Sir Manuel Hornibrook – Father of the Australian Building industry

Guest blogger: Julie Hornibrook - 2015 Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellow.

The trilogy of Building Bridges Connects Brisbane has highlighted huge infrastructure projects in 1930’s Brisbane, built by Hornibrook contractors and driven by Manuel Hornibrook (‘MR’).

I have come to know my grandfather, Manuel Hornibrook, from a historical perspective as well as to reflect on my understanding of him as a family and community man through the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellowship, 2015. The blogs of each essay on the three bridges of focus, the Story Bridge, the Hornibrook Highway & the William Jolly Bridge have highlighted other aspects of the stories. This blog pays tribute to MR himself and some of his legacy.

Manuel’s father, John, his uncles and grandmother moved to the Obi Obi Valley when he was a child. The family was pioneering in the valley and a strength in the community there. They surveyed the road to Mapleton and built the first school house in the valley. Between John and his brother James they had 11 sons and one daughter, perfect for their own team cricket practice and a ‘twelfth man.’ One of James’s sons, Percy, went on to play cricket for Australia when they won the Ashes in London in 1930, with Don Bradman. They learnt a lot about team work and helping those in need for the benefit of all. Manuel was 9 when his father died of typhoid leaving a widow and 7 small children and he already had a sense of responsibility within family.

Percy Hornibrook ca. 1919. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 173635

Percy Hornibrook ca. 1919. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Image 173635

The Bridge project highlighted his initiatives and a family approach to building a big building company that also expanded into regional Queensland, building bridges, water supplies and pipelines. They also moved into NSW and completed rebuilding of Northbridge in Sydney just as WWII broke out. MR was also able to support the allied forces based in Brisbane with building of workshops, runways, airport hangars and infrastructure for the defence forces and to maintain workforce during the war. When the war was over the company continued to go from strength to strength. Many of the factories, wharves, bridges and buildings along the Brisbane river were built by Hornibrook, described by his biographer, Waveney Browne, as ‘a river of achievement for Manuel Hornibrook.’ The biggest project taken on by the company was building Stages II & III of the Sydney Opera House, building the Sails in the 1960’s.

MR’s family home at Ascot, Brisbane. Photo donated to John Oxley Library by Julie Hornibrook

MR’s family home at Ascot, Brisbane. Photo donated to John Oxley Library by Julie Hornibrook

MR’s nephew, John Hornibrook, reminisced that in the workplace the ethos was ‘pride in yourself, pride in your work and pride in the company.’ MR gave a chance to those who wanted to work hard and many stayed with the company for more than 30 years, where work felt more like family. MR supported access to education and worked hard to establish the Institute of Building to support and recognize builders. He sponsored an award called the Sir Manuel Hornibrook Medallion, which is hosted by the Queensland branch of the AIB, and is awarded annually to an enterprising young builder.

Steve Riches, a Queenslander who received the Award in 2004 kindly photographed the Medallion and the book on MR’s life and work by Waveney Browne that is given as part of the award.

Image supplied by Julie Hornibrook

Image supplied by Julie Hornibrook

The Library resources held finds of hundreds of photos taken of construction jobs and surrounding events. Various causes were sponsored such as the ‘Hornibrook Bus Company Nurse’ as part of the Centaur fund raising Project. The photo below shows the ‘Hornibrook Dodgers’ football team in Cloncurry – mostly Torres Strait Islander workers who were known as hard and diligent workers on the ‘Hornibrook Townsville to Mt Isa rail upgrade’ in the early 60’s. Their team won the local Rugby League premiership competition every year for the three years of the line upgrade.

‘Hornibrook Dodgers’ football team in Cloncurry. From 7836 Sir Manuel Hornibrook Construction Photographs 1920-1960, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

‘Hornibrook Dodgers’ football team in Cloncurry. From 7836 Sir Manuel Hornibrook Construction Photographs 1920-1960, John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland

Manuel Hornibrook knighted for his services to the construction industry in 1960. From 30146 Manuel Hornibrook Business and Family Photographs 1929-1932. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Donated to SLQ by Julie Hornibrook

Manuel Hornibrook knighted for his services to the construction industry in 1960. From 30146 Manuel Hornibrook Business and Family Photographs 1929-1932. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Donated to SLQ by Julie Hornibrook

In 1960 Manuel was knighted for his services to the construction industry. The photo above shows the ceremony in Canberra led by the Governor-General, Viscount Dunrossil and the proud and humbling moment of becoming ‘Sir Manuel Hornibrook.’

The QUT Science and Engineering Construction Hall of Fame honours those who gave a lifetime of work to the industry and Sir Manuel was the first recipient in 1998. His nephew, John was also recognized as a recipient in 2010.

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MR strove to support the industry and was President of the Australian Master Builders Federation, President of the Australian Institute of Building, President of Queensland Civil Engineering Contractors Association, the first Master of International House, President of various golf and bowling clubs. He has golf trophies named after him and the Redcliffe Trotting Club has a race named after him!

Manuel Hornibrook, a Queenslander, built the family company to become the leading construction company in Australia in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Manuel retired in 1964 and around that time the Hornibrook company joined a multi-national group and later becoming Baulderstone -Hornibrook, now absorbed into Lend Lease. An amazing Queensland story from early days of playing cricket at Obi Obi.

Julie Hornibrook

Julie Hornibrook was the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame Fellow in 2015 and is the granddaughter of Sir Manuel Hornibrook.

Discover more of Julie Hornibrook’s research –

Sir Manuel Hornibrook was inducted into the Queensland Business Leaders Hall of Fame in 2016

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