare capitalism. The First World War offered enormous challenge to the metallurgical industry. A crucial outcome was the establishment from 191617 of the Electrolytic Zinc Works, at Risdon, outside Hobart; Gepp was manager, under 'Collins House' ownership. The venture became the supreme triumph of Tasmania's hydro-industrialisation. Gepp not only pioneered this story, but implemented extensive and much-publicised welfare capitalism. While often difficult, even tormented, he had a passion for achievement and improvement that could be inspirational.

SM Bruce's federal government recognised Gepp's qualities and in 1926 appointed him foundation chairman of the Development and Migration Commission. This was not only to oversee immigration, but to advise on broad economic policy. A further duty was management of a federal grant intended to enliven the Tasmanian economy. Thus in the later 1920s Gepp continued his involvement in Tasmanian affairs, striving especially to improve agricultural practices. In contrast with the Risdon story, these efforts achieved little. The Development and Migration Commission was disbanded, among general ignominy, in 1930. Yet Gepp continued on, in the later 1930s to achieve paper-making from hardwoods, and ever insisting on the need for welfare and for national planning. His ideas anticipated many upheld by federal governments of the 1940s.

Further reading: C Kemp, Big businessmen, Melbourne, 1964.

Michael Roe