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Ellis, Ulrich Ruegg (1904–1981)

by Andrew Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Ulrich Ruegg Ellis (1904-1981), journalist, author, political organiser and activist, was born on 23 July 1904 at Mount Morgan, Queensland, sixth surviving and youngest child of Thomas James Ellis, an Irish-born miner, and his English wife Constance Jane, née Ruegg. When Ulrich was 3, the patrician Constance left her feckless husband and moved with her children to Tingalpa, Brisbane, where, despite proximity to the city, Ulrich enjoyed a rough-and-tumble bush childhood. After attending Kelvin Grove Road (Boys) and Brisbane Grammar schools, aged 16 he became a cadet journalist. In 1921-22 he was employed in Melbourne by the Press Bureau, which served Victorian provincial newspapers. Next he worked as a galleryman and political roundsman for several metropolitan dailies, including the Melbourne Morning Post, launched by the Victorian Country Party in 1925.

In 1927 Ellis moved to Canberra as one of the first permanent press correspondents to live in the `bush capital’. Next year he became private secretary to (Sir) Earle Page, leader of the Australian Country Party. A competent and energetic assistant, Ellis organised Page’s daily working life and focused his employer’s ideas about the role of the Country Party. Though Page was a hard and often erratic taskmaster the pair became friends. On 19 December 1930 at Trinity Presbyterian Church, Camberwell, Melbourne, Ellis married Ray Arnot Maxwell (1897-1987), daughter of George Maxwell and his wife Jean Russell, née Ross. Born on 21 October 1897 at St Kilda, Ray had graduated from the University of Melbourne (BA, 1921; Dip.Ed., 1923), and taught at Telopea Park Intermediate High School, Canberra.

In 1936 Ellis joined the Commonwealth Department of Commerce as a commercial intelligence officer. Four years later he moved to the Department of Munitions in Melbourne, where he became assistant-controller (administration) in charge of a staff of some six hundred officers. Between 1944 and 1946 he served as deputy-director of public relations in the Department of Post-war Reconstruction, Canberra. Never entirely comfortable with the constraints of the public service, in 1945 he had publicly criticised the practice of the minister for the interior in allocating housing. For contravening public service regulations he was fined £2. After a year in the Department of Information he resigned from the public service in 1947 and established a rural lobby group, the Office of Rural Research (and Development), which worked closely with the Country Party.

Bald, wiry and indefatigable, Ellis attached himself to causes on the periphery of the political mainstream. As a Canberra resident he was a passionate advocate of local self-government, and of the need to improve Canberra’s amenities and to attract tourism to the national capital. After helping to establish the Kangaroo Club in 1931 to `keep Canberra hopping’, he was founding chairman (1937-40) of the Canberra Tourist Bureau. He was an elected member (1947-51) of the Australian Capital Territory Advisory Council and was prominent in the Turner Progress Association (ACT).

Labelled the `arch-priest’ of the Australian New State movement by the grazier Phillip Wright, in 1933 Ellis had been publicity officer for the secessionist Riverina Movement of Charles Hardy. That year he wrote New Australian States, a polemical historical survey of the need for constitutional review and further decentralisation. In 1934 he presented evidence to Harold Nicholas, the royal commissioner on new states. In 1948 he joined the executive of the New England New State movement and from 1960, having moved with Ray to Armidale, he oversaw `Operation Seventh State’. Not even defeat in the 1967 New State referendum caused his enthusiasm to wane. He was named a life member of the movement in 1970 and patron in 1972.

Another of Ellis’s passions, related and equally enduring, was for the Country Party. In the 1950s he had been publicist, valet, chauffeur, nursemaid and baggage handler for the Country Party leader, a Sir Arthur Fadden. Ellis was a foot-soldier whose energy and dedication compensated for his lack of sparkling intellect. His two pioneering historical works, The Country Party: A Political and Social History of the Party in New South Wales (1958) and A History of the Australian Country Party (1963), were unscholarly and partisan. His pen was sharpest as a pamphleteer. Farewell to Democracy (1947) was an eloquent diatribe against the denial of democratic rights to Canberra residents. Zoo-Centralisation (1953), in which he employed the memorable pseudonym of Violet Lavender Skunk, was a lively parody of centralisation and socialisation. He also wrote for the Australian Encyclopaedia (1958) and helped both Page and Fadden to write their memoirs.

In addition to supporting her husband’s `causes’, Ray Ellis was active in philanthropic groups, serving as president (1950-52) of the National Council of Women of the Australian Capital Territory and as a councillor (1954-58) of the Canberra University College. A member (1958-60) of the Commonwealth Literature Censorship Board, she was appointed MBE in 1961.

Ellis is sometimes remembered as less reactionary than his brother Malcolm Ellis. None the less, his argument that the New State movement was `the only permanent safeguard against extremist domination in industry and government’, and his warnings that lax security in Canberra public service offices was assisting communist espionage, echoed his brother’s concerns. Survived by his wife and two sons, Ellis died on 4 December 1981 at Tamworth and was cremated. Ray died on 17 November 1987.

Select Bibliography

  • B. B. Schaffer and D. C. Corbett, Decisions (1965)
  • C. J. Ellis, I Seek Adventure (1981)
  • P. Wright, Memories of a Bushwhacker (1982)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 Feb 1958, p 14, 27 Feb 1958, p 5, 13 Apr 1967, p 8
  • Canberra Historical Journal, 10 Sept 1982, p 16
  • N. Brown, Possess the Time (PhD thesis, ANU, 1990)
  • series A463, item 1960/6068 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Ellis papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Ellis, Ulrich Ruegg (1904–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ellis-ulrich-ruegg-12459/text22409, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 3 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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