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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ewers, John Keith (1904–1978)

by Jenny Gregory and Rebecca Shepherd

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Keith Ewers (1904-1978), by unknown photographer

John Keith Ewers (1904-1978), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24209727

John Keith Ewers (1904-1978), teacher and writer, was born on 13 June 1904 at Subiaco, Perth, second son of Victorian-born parents Ernest Ewers, orchardist, and his wife Annie Eliza, née Gray. After his mother died when he was 6, Keith lived with an aunt and uncle in Subiaco until his father found stable employment as a wharf labourer and remarried. In 1914 the family moved to Carlisle. Educated at James Street Intermediate and Perth Modern schools, in 1923 Ewers served as a monitor at the Thomas Street primary school, Subiaco, before attending Clarement Teachers' College. The Australian Journal published (1924) his first short story, under the nom-de-plume, 'J. K. Waterjugs'.

In 1924 Ewers was posted to a small school at South Tammin. The surrounding wheatbelt district provided the setting and characters for much of his writing. While teaching there and at other country schools, he published more than forty pieces of work (mainly short stories) in local newspapers. From 1929 to 1939 he taught at Beaconsfield State School, south of Fremantle. He published his first book privately, a collection of poems entitled Boy and Silver (1929). His first novel, Money Street (London, 1933), a romantic story about a group of residents of inner-suburban Perth, remains the work for which Ewers is most noted. During the 1930s his literary review, 'Australiana', appeared regularly in the West Australian; subsequently, his column, 'Australian Bookman', was published in the Daily News. At St Alban's Anglican Church, Highgate, on 20 June 1936 he married Jean Grant McIntyre; their only child was born in 1939.

Ewers taught at Nedlands (1939-42) and Perth Boys' (1943-47) schools, then retired to write full time. Within twelve years he published five major works of fiction: Tales from the Dead Heart (Sydney, 1944), Men Against the Earth (Melbourne, 1946), For Heroes to Live In (Melbourne, 1948), Harvest and Other Stories (Sydney, 1949) and Who Rides on the River? (Sydney, 1956). He also wrote poetry, educational texts and critical essays, and showed his talent for local history in Bruce Rock (1959).

As a young man, he had been actively involved in promoting an appreciation of literature in the wider community and had assisted (Sir) Walter Murdoch to found the Australian Reading Circle in 1930. Later, as one of Western Australia's foremost writers, Ewers helped to establish the State branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (president 1938-39 and 1946-47). He co-ordinated the acquisition and preservation of Tom Collins House, Swanbourne, by the F.A.W., of which he was made a life member (1967).

Despite Ewers's Methodist and Congregational upbringing, in his twenties he rejected church-based faith and declared himself an agnostic and a sceptic. In middle age he read J. G. Bennett's The Crisis in Human Affairs (London, 1954). His subsequent association with Bennett led him in 1958 to became a follower of Subud, an Indonesian-based spiritual group. Ewers died on 9 March 1978 at Shenton Park and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery; his wife and daughter edited his autobiography, Long Enough for a Joke (1983).

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. Hetherington, Forty-Two Faces (Melb, 1962)
  • H. Anderson (ed), The Singing Roads (Syd, 1965)
  • P. Bibby (ed), The Ultimate Honesty (Perth, 1982)
  • Australian Author, 10, no 3, July 1978, p 30
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Mar 1961
  • West Australian, 11 Mar 1978
  • Ewers papers (State Library of Western Australia) S. Balme, interview with J. K. Ewers (transcript, State Library of Western Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with J. K. Ewers (transcript, 1985, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Jenny Gregory and Rebecca Shepherd, 'Ewers, John Keith (1904–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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