Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Erwin, George Dudley (1917–1984)

by I. R. Hancock

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

George Dudley Erwin (1917-1984), politician, was born on 20 August 1917 at Winchelsea, Victoria, fifth of nine children of Victorian-born parents Herbert Edward Erwin, farmer, and his wife Alfreda Mary Elizabeth, née Blake. The Erwins owned a small property near the mining town of Wensleydale. Reared in a strict but caring family of strong religious convictions, Dudley milked the cows, rode horses when he could and attended the local state school. He left school at 13 to work on the farm, at the same time taking a correspondence course in Morse code, and acquired a lifelong taste for the bread and dripping that his family gave to passers-by during the Depression.

After two years in Sydney at the Marconi School of Wireless and a period in Melbourne as a student-lecturer, Erwin enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 8 January 1940. Training first as a radio operator, he was a navigator with No.25 Squadron in 1941-43 and No.31 (Beaufighter) Squadron in April-September 1943. He had been commissioned in October 1942. Subsequently he served as an area navigation officer and a navigation instructor. Promoted to flight lieutenant (October 1944), he was considered keen and conscientious, although his commanding officer described him as an `unimpressive officer’ who `lacks personality’.

On 8 January 1944 at St Clement’s Church of England, Mosman, Sydney, Erwin married Alma Betty Cleburne. After demobilisation on 1 October 1945, he bought a 360-acre (146 ha) farm adjoining his father’s and, later, a property at Lethbridge, Victoria, which produced fine wool. Abandoning teenage socialist inclinations, he joined the Country Party, then switched to the Liberal Party, which preselected him for the Labor-held seat of Ballaarat in the House of Representatives. He was elected in 1955 with the support of Anti-Communist Labor Party preferences. A well-organised man who `loved people’, he assiduously cultivated his electorate and held it until he retired in 1975. He also became part-owner and, eventually, sole owner of Ballarat’s historic Craig’s Royal Hotel.

Although the Canberra press gallery dubbed him `Deadly Dudley’, his career prospered in the 1960s. He chaired the committee which produced the government style manual and in February 1967 Harold Holt appointed him government whip. Involved in the speculation about Holt’s faltering leadership, Erwin actively supported (Sir) John Gorton’s successful campaign to become prime minister after Holt disappeared in the surf at Portsea in December. Gorton rewarded Erwin by appointing him minister for air and leader of the House on 13 February 1969, but dismissed him after the October election, claiming he was `hopeless’. Erwin’s late-night explanation of his banishment, delivered on the telephone to a journalist, entered political folklore: referring to Gorton’s 23-year-old principal private secretary, he said `it wiggles, it’s shapely, and its name is Ainsley Gotto’.

After divorcing his wife in 1957 on the grounds of desertion, Erwin married with Methodist forms Virginia Joan Burrows, née Eagan, an American divorcee, on 9 June 1962 at Fishkill, New York State, United States of America. Following another divorce, and having retired to Canberra, at the registrar’s office there, he married Gwendolyne (`Gwenda’) Phyllis Potter, née Pennant, a 38-year-old trained nurse and a divorcee, on 22 June 1977.

A strong supporter of small business, Erwin was the foundation president of the Australian Association of Independent Businesses Ltd. Living intermittently at Caloundra, Queensland, he managed a block of units with Gwenda. In 1979 he stood, unsuccessfully, as an Independent for the Australian Capital Territory House of Assembly, after originally being placed fourth on the Liberal Party ticket. Suffering for years from heart problems, he died of a cerebrovascular accident on 29 October 1984 in Canberra and was cremated. He was survived by his wife, their son and his stepson, and by the daughter of his first marriage; the son of his first marriage predeceased him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Representatives), 21 Feb 1985, p 25
  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate), 21 Feb 1985, p 30
  • Canberra Times, 19 Feb 1969, p 13, 30 Oct 1984, p 1
  • series A9300, item Erwin G D (National Archives of Australia)
  • R. Linford, interview with G. D. Erwin (typescript, 1984, National Library of Australia)
  • Sir John Gorton papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Erwin, George Dudley (1917–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/erwin-george-dudley-12464/text22417, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 31 October 2014.

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

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