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Denning, Warren Edwin (1906–1975)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Warren Edwin Denning (1906-1975), journalist, was born on 14 October 1906 in South Perth, eldest child of Arthur Feldwick Denning, a boot salesman from New South Wales, and his Victorian-born wife Minnie Ellen, née Warren. The family moved to Sydney when Warren was 7. As a boy, he dreamed of boarding-school and Oxford, but his parents' financial circumstances forced him into a working career at 16 as a cadet-journalist on the Cumberland Times, Parramatta. He graduated to the Labor Daily in 1926 and, after promotion to senior journalist, covered the opening of Parliament House in Canberra in 1927.

A member of the Federal Parliamentary Press Gallery by 1928, Denning was appointed senior Canberra correspondent for the Melbourne Argus in 1931. During the mid-1930s he worked in Sydney and Melbourne, and gained a diploma in journalism from the University of Melbourne in 1935. He returned to Canberra in 1937 as local manager of Australian United Press. On 8 May 1939 he became the first staff-correspondent in the news service of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. As manager of the A.B.C.'s Canberra bureau, he supported moves for a fully independent news service.

In 1937 Denning had published Caucus Crisis (Sydney), a vibrant and informed account of the downfall of the Scullin government in 1931. Although it was criticized for largely ignoring the role of the Depression, the book became a classic, partly because of its revelation of caucus in-fighting, and partly because it carried political and moralizing messages for subsequent Labor governments.

Denning had two other notable publications. Inside Parliament (Sydney, 1946) was designed to give 'the man in the street' a notion of what parliament was and did, and how it was important in Australian life. For many years Denning's book served as a school and university text. The Road to Canberra (Sydney, 1947) recorded a trip in March 1944 from Sydney to Canberra. Drawing upon research into people, buildings and places, it was also a whimsical account of what a short, overweight and normally well-groomed journalist saw—when red-faced and puffing—from 'the lowly elevation of a bicycle-seat'.

Denning loved the Canberra where he spent his most productive years. He wrote several sketches of the new capital and, in 1953, published an article on Walter Burley Griffin in Meanjin. His favoured spot was Parliament House where he participated in and observed political intrigue, and where he liked to impart wisdom to the younger members of his profession.

He was always a Labor man. The Depression had convinced him of the ruinous consequences of capitalism, and his political outlook was cemented by moral and religious conviction. Born an Anglican, Denning converted to Catholicism shortly before marrying Constance Helen Fergus (d.1953) on 11 March 1931 in St Christopher's Church, Canberra. While denying that he experienced a Pauline awakening, Denning became a devout Catholic, anxious to reconcile Labor's socialist principles with the Church's teachings on the rights to private property and on the individuality of the soul.

The good Labor man feared that the party had lost its idealism. Yet, he maintained, 'in some queer but compelling way of its own', Labor stood for the best things in politics, exemplified by his hero John Curtin whose whole life seemed to confirm the possibility of peace and justice for everyone who lived under the Southern Cross. Denning was not, however, narrowly partisan. He made several friends on the other side of politics, including Archie Cameron, and his numerous unpublished profiles of political figures, composed in the mid-1940s, were balanced, shrewd and sympathetic. Like many of his contemporaries, he paid homage to Charles Hawker, respected J. A. Lyons for his integrity and thought highly of (Sir) Robert Menzies for his intellectual capacity.

After leaving Canberra in 1946, Denning went to Sydney. He was the A.B.C.'s news editor in Queensland (1948-49), a chief sub-editor of national evening bulletins in Sydney (1949-57) and news editor in Tasmania (from 1957), before taking the post of federal cadet counsellor in Sydney in 1966. At St Joseph's Church, Edgecliff, on 1 June 1957 he had married a widow Esther Josephine Hollingworth, née Bang. He retired in 1971 and was appointed M.B.E. in 1972. Having suffered from diabetes for thirty years, Denning died of myocardial infarction on 24 March 1975 in St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, and was buried in Botany cemetery. His wife, two stepdaughters and the son of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Reid, 'Memoir', in W. Denning, Caucus Crisis (Syd, 1982)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • Journalist, Mar 1966, Apr 1975
  • Radio Active, Oct 1971
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Mar 1975
  • Denning papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Denning, Warren Edwin (1906–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/denning-warren-edwin-9950/text17627, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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