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Dyett, Sir Gilbert Joseph Cullen (1891–1964)

by J. N. I. Dawes

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

Sir Gilbert Joseph Cullen Dyett (1891-1964), ex-servicemen's leader, was born on 23 June 1891 at Bendigo, Victoria, third child of Benjamin Dyett, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret Frances, née Cullen, both Victorian-born. He was educated by the Marist Brothers at Bendigo, leaving school at 14 to work for J. H. Curnow & Son, estate agents. He was engaged in several business ventures on his own account in Victoria and Western Australia, and at the outbreak of the war in 1914 was in South Africa. He rushed back to Australia to enlist in September, qualified for an officers' school and in March 1915 was commissioned as lieutenant in the 7th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force. He embarked in April and fought on Gallipoli, but in August was so badly wounded at Lone Pine that he was reverently covered and left for dead. Rescued and repatriated, he was told that he would not walk again, but in later years was able to list 'walking' among his recreations.

While convalescing at Bendigo, Dyett took charge of the local recruiting campaign with such success that in May 1917 he was appointed secretary of the Victorian State Recruiting Committee, with promotion to temporary captain. He brought enormous energy to this job, combining opposition to conscription with a strong belief in military service. He initiated schemes such as a recruiting train and returned-soldier bands, but his attempt to introduce recruiting speeches during theatrical performances drew complaints about his over-zealousness.

After the war, Dyett became secretary of the Ocean Road Trust but resigned when the duties of the post clashed with his work as secretary for the successful Anzac Remembrance Appeal. In June 1919 he took up the part-time position of secretary to the Victorian Trotting and Racing Association, which was largely controlled by John Wren; he held the post for thirty years. Wren is said to have chosen him as a respectable front-man. Dyett did not smoke, drink or gamble, and knew little about the racing side of trotting, but he performed his duties with military precision, honesty and enthusiasm. He was on the Racecourse Licences Board of Victoria in 1930-51 and was central registrar of trotting names for Australia for many years. In 1950 he was caricatured as 'Captain Dwyer' by Frank Hardy in his novel Power Without Glory.

In 1916 Dyett had been elected a Federal vice-president of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League. By 1919 dissatisfaction was growing within the league about the 'law and order' policy of its national president, Senator W. K. Bolton. A Victorian faction campaigned for Dyett who defeated Bolton for the presidency on 15 July. His immediate task was to turn wartime promises into legislation protecting the interests of returned soldiers. Despite the circumstances of his election, Dyett believed in a policy of 'patience, tact and diplomacy'; after an inauspicious clash with W. M. Hughes soon after assuming office, he maintained an almost daily contact with Federal ministers. This quiet diplomacy under his personal domination was at odds with the more aggressive tactics favoured by many branches and, with sharply falling membership fuelling opposition, Dyett several times only narrowly avoided defeat. In 1930 he announced his resignation due to pressure of business; he was persuaded to stand again but had to rely on his own vote and the casting vote of the federal secretary to survive when branches representing two-thirds of league membership voted against him. Thereafter a new emphasis on public lobbying emerged.

In the 1920s and 1930s Dyett was active in international ex-servicemen organizations; he represented Australia at several overseas conferences and in 1921-46 was dominion president of the British Empire Service League. From May 1932 he was a member of the board of Management of the Australian War Memorial, and he was a trustee of the (Sir Samuel) McCaughey bequest for the education of soldiers' children. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1927 and was knighted in 1934.

Dyett stepped down from the presidency of the R.S.L. in 1946. He maintained his racing interests until the early 1950s, and spent his retirement at his home at Olinda, in the Dandenongs. He died in Hospital in East Melbourne on 19 December 1964 and was buried in Bendigo cemetery after a requiem Mass. Dyett never married. He took an interest in the welfare of children, and in the handicapped, especially the blind. Over the years he had bought and built a number of houses at Brighton and elsewhere which he let at low rentals to ex-servicemen; he left an estate valued for probate at £103,754. His friends spoke highly of his efficiency and tact, his magnetic personality and his ascendancy in debate.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Hills and A. Dene, The RSSILA: its Origin, History … (Melb, 1927, 1938)
  • G. L. Kristianson, The Politics of Patriotism (Canb, 1966)
  • L. L. Robson, The First A.I.F. (Melb, 1970)
  • N. Brennan, John Wren (Melb, 1971)
  • M. J. Agnew, Australia's Trotting Heritage (Melb, 1977)
  • E. H. Buggy, The Real John Wren (Melb, 1977)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Apr 1933, Apr 1934, Aug 1944, Feb 1965
  • Punch (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1921
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Dec 1964
  • Bendigo Advertiser, 21, 24 Dec 1964.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. N. I. Dawes, 'Dyett, Sir Gilbert Joseph Cullen (1891–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/dyett-sir-gilbert-joseph-cullen-6071/text10393, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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