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Fleming, William Montgomerie (1874–1961)

by Stuart Piggin

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

William Montgomerie Fleming (1874-1961), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

William Montgomerie Fleming (1874-1961), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23386922

William Montgomerie Fleming (1874-1961), grazier, politician and writer, was born on 19 May 1874 at Avon Plains in the Wimmera district of Victoria, third son of John King Fleming, grazier from Scotland and his Tasmanian-born wife Helen, née Hastie. Educated by tutors at his father's station, Ulah, near Walgett, New South Wales, he entered Cooerwull Academy, Bowenfels, at 15 and won many academic and sporting prizes, passing the junior public examination in 1892. He spent a term at the University of Sydney, where his capacity for disputation terrified his lecturers. On 21 March 1900 at Aberdeen near Scone, Fleming married Caroline Benn; they both loved horses, and he won many amateur races, riding in the family colours of pink and grey, inspired by the galah. They settled at Russley, near Aberdeen, and had three children, William, Helen and Beatrix.

In 1901 Fleming defeated R. G. D. Fitzgerald for Robertson (Upper Hunter) and became the youngest member of the Legislative Assembly. An idealist, 'the kid' as he was nicknamed, saw merit in Labor policies, but by temperament and education was a consistent Liberal. He opposed the Labor solidarity pledge and alone spoke out in 1901 against the compulsory clauses in the arbitration bill. When he resigned in 1910 to contest a Federal seat he was convinced that State parliaments were outmoded.

Endorsed by the State Farmers & Settlers' Association, Fleming won the Federal seat of Robertson in 1913 from W. J. Johnson. He was a member of the Commonwealth Prices Regulation Board in 1916-17. After Johnson was killed in action, Fleming, an ardent patriot, felt duty-bound to volunteer for the Australian Imperial Force. Enlisting on 6 October 1916, he embarked on 31 October 1917 and served as a driver with the Australian Army Service Corps; he was promoted sergeant; gassed at Péronne, he was demobilized in London on 27 December 1918.

On his return to Australia Fleming was temporary chairman of committees in 1920-22. In 1921, when offered the treasury by Billy Hughes, he said 'I would not work under [him] if he would give me Sydney'. In March he crossed to the Progressive Party, creating a furore which the prime minister attempted to quell with the canard that he deserted when not offered a cabinet seat. Fleming's nemesis was his membership from 1920 of the Parliamentary Joint Committee of Public Accounts which resolved to investigate Hughes's transactions. To avert this he secured a dissolution in November 1922, and campaigned himself in Fleming's electorate, avowing that he 'must be destroyed'—Fleming lost. He was later defeated three times for the House of Representatives and once for the Senate. He remained chairman of the Metropolitan (Sydney) branch of the Country Party until 1934.

Writing was always Fleming's chief passion. Introduced to journalism by Harry 'The Breaker' Morant, he wrote verse, prose sketches, and serials for numerous newspapers including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Bulletin, and the Pastoral Review—which he edited briefly in World War II. His permanent place in Australian literature is as a writer of children's stories, told originally to his own children. Bunyip Says So (Melbourne, 1923) and The Hunted Piccaninnies (London, 1947) were fantasies based on animal lore and Aboriginal insight into 'the friendship of all living things'. He made a number of radio broadcasts on rural topics in the 1930s and his novel, Broad Acres (Sydney, 1939), was serialized by the Australian Broadcasting Commission in 1940.

Fleming died on 24 July 1961 at Terrigal, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His manuscript autobiography is held by the family. A political opponent once complained of him: 'He is a possum out of a hollow log somewhere in the bush. He don't drink, don't smoke, don't swear and writes poetry—this baby politician'. In malice he remained a child, but in his understanding of Australia's first citizens, the bush and development, 'the kid' was always an elder statesman.

Select Bibliography

  • A.A.A., All About Australians, 1 Dec 1902, p 146f
  • Punch (Melbourne), 30 Oct 1913
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 31 July 1961.

Citation details

Stuart Piggin, 'Fleming, William Montgomerie (1874–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fleming-william-montgomerie-6190/text10639, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 September 2014.

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

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