Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Denman, Thomas (1874–1954)

by Chris Cunneen

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

Thomas Denman (1874-1954), by unknown photographer, 1910s

Thomas Denman (1874-1954), by unknown photographer, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23334619

Thomas Denman (1874-1954), governor-general, was born on 16 November 1874 in London, son of Richard Denman, assistant clerk of assize, and his wife Helen Mary, née McMicking. Educated at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, he succeeded his great-uncle as baron in 1894. A lieutenant in the Royal Scots, he served in the South African War in 1901 in the Middlesex Squadron of the Imperial Yeomanry, and was wounded. On 26 November 1903 in London he married Gertrude Mary (born 7 November 1884), daughter of Sir Weetman Pearson (1st Viscount Cowdray). A Liberal, Denman was chief government whip in the House of Lords in 1907-11. His appointment as governor-general of Australia was announced in March 1911 and he was appointed G.C.M.G.

The youthful Denmans arrived in Melbourne on 31 July. 'The people I like best are the Labour people', wrote Lady Denman to her brother, and, unlike his predecessor, Lord Dudley, Denman maintained very cordial relations with the Labor government of Andrew Fisher. Guaranteed financial support by Lord Cowdray, the Denmans spent generously, but were not ostentatious, attempting to introduce a more relaxed atmosphere to Government House. Lady Denman was also especially interested in the Melbourne Repertory Theatre Club and made a close friend of Melba whom she thought 'much more human than most people'. In spite of constant poor health—Australia's wattle gave him asthma and he suffered from chronic bronchitis—Denman carried out his official duties conscientiously, especially at sporting functions; he had been a champion horseman. The principal ceremonial occasion during his term was the inauguration of the Federal capital on 12 March 1913, when Lady Denman, tall, slim with an aquiline nose and red hair, wearing an extravagantly feathered hat, outshone her husband, his own plumes notwithstanding.

In 1913 the Colonial Office was vexed by Denman's assertion of Australia's right to 'complete control of her own fleet unit'. London's dissatisfaction was heightened by the action of James McGowen's New South Wales government in terminating the use of Government House, Sydney, as official residence of the governor-general. The farewell levée there was held in October 1912. Denman believed that 'the eviction' 'tended seriously to impair the prestige and position of the Governor-General'. Lack of sympathy with (Sir) Joseph Cook's government, leading to a dispute with E. D. Millen, minister for defence, over Denman's literal interpretation of his role as commander-in-chief, further weakened his position.

He informed the secretary of state for colonies in November 1913 that, for private reasons, he must resign. Strains in his marriage, Lady Denman's dislike of vice-regal life in Australia, as well as ill health (the place of governor-general was 'a position not to be sneezed at', quipped one newspaper), had contributed to the decision to end his term prematurely. Again displeased, the Colonial Office refused his request to be allowed to stay to July 1914. He left Australia on 18 May. Though criticized in the English press, he was praised in Australia, even by the Bulletin.

Denman was a lieutenant-colonel commanding a Yeomanry regiment in 1914-15. After the war he took part regularly in Lords debates, often presenting Australia's point of view; in 1919-24 he was Liberal chief whip. Billiards and golf were his recreations, Brooks's and the Batchelors' his clubs. Lady Denman was chairman of the National Federation of Women's Institutes in 1917-46 and of the National Birth Control (Family Planning) Association in 1930-54. In 1939-45 she was director of the Women's Land Army. She was appointed C.B.E. in 1920, D.B.E. in 1933 and G.B.E. in 1951. Her death on 2 June 1954 was followed on 24 June, at Hove, Sussex, by Lord Denman's. He was survived by a son and daughter. A portrait by Max Meldrum is in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1951-60
  • G. Huxley, Lady Denman, G.B.E., 1884-1954 (Lond, 1961)
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 15 Mar 1913
  • 'Obituary: Lady Denham', Times (London), 3 June 1954, p 8
  • 'Obituary: Lord Denham', Times (London), 25 June 1954, p 8
  • C. Cunneen, The Role of the Governor-General in Australia 1901-1927 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1973).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Denman, Thomas (1874–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/denman-thomas-5956/text10161, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 1 November 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Thomas Denman (1874-1954), by unknown photographer, 1910s

Thomas Denman (1874-1954), by unknown photographer, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23334619

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Baron Denman
  • Denman, third Baron
Birth

16 November 1874
London, England

Death

24 June 1954
Hove, Sussex, England

Cultural Heritage
Occupation