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Dwyer-Gray, Edmund John (1870–1945)

by R. P. Davis

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

Edmund John Chisholm Dwyer-Gray (1870-1945), journalist and politician, was born on 2 April 1870 in Dublin, son of Edmund Dwyer Gray, M.P., and his wife Caroline Agnes, elder daughter of Caroline Chisholm. He was educated at the Fort Augustus Benedictine monastery in Scotland and the Jesuit Clongowes Wood College, Naas, County Kildare, in 1884-1887. He also studied law for a short period in Dublin. Late in 1887 he began a tour of Australia to improve his health, but he returned to Dublin after the death of his father in March 1888 and next November was appointed to the editorial committee of the Dublin nationalist daily Freeman's Journal, of which his father and grandfather Sir John Gray, an associate of Daniel O'Connell, had been proprietors.

After a second visit to Australia, from early 1889 to February 1891, Dwyer-Gray returned to Ireland at the height of the Parnell leadership crisis. At first like his mother, to whom his father's interest in the Freeman's Journal had passed, he supported Parnell; later, however, because of vigorous competition from a newly established anti-Parnellite organ, he arranged, not without difficulty, for its policy to be altered, a serious blow to the Parnellite cause. By 1893 the Gray family had relinquished its interest in the Freeman's Journal, and next year Edmund, apparently suffering from rheumatism, announced his intention to settle for life in Australia. Apart from a visit home in 1898, following his marriage in Sydney on 2 February 1897 at the Woollahra Roman Catholic Church to Clara Agatha Rose, Dwyer-Gray now severed his direct connexion with Ireland. His youthful incursion into Irish politics had been unsuccessful: inconsistent and prickly, he was easily outmanoeuvred.

On leaving Ireland, Dwyer-Gray appears to have travelled through Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, dabbling with some success in mining ventures. After his 1898 Irish visit he settled down in the New Norfolk area of Tasmania as an orchardist and farmer. Little is known of his activities in the next decade. He seems to have been unsuccessful as a farmer and may have lost most of his available capital. By 1912 he was in Hobart, editing the Labor Party's Daily Post. Apart from temporary demotions, sometimes the result of his serious drinking problem, he remained editor after the paper was taken over in 1918 by the Australian Workers' Union and renamed the World, but he lost control in 1922 after a quarrel with the Labor leadership. Briefly expelled from the party and then reinstated, Dwyer-Gray went to Sydney to work as a journalist for John Thomas Lang. In 1925, the World having failed, he returned to Hobart to edit a new Labor weekly, the People's Voice (subsequently the Voice). He continued as editor till his death, always emphasizing his independence of the party in a journal representing the Australian Council of Trade Unions.

In 1915 Dwyer-Gray had stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Council; in 1928, hyphening his name to Dwyer-Gray, to gain higher placement on the ballot paper and hence more of the donkey vote, he was elected for Denison to the House of Assembly. Deputy leader to Albert Ogilvie in 1932, he became treasurer and deputy premier in the Ogilvie ministry two years later, continuing in that office till Ogilvie's death in June 1939 when, as the result of an agreement with Robert Cosgrove, he held the premiership for six months. On Cosgrove's assumption of office in December Dwyer-Gray resumed as treasurer.

As an editor, a party politician and a flamboyant local personality, Dwyer-Gray played an important part in building the Tasmanian Labor Party. His journalism was lively, vitriolic and sometimes irresponsible. He relentlessly attacked opponents within and without the party. During World War I he supported voluntary enlistment and acted as a member of the State Recruiting Committee, but campaigned lustily through the Daily Post against conscription. After the war the took up the cause of Ireland, till the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, forming a Tasmanian branch of the Self-Determination for Ireland League. Simultaneously, he waged war on the local Labor right-wingers on behalf of socialisation and the One Big Union. In the 1930s and 1940s Dwyer-Gray's Voice was preoccupied with monetary issues, vociferously demanding 'national credit', a version of Major Douglas's theory espoused by George Carruthers. In the 1940s it was often outspoken in denunciation of John Curtin and Ben Chifley for their alleged failure to implement party policy on national credit. In such controversies, especially during the Depression, Dwyer-Gray, like Ogilvie, was strongly pro-Lang.

Inside the Labor Party he was frequently elected as a Tasmanian delegate to the Federal conference or Federal executive, was active in the negotiations which led to reform of party structure, and later, as a defender of Tasmanian interests, battled against party centralization and defended Lang's breakaway party. In 1933 Dwyer-Gray promoted a short-lived Tasmanian breach with the Federal Labor Party which had failed to reach an accommodation with Lang. A devout Catholic, he strove in his later years to reverse the party's state-aid policy, his basic philosophy moving towards a form of Catholic distributism. In office he was regarded as a highly effective treasurer who managed to 'bring home the bacon' and laid the basis for Ogilvie's post-Depression reforms. By a mixture of bluff, moral blackmail and sheer gamesmanship, Dwyer-Gray obtained favourable treatment for Tasmania from the Commonwealth Grants Commission and the Loan Council. But, despite his inevitably long and involved budget speeches, his real financial competence, away from treasury advisers, is doubtful. His monetarist diatribes in the Voice are difficult to reconcile with economic responsibility.

There is, however, no doubt about Dwyer-Gray's colourful personality. His tall, stooping figure and his shock of white hair made him an ideal subject for cartoonists, while fads like anti-vivisection, erratic drinking habits, uncertainties of temper, fluent but inaudible speeches and his aura of great culture and erudition provided substance for countless anecdotes. Childless, survived by his wife (d.1947), he died on 6 December 1945 in Hobart and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Tasmanian History Teachers' Association, Veritas, July 1977
  • Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, 25 (1978) no 4
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6 Dec 1945
  • Australian Labor Party (Tasmania), executive minute book, 10 Dec 1930, 9 Nov 1942, and State Conference minutes, 1917-30, 1930-36, 1937-42 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Additional Resources

Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'Dwyer-Gray, Edmund John (1870–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dwyer-gray-edmund-john-6068/text10385, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 July 2017.

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

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