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Deane, Percival Edgar (Percy) (1890–1946)

by S. Murray-Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Percival Edgar (Percy) Deane (1890-1946), public servant, was born on 10 August 1890 at Port Melbourne, fourth child and third son of the eight children of John Henry Deane, carpenter, later master builder, and his wife Elizabeth Mary, née Maltravers, both Victorian-born. Deane won a scholarship from state school to University High School, a private institution. Precociously interested in 'merchanting his intelligence', and named after Rev. Alexander Edgar of Wesley Church, Melbourne, he became a Methodist lay preacher (he was a dedicated agnostic in later life), peddled typewriters, became an expert shorthand-writer, was employed by James Service & Co., and worked as a clerk with the University of Melbourne, where he came under the notice of (Sir) James Barrett. Between 18 and 23 he worked with trade and business magazines, becoming part-owner of two companies and the founder and editor of the Australian Golfer; he was himself an outstanding player.

Enlisting as a private in the Australian Imperial Force in September 1914, Deane was posted to the 1st Australian General Hospital in Egypt, where Barrett was registrar, and was soon promoted lieutenant with the position of quartermaster. In the internecine struggles which marked the affairs of this unit in 1915, Deane allied himself firmly with Barrett; when, suffering from overstrain, he was invalided back to Australia in April 1916, he regularly informed Barrett both on politics generally and on the ramifications of the 'Barrett case' in Australia; he published The Australian Army Medical Corps in Egypt (1918) with him.

The turning-point in Deane's life came with his appointment in November 1916, after his discharge, to be private secretary to the prime minister, Billy Hughes, at a salary of £408. It was said that Deane came to live 'inside the Prime Minister's brain', and Hughes, at first irritated by Deane's 'smooth pink complexion, orderly hair and ivory smile' soon found irresistible his audacious humour, immense capacity for long hours and skilful organizing, and ability to project and develop Hughes's own ideas. Shortly after taking up his post Deane fell in love with Hughes's typist, Ruth Marjorie Manning; they were married at St Peter's Church, Melbourne, on 6 October 1917.

Deane attended Imperial conferences in Britain with Hughes in 1918 and 1921 (and with (Viscount) Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1926). He proved invaluable as a member of and secretary to the Australian delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference and walked, if not with kings, at least with presidents and prime ministers. Deane was rewarded for his services with the C.M.G. and in February 1921 with the secretaryship of the Prime Minister's Department, at £1250 a year. He now became 'unquestionably the most discussed of Federal Government officials', his 'impenetrable nonchalance' and status as Hughes's alter ego making him 'the one everyone wanted to know'.

Deane guided Hughes's diatribes against Bolshevism, the Country Party and liberalism, soothing the prime minister in agitated moments, and being 'masterful in a cozening sort of way'. The relationship, which aroused much jealousy, reached almost filial levels. After Deane's death his wife wrote to Hughes that all his life Percy held to the view that his association with Hughes was 'the greatest and most satisfying thing that ever happened to him', while Hughes publicly declared that Deane's intellect and character were the finest he had known.

Deane's star first began to dim with the defeat of Hughes in 1923, which coincided with a royal commission into government sugar purchases; he asked to be relieved of his duties while a charge that he had received a gift of £1000 was investigated. Deane was unreservedly cleared of financial implication. The new prime minister, Bruce, recognized and for many years utilized Deane's capacities, but he did not appreciate his style and suspected his close relationship with Hughes.

Soon after taking office Bruce reduced the Prime Minister's Department; despite strong rumours that Deane was to accept an appointment with private industry, he stayed. The move to Canberra in 1927, however, put a further strain on Deane. A man of creative and Bohemian tastes—he was a clever sketcher, an exuberant versifier, a public speaker much in demand and a book-collector with a liking for unexpurgated editions—he had little desire to lead a public service life in a small town. He took to drink and dalliance, as later in life to gambling; nor, in strait-laced Canberra, was he popular for his quips. With the increasing Hughes attacks on the coalition government, and the leakage of material from the Prime Minister's Department, Bruce appointed Deane secretary of the Department of Home Affairs from the beginning of 1929. Of the ensuing public service and newspaper furore Deane said: 'It is the fierce light that beats upon the thrown'.

In 1932 the Department of Home Affairs was abolished, and Deane became a member of the War Pensions Entitlement Appeals Tribunal. From this position he retired to Melbourne in 1936, with a medical certificate specifying 'myocarditis' and a pension of £416. It had been, says his daughter and only child, a 'meteoric fall', and Deane was still only 47: 'The gardeners and chauffeurs dropped away'.

Deane deteriorated rapidly after his retirement, breaking his hip in a street fall and eventually becoming bedridden. A 'wasted life', many said, but his daughter speaks of a man who was 'wise and kind and witty all his life', and not least when he was down: a humorous observer of the twists of fate, active with his pen and whittling knife, and a great spinner of stories to children around his bed. He died of cancer at Caulfield on 17 August 1946. His wife died in 1977.

Contemporary evidence is unanimous as to Deane's 'amazing reserves of amiability' and to his 'indefinable air of smiling wisdom'. Among many friends were Edwin Brady, Norman Lindsay, Harold Herbert and a number of the prominent cartoonists of the day, whose work he collected. And he was a deeply affectionate father. He reached the top early, responded to the excitements of power, then glimpsed the hollowness of his achievements. A lesser man would not have looked back, but Percy Deane loved life more than legislation.

Select Bibliography

  • J. W. Barrett papers (AWM)
  • CP 268/1, item 1/35, CRS A2, item 1916/2232, A220, item S29/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • family papers (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

S. Murray-Smith, 'Deane, Percival Edgar (Percy) (1890–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/deane-percival-edgar-percy-5933/text10113, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 2 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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