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Denison, Sir Hugh Robert (1865–1940)

by R. B. Walker

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

Sir Hugh Robert Denison (1865-1940), tobacco manufacturer, newspaper proprietor, and philanthropist, was born on 11 November 1865 at South Lead, near Forbes, New South Wales, eldest son of Robert Dixson (d.1891), tobacco manufacturer in Melbourne and Adelaide, and his wife Ruth, née Whingates, and grandson of Hugh Dixson. On 28 March 1907 he changed his name by deed poll to Denison to avoid confusion with his uncle (Sir) Hugh Dixson. He was educated at Scotch College, Melbourne, Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, and in 1881-83 at University College School, London. In 1884 he worked for J. W. Wright & Co. on the transcontinental railway in Western Australia, but next year returned to Adelaide to work for his father in Robert Dixson & Co.

Dixson represented Gawler Ward in 1888-89 on the Adelaide City Council then went to Perth to establish a tobacco factory. At St John's Anglican Church, Fremantle, he married Sara Rachel Forster Fothergill on 26 April 1893. That year he bought the Adelaide business and the Western Australian branch from his father's estate and soon returned to Adelaide to live. In 1901 he won a House of Assembly by-election for North Adelaide and next year was elected for Adelaide. In July 1904 he supported J. G. Jenkins's ministry, fearing that a Labor government would lead to socialism.

In 1902 the family's separate tobacco interests were merged in the Dixson Tobacco Co. which next year joined William Cameron Bros & Co. Pty, Melbourne, to form the British-Australasian Tobacco Co. Ltd; Dixson became a director. Early in 1905 he moved to Sydney. Later he also became a director of several newsprint companies.

Denison formed Sun Newspaper Ltd in 1910 to take over the publication of the Sunday Sun and Australian Star (renamed the Sun). He remained chairman until 1940. The Sun was the first Australian daily to carry news on its front page. He managed to break through the cable combine, with the unintentional help of the Fisher Labor government, which subsidized an independent service.

In the bitter press war of the 1920s, Denison invaded Melbourne in 1922 with the Sun News-Pictorial and later the Evening Sun, but in 1925 had to withdraw. In an effort to halt the crippling pace, in 1929 he formed Associated Newspapers Ltd, with S. Bennett Ltd and Sun Newspapers and Daily Telegraph Pictorial Ltd, which he had acquired in December 1927 as subsidiaries. Associated Newspapers also bought the Sunday Guardian and Daily Guardian from (Sir) Joynton Smith. Denison now controlled two morning, two evening and four Sunday papers in Sydney but by late 1931 these had been reduced to one of each. In 1930-31 the value of the shares fell but he survived an attempt to remove him as chairman. He was a delegate to the Imperial Press Conference in Ottawa in 1920, Sydney in 1925 and London in 1930. In 1933 he sued “Truth” and “Sportsman” Ltd for libel and, after much publicity, won, a farthing damages.

Denison took a keen interest in wireless: in 1910 he was a director of the Australasian Wireless Co. Ltd, which in 1913 was taken over by Amalgamated Wireless (Australasia) Ltd; Denison was managing director until 1917 when (Sir) Ernest Fisk took over. In 1938 he founded and was chairman of Macquarie Broadcasting Services Pty Ltd, which controlled fifteen radio stations in Australia including 2GB, 2CA and 2HR.

A strong believer in the British Empire, Denison gave £10,000 to the Dreadnought Fund in 1910 and largely financed (Sir) Douglas Mawson's Antarctic expedition. In World War I he helped to found the Citizens' War Chest Fund and subscribed generously to government war loans and the Australian Red Cross Society. In 1919 he gave £25,000 to the jubilee building fund of the Royal Colonial Institute (from 1927 the Royal Empire Society), London. He helped to found the New South Wales branch and was president in 1921-26, 1932-38 and 1939-40. In 1921 he gave the society a building in Bligh Street as its Sydney headquarters and paid for its furnishing. He was a 'staunch friend' to the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia and helped to finance Reveille.

Appointed K.B.E. in 1923, Sir Hugh represented New South Wales at the British Empire Exhibition, London, in 1924-25. In 1926-28 he was commissioner for Australia in the United States of America. Based in New York, he was hampered in trade relations by America's protective tariff, and generally by lack of diplomatic status. He strongly urged (Viscount) S. M. Bruce to establish an Australian legation in Washington.

Distinguished-looking, with a neat moustache, Denison was a gifted public speaker, and an approachable and courteous man; he was a member of the Union Club. With a resonant baritone voice, he had sung in the choir of St Peter's Cathedral, Adelaide, and performed solos in oratorios. He was a keen sportsman, interested in rowing, cricket, football and bowls, and often played at Royal Sydney Golf Club. In 1905 he bought the yearling Poseidon for 500 guineas and in 1906-07 won the Australian Jockey Club Derby and St Leger, the Victoria Derby and St Leger, the Melbourne Cup and the Caulfield Cup twice. Poseidon won over £20,000 in prize money. In 1908 he bought Guntawang, near Gulgong, from the estate of Richard Rouse, renamed it Eumaralla estate, and bred thoroughbred horses and Dorset Horn sheep. He remained interested in racing and won the Moonee Valley Cup with Dark Chief in 1936.

On a visit to Melbourne, Denison died of cancer on 23 November 1940 and was cremated; a memorial service was held at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, Sydney. He was survived by his wife and three sons. After providing for his family, he left part of his estate, valued for probate at £203,602, to the Sir Hugh Denison Foundation and St Paul's College in the University of Sydney, and to the Church of England Homes at Carlingford.

Select Bibliography

  • Pastoralists' Review Pty Ltd, Pastoral Homes of Australia, New South Wales (Melb, 1910)
  • D. M. Barrie, Turf Cavalcade (Syd, 1960)
  • Australian Tobacco Journal, 23 June 1904, 27 Jan 1905, 15 Apr 1907
  • Royal Commonwealth Society, London, United Empire, 12 (1921), 31 (1940)
  • Rydge's Business Journal, 1 Sept 1929
  • Observer (Adelaide), 8 June 1901
  • Sun (Sydney), 2 June 1923, 23, 25 Nov 1940
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 May 1926, 3, 5 Dec 1927, 12 Jan 1928, 7, 15 Dec 1933
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 Nov 1940
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 25 Nov 1940, p 7
  • CRS A461/B348/1/13 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. B. Walker, 'Denison, Sir Hugh Robert (1865–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/denison-sir-hugh-robert-5955/text10159, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 21 April 2014.

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

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