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Gullett, Sir Henry Somer (Harry) (1878–1940)

by A. J. Hill

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Henry Somer Gullett (1878-1940), by Vandyck

Henry Somer Gullett (1878-1940), by Vandyck

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23419609

Sir Henry Somer (Harry) Gullett (1878-1940), farmer, journalist, historian and politician, was born on 26 March 1878 at Toolamba West, Victoria, son of London-born Charles William Gullett, farmer, and his wife Rose Mary, née Somer, born in Victoria. He was educated at state schools and learned milking, ploughing, harvesting and horsemanship even as he received his schooling. Only 12 when his father died, Gullett left school to help his mother on the farm. He soon began to write on agriculture for the Geelong Advertiser. His uncle, Henry Gullett, who had been editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, encouraged him to pursue journalism and in 1900 he joined the staff of that paper.

Having quickly become established in his profession, in 1908 Gullett went to London where he worked as a freelance but also wrote for the Sydney Daily Telegraph and Sun. He took up intensive study of migration, believing it to be the key to the development and defence of Australia. He became closely involved in the immigration work of Australia House and in 1914 published in London The Opportunity in Australia, an illustrated, practical handbook on Australian rural life. Its first chapter was autobiographical. Gullett married Elizabeth Penelope Frater, daughter of Barbara Baynton, at a civil ceremony in Marylebone, London, on 2 October 1912; they had a son and a daughter.

In 1915 Gullett was appointed official Australian correspondent with the British and French armies on the Western Front. After a year in France he returned to Australia to lecture on the war, then in July 1916 enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a gunner. His return to England early in 1917 coincided with the organization of the Australian War Records Section designed by Charles Bean as a preliminary to the foundation of an Australian war museum. Bean selected Gullett to command the sub-section to be set up in Egypt and had him commissioned in August 1917. After a few weeks in France with Bean, Gullett sailed for Egypt in November. However, his work in the field for War Records was brief, as the A.I.F. in Palestine saw in him what they had so long been denied—their own Australian war correspondent. Bean gladly recommended him and he took up this appointment in August 1918, just in time for the final offensive. He was joint editor of Australia in Palestine (Sydney, 1919), an outstanding record of the campaign by participants.

Early in 1919, before returning to London, Gullett showed moral courage by confronting the commander-in-chief, General Sir Edmund Allenby. Since the Surafend incident when angry Anzacs had avenged the murder of a New Zealander by an Arab thief, Allenby had not only punished the Anzac Mounted Division but had pointedly ignored the Anzacs on public occasions when praising other troops. Gullett convinced him of the wider repercussions of his attitude and persuaded him to issue to every soldier a generously worded order of the day before they left for home.

Gullett attended the peace conference in Paris as press liaison officer on the staff of Prime Minister Billy Hughes. He was so impressed by 'the lust of territory' which he saw as 'the sinister and dominating note of the proceedings' that he wrote a pamphlet, Unguarded Australia (London, 1919), in which he argued that 'immigration means defence'. In this cause he was as tireless as he was persuasive. On return to Australia he was briefly the first director of the Australian War Museum (now Memorial) but in 1920 he readily accepted the invitation of Hughes to be director of the Australian Immigration Bureau. He also wrote volume VII of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918, recounting the exploits of the A.I.F. in Sinai, Palestine and Syria. It was 'a dog of a job', he told a friend, but it was completed by the end of 1922 and published the following year. By 1940 it had been reprinted eight times and was hailed by Bean as 'the most readable and most read' of all the volumes of that history.

Disagreements with Hughes over immigration policy led to Gullett's resignation in February 1922 and his return to journalism with the Melbourne Herald after rejecting the offer of a post on The Times. An attempt to enter Federal politics in the election of 1922 failed but in 1925 he was elected as a Nationalist for Henty, a seat he held for the rest of his life. He became minister for trade and customs in November 1928, a most exacting portfolio at a time when world trade was declining and the Nationalist-Country Party government was in difficulties. After the defeat of the coalition in October 1929, Gullett sat on the Opposition benches until the fall of the Labor government in December 1931. For a time he was deputy leader of his party and of the Opposition but, on the formation of the United Australia Party under Joe Lyons, he stood aside for (Sir) John Latham. Having resumed his former portfolio in January 1932, Gullett accompanied Stanley (Viscount) Bruce to the Imperial Economic Conference at Ottawa. Bruce recalled that he put Gullett's fiery temper to good use towards the end when, after informing him of matters in which the British delegation might have been more generous, Gullett 'went completely off the handle' and was granted 'all sorts of little concessions at the last moment'. His work at Ottawa was recognized by his appointment as K.C.M.G. in January 1933 but his health had so deteriorated that he resigned his portfolio the same month.

By October 1934 he was well enough to become minister without portfolio but with responsibility for trade treaties. He travelled extensively in Europe in 1935 and was successful in concluding several trade agreements. Gullett resigned again in March 1937 after differences with his colleagues over trade policy. When (Sir) Robert Menzies formed his first government in April 1939, Gullett returned to office as minister for external affairs. After the outbreak of war with Germany in September he became, in addition, minister for information with the task of creating the new department. He was also a member of the War Cabinet from 15 September 1939 to 13 March 1940.

His tenure of both ministries was short and troubled. When Menzies formed a coalition with the Country Party in March 1940, Gullett became vice-president of the executive council, minister in charge of scientific and industrial research and minister assisting the minister for information. The intensification of the war effort, following the invasion of France in May, caused Menzies to appoint Sir Keith Murdoch director general of information, an arrangement scarcely feasible but for the long-standing friendship between Gullett and Murdoch.

Gullett's career ended tragically on 13 August 1940 when the aircraft in which he was travelling crashed near Canberra. After a service at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne, with state and military honours, his remains were cremated. He was survived by his wife and children. His estate was valued for probate at £13,265. His son Henry Baynton Somer Gullett served with distinction in the Second A.I.F. and became a member of the House of Representatives and ambassador to Greece.

Sir Henry Gullett was passionately concerned with the development and safety of his country and of the British Empire. In politics he showed vigour and courage even to the point of voting against his party when he saw that course as his duty. Similarly, no pressure from senior officers could persuade him to deviate from the lines he had chosen when writing the history of the A.I.F. in Palestine. As a minister his policies were sometimes controversial but he was constructive and he bore no grudges. He made many friends in many lands and the Gulletts' home in Toorak was for long the resort of leaders in art, literature, politics, journalism and the army.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • R. M. Younger, Australia and the Australians (Adel, 1970)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1940, 164, p 374
  • Reveille (Sydney), Sept, Dec 1940
  • Stand-To, Jan-Feb 1962
  • Punch (Melbourne), 29 Oct 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 Aug 1940
  • Gullett collection (Australian War Memorial), Henry Gullett papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Gullett, Sir Henry Somer (Harry) (1878–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gullett-sir-henry-somer-harry-448/text11157, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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