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Davey, Neil William (1921–2019)

by Stephen Davey and Susan Winning

Neil Davey, 1988

Neil Davey, 1988

photo provided by family

The disarmingly modest “Mr Decimal”, Dr Neil Davey AO, who on 14 February 1966 with the introduction of decimal currency in Australia simplified monetary transactions in our everyday life, has died at the Calvary John James Hospital in Canberra aged 98.

Neil William Davey was born in humble circumstances in Wangaratta, Victoria, on February 2, 1921, and spent a happy childhood with siblings Max, June and John. The family was hit hard by the great depression, and Neil left school at 14 to become a telegraph messenger and, in 1938, a telegraphist at Melbourne Central Telegraph Office.

In Perth on May 27, 1941, Davey enlisted in the Australian military forces. The following February he commenced service with the Australian Imperial Force. He was assigned to the Southern Command Signals, the Third Australian Corps Signals and the Eighth Australian Telegraph Operating Section. In 2015 he recalled that the only fighting he encountered was in 1944 during the Battle of Hollandia on the north coast of New Guinea, part of the former Dutch East Indies. The port was bombed overnight, but as a sound sleeper Davey only heard about the hostilities from his comrades the next morning.

In 1946 with a return to civilian life, he enrolled in night school, then the University of Melbourne to study Commerce, graduating with Honours in 1950. Meanwhile he met Maria Vrachnas; they married on December 8, 1948.

Maria was of Greek ethnicity and they had a Greek wedding ceremony. Both would later joke that they didn’t understand a word of it, and were not wholly convinced they were actually married. Despite this they were a devoted couple, neither of whom could imagine life without the other. Maria would often cite her mother, who had said that Maria had won the jackpot of life when she married Neil.

In 1951 Davey was recruited to the Bureau of Statistics in Canberra. Then in 1953 he won a scholarship to undertake a Masters degree at the London School of Economics (LSE) on the topic of bank lending; of interest since former Prime Minister Chifley’s attempted nationalisation of the banks.

Around the same time, Prime Minister Menzies and Sir Roland Wilson, the Treasury head, established the Decimal Currency Council which in 1959 recommended that Australia adopt decimal currency. The currency at the time, of pounds shillings and pence, not to mention guineas, crowns and florins, was unwieldy to calculate.

At the LSE Neil’s thesis supervisor was Professor Richard Sayers, who was also the official historian of the Bank of England, and knew that recently in the LSE library a quantity of papers had been found dating from the previous century concerning proposals to decimalise the United Kingdom’s currency, following the decimalisation of most other European currencies.

Professor Sayers suggested that these long-lost papers could be the basis for significant research and Davey should switch from a Masters to PhD degree on this topic. Sayers wrote to the Treasury that an Australian with a sound knowledge of decimal currency could be useful to the Australian government. Treasury’s representative in London, Bert Woodrow, supported the idea and the switch was approved.

Davey submitted his thesis in April 1957. Professor Selwyn Cornish, official historian of the Reserve Bank of Australia, has described it as “an impressive work [which] deserves to be known more widely”. In the meantime, Neil and Maria celebrated the birth of their elder son, Nicholas. The family returned to Canberra where a second son, Stephen, was born in 1958.

In 1959 the Decimal Currency Committee was established, with Davey obvious candidate for Secretary. By 1963 the decision to decimalise was taken, and Neil was also chosen to be Secretary and CEO of the Decimal Currency Board, which was to implement the change.

According to Professor Cornish, “Davey was responsible for two critical decisions. Against the advice of some of his superiors in the Treasury, who argued in favour of basing the new currency on the pound (20 shillings), Davey took a contrary view, arguing that 10 shillings should be used as the base. With 12 pence to the shilling, and using 10 shillings as the base for the new currency, one cent would be equivalent to 1.2 pence. In contrast, using the pound as the base, a cent would be worth 2.4 pence. Davey regarded this to be too high. It would give rise to higher prices and would probably require the circulation of a half-cent coin.

Davey was also successful in arguing that owners of cash registers and other accounting machines should be subsidised for the cost of converting their machines to the decimal system. This, too, assisted the smooth transfer to the new currency.

Decimal currency was introduced on Valentine’s Day, 1966. Australia’s smooth transition became the model for currency conversion in other countries, and Davey’s advice was frequently sought.

In 1974 he was appointed Minister (Financial) at the Australian High Commission in London, a role he held until 1979. Following this he was appointed as Australian Director on the Board of the Asian Development Bank, located in Manila, Philippines. Following his retirement in February 1984 he was appointed chairman of the Asian Development Fund Committee, which involved international lobbying of the Bank’s donor countries. He held the post for four years.

Following his return to Canberra, Davey played golf with his son Stephen. Not a power driver, he almost always played straight and had a deadly short game.

In the 2016 Queen’s Birthday Honours Neil was appointed an officer in the General Division of the Order of Australia “for distinguished service to public administration, particularly through seminal contributions to the development of Australia’s decimal currency and to international banking, agriculture and bioscience organisations.”

Maria Davey died on June 30, 2019. Neil survived her by just five days. They are survived by their sons Nicholas and Stephen, and grandsons Joshua and Jesse.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Stephen Davey and Susan Winning, 'Davey, Neil William (1921–2019)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/davey-neil-william-32025/text39573, accessed 27 October 2021.

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