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Elliott, Robert Charles Dunlop (1884–1950)

by L. R. Gardiner

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

Robert Charles Dunlop Elliott (1884-1950), businessman, newspaper proprietor and senator, was born on 28 October 1884 at Kyneton, Victoria, fourth surviving child of Robert Cochrane Elliott, a grocer from Northumberland, England, and his wife Maria Jeanette, née Williamson, from Inverness, Scotland.

His early years are variously reported. He began to earn his living after local state primary school education. In 1905-11 he served in the militia as a lieutenant. By then he had set up as a business agent. On 5 April 1913 at Balaclava, Melbourne, he married Hilda, daughter of Theodore Fink; Dr Charles Strong officiated.

Known as 'R.D.' he acquired proprietorships and directorships. By 1924 these included the Arabic Co. Pty Ltd, roofing manufacturers; lime works at Curdie's River; Stoddart, Fitcher & Millist, millinery specialists; Watters & Sons Pty Ltd, seedsmen; Spicers & Detmold, wholesale stationers and manufacturers; and the Yorkshire Insurance Co. As a leading influence with Armstrong Whitworth Pty Ltd and its successor (1927), the Civil Engineering Construction Co. Pty Ltd, he undertook bridge-building, notably at Mildura, and hydro-electric schemes at Sugarloaf-Rubicon (Eildon) in Victoria, Shannon in Tasmania, and Grafton in New South Wales.

In 1924 with Ethel, wife of (Sir) Earle Page, and Percy Stewart, he purchased the recently constituted New Sunraysia Daily Pty. Ltd. which acquired Sunraysia Daily from the receivers; he virtually controlled the paper although he was not proprietor until the early 1930s. Elliott acquired other country newspapers, including the Castlemaine Mail (1932), Shepparton Advertiser (1935), Swan Hill Guardian and Wentworth Western Evening News (1938), Albury Banner (1940), Yarrawonga Chronicle (1943), Cobram Courier (1944), Maryborough Advertiser (1945), Cohuna Farmers' Weekly (1947) and Wangaratta Chronicle (1949). He also controlled radio 3MA (Mildura) from 1932. He was director of Western Newspapers Group and of Australian United Press, and a foundation director of the Australian Provincial Daily Press Association (Regional Dailies of Australia Ltd). He followed his father-in-law as delegate at Imperial press conferences in London in 1930 and South Africa in 1935.

Narrowly defeated on 2 June 1928 for the Victorian Legislative Council (North-Western Province), Elliott was elected as senator for Victoria on 17 November and sworn in on 14 August 1929. With all Victorian Federal Country Party members, including William Gibson, he rejected the State executive's demand for a conformity pledge for the election of 15 September 1934. Elliott was dropped from the United Australia Party-Country Party Senate team which, however, included Gibson. Prime Minister Joseph Lyons had objected to charges of dishonesty and corruption against his government in Elliott's Castlemaine Mail of 19 August 1933. Elliott observed that 'the political team did not want in Parliament any independent who had a mind of his own'. He was defeated by Gibson but held his seat under the Constitution until 30 June 1935. He had chaired the Senate select committee on the standing committee system and served on Senate library and disputed returns committees.

Elliott admired and tried to model himself on Lord Beaverbrook. He joined Beaverbrook's fervent 'crusade', beginning in 1929-30, for 'Empire Free Trade'. Beaverbrook regarded him as Australia's voice. They promoted dominion food supplies for Britain, and British capital and manufactures for dominions and colonies with some concession to dominion manufacturers. Zeal obscured the practical difficulties. Elliott's pamphlet, The Empire Crusade: Plain Facts for Australians (1930), made well-calculated appeals to economic advantage and Empire patriotism. Sinister competition appeared: 'the East Prussian farmer' and the 'Argentine Meat Octopus' with its 'propaganda of the most insidious and subtle nature'.

In 1940 he went to Britain to serve as special assistant to Beaverbrook in his effective and effervescent wartime ministries (aircraft production, 1940-41, and supply, 1941-42). Elliott was appointed C.M.G. in 1942. His role is not clear. The Beaverbrook spotlight and smoke-screen still dazzle and obscure. One Beaverbrook personal secretary fancifully suggested that, 'Like a St Bernard dog he followed his master around, a barrel of adulation round his neck, from which Beaverbrook could drink at need. He was very kind but rather stupid'. Beaverbrook preferred to recall to Elliott's widow that, 'whenever I, as a Minister was faced by some tiresome and recalcitrant problem, sometimes a problem which Mr Churchill had asked me to tackle, I always turned to your husband. I knew that he would never rest or relax and never allow himself to be deflected. He probably annoyed a great many people as he swept on. But he did the job. I was indeed a fortunate man to have his services then and to get so much credit which belonged to him'. After his return to Australia, Elliott chaired the Commonwealth Advisory Panel on Munitions Contracts and Annexes, and the War Investigation Committee (Navy).

He promoted civic endeavours, crying 'develop, develop, develop'. He supported as he clashed with the Murray Valley Development League. He borrowed slogans like 'Don't pray for rain: dam it'. Originality was not his stongest suit. In the 1920s he helped the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra to present shilling concerts for a wider public. He initiated (1925) and paid for guided lectures at the National Gallery of Victoria. His artistic legacy, notably Orpens and Brangwyns, led to the foundation of the Mildura Art Gallery, where his portrait by his friend Sir William Orpen now hangs. His wife called their Toorak house 'The Orpenage'.

From 1924 Elliott was a trustee of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, and sometime treasurer to 1940. In the 1944-45 reorganization he became a trustee of the gallery. Differences about gallery policy and administration sharpened with Sir Keith Murdoch in the chair from 1939 and with (Sir) Daryl Lindsay, director in 1941-55. Elliott could be vain, personal and obstructive. (Sir) John Medley, Murdoch's deputy, reputedly referred to 'a tale told by an Elliott, full of sound and fury'. Murdoch used his wide influence against Elliott. One pettiness was the Murdoch press's insistent reference to 'ex-senator Elliott' when he characteristically continued to claim his earlier title.

He had no children. His wife, a strong personality, helped to control his newspaper group after his death. 'With him', she said, 'there was never a dull moment. His only idea of Heaven would have been activity'. Elliott died of cerebro-vascular disease at Toorak on 6 March 1950. His estate was valued for probate at £79,848. At his funeral at Toorak Presbyterian Church Rev. Dr Alan Watson commented, 'Many of those with whom he was associated could not share all his opinions on matters of public policy, but all of us covet his spirit'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. W. Malloch, Fellows All (Melb, 1943)
  • U. R. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • D. Farrer, G- for God Almighty (Lond, 1969)
  • L. B. Cox, The National Gallery of Victoria, 1861 to 1968 (Melb, 1970)
  • Art in Australia, Feb 1935, p 23
  • People (Sydney), 13 Jan 1954, p 27
  • Argus (Melbourne), 4 June, 7 Nov 1928, 10, 20, 21, 23 Aug 1934, 7 Mar 1950
  • Sunraysia Daily, 30, 31 May, 1, 2, 4, 5 June 1928, 23 Sept 1944, 7, 8, 10, 11 Mar 1950
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 8 Nov 1928
  • Bulletin, 28 Dec 1949
  • Age, 7 Mar 1950
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 7 Mar 1950, p 9
  • catalogue of paintings from Hilda Elliott bequest and R. D. Elliott collection (Mildura Gallery, Victoria)
  • Fink papers (Faculty of Education, University of Melbourne)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

L. R. Gardiner, 'Elliott, Robert Charles Dunlop (1884–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/elliott-robert-charles-dunlop-6106/text10463, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 October 2014.

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

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