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Dexter, Walter Ernest (1873–1950)

by David Dexter

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

Walter Ernest Dexter (1873-1950), master mariner, Anglican minister and military chaplain, was born on 31 August 1873 at Birkenhead, Cheshire, England, youngest son of Thomas Dexter, shipwright, and his wife Martha, née Grundy. Educated at St Catherine's School, Higher Tranmere, he was indentured at 14 for five years at wages of 'nothing plus twelve shillings for washing' on the barque Buckingham. At the end of his first voyage he ran away in Calcutta, stowed away to New York where he worked in a biscuit factory and as a lift attendant, and returned to the sea in 1890 aboard the Pythomene of which his eldest brother was master.

Records survive of thirty-seven voyages to world ports—including Melbourne in 1893—in sail and steam from 1888 to 1900, as Dexter progressed from 'boy', through lamp-trimmer, able seaman, and the grades of mate. In March 1899 he passed the examination for his master's certificate. By February 1900 he was first mate of the Akbar based at Mauritius. Between February 1900 and January 1901 he fought in the South African War as a trooper in Lumsden's Horse, a unit of mounted volunteers recruited in India; he won the Distinguished Conduct Medal—followed after discharge by an award from the Royal Humane Society for gallantry at the wreck of the Taher off Mauritius in March 1901. Returning to the sea, he became master of the Afghan carrying Moslem pilgrims—whose piety impressed him—to Mecca, then traded in the off-season. On 16 September 1902 in Mauritius he married Frances Louisa Carroll, née Rohan, who died one year later. He joined the Freemasons and began also to feel 'a driving force … certainly not myself'. After studying at sea (Latin, Greek, Hebrew), he entered Durham University in 1906 with the intention of joining the Anglican ministry. Graduating M.A. and L.Th. in 1908, he was ordained and appointed curate at Walbone, Newcastle upon Tyne, until 1910 when he was sent to the new coal-mining town of Wonthaggi in Victoria. For two years his tent was his vicarage before he was transferred to South Melbourne. On 8 April 1913 he married Dora Stirling Roadknight at Christ Church, Ormond.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on the outbreak of World War I, Dexter was one of twelve chaplains whose appointments dated from 8 September 1914. He sailed with the first convoy and served in Egypt and on the Suez Canal; he then tended the Anzac wounded on a hospital ship and joined the troops on Gallipoli. First with the 5th Battalion, then the 2nd Brigade, and finally as an acting senior chaplain, he shared the lives and dangers of the men, helping them practically and spiritually, and using effectively his long experience of acquiring things—as a piece of A.I.F. doggerel 'The pinching padre' attests. 'He was as good as a doctor', wrote a sergeant. He was entrusted with the task of carefully surveying the cemeteries before leaving Gallipoli on 17 December 1915, and was one of two chaplains awarded the Distinguished Service Order.

After a brief stay in Egypt and Sinai, he went to France in April 1916. From Pozières in July to the A.I.F.'s battles in August 1918, with a short period at A.I.F. Headquarters in London, he tended the troops' welfare as a senior chaplain and as a compassionate 'handyman'. One example is given by the official war historian: 'Chaplain Dexter, with support from the Australian Comforts Fund, established at the corner of Bécourt Wood a coffee stall which henceforth became a cherished institution on the edge of every Australian battlefield'. In 1918 he was awarded the Military Cross, becoming the most decorated chaplain in the A.I.F.

Returning to Melbourne in 1920 after serving on the demobilization staff in London, he had doubts about resuming parish work 'after all this amongst men', and tried a soldier-settler's block at Kilsyth. The venture failed and he returned to the Church: at Romsey parish in 1924-27, Lara in 1927-40, and West Footscray in 1940-47. Pastoral duties, civic affairs, education (Dip. Ed., Melbourne), teaching, writing and war commemoration services occupied his time. At the Lara church Armistice Day service in November 1934 the poet laureate John Masefield read for the first time his poem 'For the dead at Gallipoli'. Masefield also assisted towards the publication in 1938 of Dexter's sea-book Rope-Yarns, Marline-Spikes and Tar.

He died on 31 August 1950 at his East Malvern home, survived by his wife, five sons (all of whom served in World War II) and one daughter. 'The press has told us of his amazing career, his distinctions, his activities and his varied ministry', wrote a wartime colleague, then archbishop of Melbourne; 'he was a man of great gifts'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916 (Syd, 1929), and Gallipoli Mission (Canb, 1948)
  • Church of England Messenger (Victoria), 26 Feb, 7 May 1915, 28 Jan 1916, 8 Sept 1950
  • Reveille (Sydney), Sept 1931
  • JRAHS, 64 (1978), pt 3, 145
  • Church Standard (Sydney), 2 July 1915, 22 Sept 1950
  • Geelong Advertiser, 4 Nov 1950
  • W. E. Dexter, personal papers, war diaries and manuscripts (privately held)
  • file MP473/5/805 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

David Dexter, 'Dexter, Walter Ernest (1873–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dexter-walter-ernest-5972/text10189, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 November 2018.

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

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