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Hawker, Charles Allan (1894–1938)

by Dirk Van Dissel

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

Charles Allan Seymour Hawker (1894-1938), by Rembrandt, 1930s

Charles Allan Seymour Hawker (1894-1938), by Rembrandt, 1930s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23458413

Charles Allan Seymour Hawker (1894-1938), politician and pastoralist, was born on 16 May 1894 at Bungaree homestead, near Clare, South Australia, second son of Michael Seymour Hawker, manager of the Hawker family stations, and his wife Elizabeth Begg, née McFarlane, and grandson of George Charles Hawker. From his family Charles inherited a tradition of patriotism, loyalty to the Crown, attachment to Great Britain and parliamentary service. He was educated at Geelong Church of England Grammar School where he distinguished himself as a scholar and athlete, and from 1913 at Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1919; M.A., 1922), where he read history.

In 1914 he enlisted in England and was commissioned as a temporary lieutenant in the 6th (Service) Battalion, Somerset Light Infantry (Prince Albert's), on 1 August 1915. He served on the Western Front in the Ypres salient from May 1915 and was wounded on 16 August and again on 25 September at Loos, as a result of which he lost an eye. After recuperating from fourteen operations he was attached in 1917 to the regiment's 1st (Regular) Battalion in England. Although classified unfit for active service, Hawker insisted on returning to the front with his battalion in May 1917 in command of a company, with the rank of captain. On 4 October 1917, at Broodseinde during the 3rd battle of Ypres, he was again severely wounded, and paralysed from the waist down. After a series of operations, and through sheer determination, he was able to walk with two sticks, although his legs were in surgical irons to the end of his life.

Hawker returned to South Australia in 1920, studied woolclassing, forestry and botany and took an increasing interest in the family properties. In 1921 he joined the State council of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia and served as vice-president. His father gave him Warrakimo, a run in the Flinders Ranges and in 1925 he bought himself Dillowie, a property near Hallett where he shared a galvanized iron cottage with his manager. That year he also travelled to England for a further operation, taking the opportunity to visit woollen mills at Bradford and return via the United States of America to examine rural industries. His knowledge of marketing problems led to him becoming in February 1928 the South Australian member of the Commonwealth Board of Trade. Hawker's economic thinking, as the Depression deepened, was coloured by his conviction that the countries of the British Empire should act as an economic unit and by his opposition to sectional and State interests in Australia. He believed that Australia's prosperity depended on the export value of its primary produce, but he pleaded for equality of sacrifice throughout the nation and strongly opposed any selfish national policies which might embarrass Great Britain.

From September 1927 to 1930 Hawker had been president of the new Liberal Federation of South Australia. During this time he worked hard to unite the anti-Labor forces in South Australia, but although he made many overtures to the Country Party the breach was not healed till 1932 when the Liberal Country League was formed. In 1929 he entered the House of Representatives as member for Wakefield, when in the Australia-wide landslide to Labor the prime minister, Stanley (Viscount) Bruce, lost his seat. Hawker offered to resign in his favour. In January 1932 at (Sir) John Latham's request, and despite his own misgivings about Hawker's individualism, Prime Minister Joe Lyons appointed Hawker minister for markets and repatriation. The Country Party was not represented in the cabinet, so Hawker was the only expert on rural affairs. When the markets portfolio was renamed in April 1932 he became the first minister of commerce, until he resigned on 23 September over the issue of reduction of members' salaries, to which he was committed. In the debate on the financial emergency bill he crossed the floor to vote in a minority of eight, 'the hardest walk in my life' and one that caused political consternation. His detractors asserted that as a 'rich man' he could easily afford the reduction, but, in fact, he had lost heavily by drought and low prices and carried a mortgage on Dillowie. The act cost Hawker dearly in political terms.

In November 1932, in a widely acclaimed speech, he forcefully defended the provisions of the Ottawa Agreement, for which as minister he had helped to prepare the Australian case. He continued to monitor the government's failure to implement the agreement or to reduce tariffs and in 1933 denounced what he saw as a policy of 'government of the feeble for the greedy'. A recognized spokesman for the primary producer, he argued constantly for reduced costs and charges and for stabilized prices, as expounded in his pamphlet Problems of the Wheatgrower (1934). The development and improvement of the viticulture and fruit-growing industries were also among his crusades. In the 1934 election he was a highly successful campaign director for the Liberal Country League, promoting the composite Lyons-Page ministry that resulted. His own election margin was greatly increased in his wheat-growing electorate.

Hawker travelled widely, often in his own specially adapted car but increasingly by air. In 1935 he toured England, France and Germany to investigate livestock and agricultural conditions and marketing arrangements. At Lyons's request he acted as consultant to the negotiations on meat at the Imperial Trade Conference. The growing anxiety about Hitler heightened his interest in Empire unity and defence and precipitated him into an examination of modern military equipment and organization. He also spent three weeks travelling in the Soviet Union, publishing his observations in a pamphlet An Australian Looks at Russian Farms (1936). Hawker visited Japan in 1936 and was drawn into the negotiation of a new Australian trade policy that severely strained relations with Japan. He favoured a more generous understanding with Japan in the interests of security as well as marketing and contributed an article to the Australia Asiatic Bulletin (April 1937) on the dispute. Hawker also visited Peking and Shanghai and was able to bring a wealth of first-hand information to parliamentary debates. Generous-minded and charming he was appreciated as a convincing speaker with a comprehensive grasp of national and international issues.

At the British Commonwealth Relations Conference in September 1938 at Lapstone, New South Wales, he delivered a paper on 'Australia's foreign trade treaties'. In 1937 Hawker unsuccessfully led the 'Yes' case in South Australia in the referendum for Commonwealth control of marketing and aviation. He advocated the development of north Australia as crucial to Australia's future, and during 1938 spoke repeatedly on defence, urging some form of universal military training. Believing war inevitable he criticized inadequate defence votes and castigated isolationists in speeches that led to further press support for his reinclusion in cabinet.

Hawker was killed on 25 October 1938 when the aircraft Kyeema crashed into Mount Dandenong in Victoria. His untimely death was sharply felt. He had been an outstanding and respected figure in the Federal parliament, whom some of his own party would have supported as prime minister. John Curtin, the Opposition leader, believed he had been on the threshold of great achievements. His patrician politics, as well as his courage and determination, had already given rise to what was to become a 'Hawker legend'. He reassured and influenced those who met him. 'It wasn't so much that he displayed physical courage', wrote one of them, 'what struck me most deeply about him was that the light never went out inside him'. His friend (Sir) Keith Hancock discerned in him 'the best that an Australian can do or be'.

A state memorial service was held at St Peter's Cathedral in Adelaide. His ashes were buried privately in the churchyard of St Michael's, Bungaree. Hawker was a practising Anglican. Unmarried, he had a large number of god-children. He was short, with brown hair and blue eyes, and had the neat head of his family. He was active in the establishment of St Mark's College, University of Adelaide, and a council-member till his death. Buildings at St Mark's and the Waite Institute in Adelaide, a library at Geelong Grammar School and a room in Burgmann College, Canberra, perpetuate his memory. In 1968 a new Federal electorate was named in his honour. A portrait by J. Hanson Walker is held by the family and another by W. A. Dargie is in Parliament House, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • W. K. Hancock, Country and Calling (Lond, 1954)
  • D. Pike, Charles Hawker (Melb, 1968)
  • L. Needham, Charles Hawker, Soldier-Pastoralist Statesman (Adel, 1969)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1937-39, p 1041
  • Australian Quarterly, Sept 1937, Dec 1938
  • Pastoral Review, 48 (Nov 1938)
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 27 (1981), no 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Oct 1929
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 Sept 1932, 26 Oct 1938
  • J. Lonie, Conservatism and Class in South Australia During the Depression Years 1929-1934 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1973)
  • M. Williams, C. A. S. Hawker (B.A. Hons thesis, Universtity of Adelaide, 1982)
  • Hawker-Needham papers and Hawker papers and correspondence (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Dirk Van Dissel, 'Hawker, Charles Allan (1894–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hawker-charles-allan-6603/text11371, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 December 2014.

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

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