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Ewing, Sir Thomas Thomson (1856–1920)

by G. P. Walsh

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

Thomas Thomson Ewing (1856-1920), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

Thomas Thomson Ewing (1856-1920), by Swiss Studios, 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23398143

Sir Thomas Thomson Ewing (1856-1920), politician, was born on 9 October 1856 at Pitt Town, New South Wales, son of Rev. Thomas Campell Ewing, Anglican clergyman, and his wife Elizabeth, née Thomson. After receiving a good education he was intended to study for the Bar but at 17 he joined a surveyor's party. In June 1877 he became a licenced surveyor with the New South Wales Department of Lands; he was appointed a second-class surveyor in 1882 at a salary of £530 and did much work in the Richmond River Valley. On 1 October 1879 at St Michael's Church of England, Wollongong, he married Margaret Russell MacCabe; they had three sons and two daughters.

Ewing resigned from the department on 15 October 1885 to stand, successfully, for the Legislative Assembly. Setting aside his 'theoretical' free trade convictions, he supported a policy of moderate protection, favoured extension of technical education, female suffrage and payment of members, and opposed the current land Act and non-European immigration. In 1887 he published a pamphlet on the natural resources of the Richmond electorate which he represented until 1894; from 1894 to 1901 he held the new nearby seat of Lismore. Energetic, popular and independent, he quickly broadened his interests from merely local matters to include hydro-electricity for Sydney, fiscal policy and Federation. He held Sir Henry Parkes in high regard, supported Sir George Dibbs and Sir Patrick Jennings, and did good work as chairman of the parliamentary Public Works Committee.

In 1901 Ewing moved into Federal politics, winning the seat of Richmond in the House of Representatives. By now a staunch Liberal-Protectionist, he soon attracted the attention of Alfred Deakin who valued his judgment highly. In Deakin's second administration Ewing was vice-president of the Executive Council in 1905-06, minister for home affairs, 1906-07, and minister for defence, 1907-08. In the latter portfolio Ewing did his most notable political work. He had long been an extreme exponent of the 'Yellow Peril' doctrine and a supporter of universal military training, and his examination of Australia's military preparedness in 1907 confirmed him in his views. Using the report of Colonel W. T. Bridges on the Swiss military system, Ewing and Major J. G. Legge worked out a scheme for compulsory military training for young men. This became the basis of the Defence Act of September 1909 and after further modification by the Fisher government the basis of Australia's pre-war 'citizen army'. In 1910 Ewing retired from politics because of ill health and devoted himself to farming on the Tweed River.

Amiable, humorous and well-liked, Ewing was a good debater and captivating spinner of yarns. 'There are two well-defined sides to his character', said Melbourne Punch in 1905, 'one emotional, the other practical. In business the man of the world comes upper-most; in politics the ideals which he still cherishes most often guide his words. Now and then the dual forces come into conflict while he is on his feet, and the result is a mixture of sense and sentiment. His quickness of wit is astonishing. His speeches are always relieved by delicious paradoxes and quaint conceits, and his humour never scarifies … Altogether he is a most engaging personality'. Ewing's wide interests included history, science and literature; he enjoyed writing short stories. In 1903 with (Sir) T. A. Coghlan, he published Progress of Australasia During the Nineteenth Century, and in 1913 his Review of the Rival Railway Schemes for the Connection of the Tableland of New England with a Deep Sea Port on the North Coast.

Ewing was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1908 even though what he called the 'titled mediocrities' of parliament had often been the butt of his wit. According to a parliamentary colleague, R. A. Crouch, Deakin knighted him as a joke and Ewing took it as such.

Ewing died of heart and kidney disease in a private hospital at Darlinghurst, Sydney, on 15 September 1920 and was buried in Wollongong cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £54,975. Two younger brothers, John and Norman Kirkwood, also had distinguished political careers.

Select Bibliography

  • J. A. La Nauze, Alfred Deakin (Melb, 1965)
  • N. K. Meaney, A History of Australian Defence and Foreign Policy, 1901-23, vol 1 (Syd, 1976)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1908, p 437 ff, 1920, p 4726
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 13 Oct 1885, 16 Sept 1920
  • Town and Country Journal, 26 May 1887, 11 Nov 1908
  • Punch (Melbourne), 10 Aug 1905, 19 Nov 1908
  • L. D. Atkinson, Australian Defence Policy … 1897-1910 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1964)
  • Crouch memoirs (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Ewing, Sir Thomas Thomson (1856–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ewing-sir-thomas-thomson-6130/text10513, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 29 November 2014.

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

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