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Hobbs, Sir Joseph John Talbot (1864–1938)

by A. J. Hill

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

Joseph John Talbot Hobbs (1864-1938), by Fred Leist

Joseph John Talbot Hobbs (1864-1938), by Fred Leist

Australian War Memorial, ART02926

Sir Joseph John Talbot Hobbs (1864-1938), architect and soldier, was born on 24 August 1864 in London, son of Joseph Hobbs, a journeyman joiner who became a clerk of works, and his wife Frances Ann, née Wilson. He was educated at St Mary's Church School, Merton, Surrey. He worked as architectural draftsman to a builder, John Hurst, with whom he migrated to Perth in 1887. There he began work as a carpenter but soon set up practice as an architect. On 24 April 1890 he married Hurst's daughter, Edith Ann, at St George's Anglican Cathedral; they had three sons and four daughters. Talbot Hobbs became a leader in the small band of Perth architects. He was first treasurer of the newly formed West Australian Institute of Architects in 1896 (president, 1909-11) and prospered in the 1890s. His success in the competition for the design of the Weld Club in 1891 began a series of commissions for important buildings, both public and private, in Perth and Fremantle. In 1905 he set up the firm Hobbs, Smith & Forbes in which he was the senior partner.

His small stature and seeming frailness belied the energy and range of activities which distinguished Hobbs throughout his life. He was a keen sportsman, interested in fencing, gymnastics, rowing, sailing and boxing. A devout Christian, he was deeply involved in the affairs of the Anglican Church, serving in synod and on various councils and as architect to the diocese of Perth. Above all he was devoted to soldiering which became virtually a second career parallel to architecture. Beginning with service in the 1st Cinque Ports Artillery Volunteers in 1883, he joined the Volunteer Field Artillery in Perth in 1887 and was commissioned in 1889. In 1903 he commanded the 1st (Western Australian) Field Battery, Australian Field Artillery, by 1908 as lieutenant-colonel the Western Australian Mixed Brigade, and in 1913 the 22nd Infantry Brigade in the rank of colonel. He studied to prepare himself for war, attending gunnery courses in England in 1902 and 1906 and the department of military science course, University of Sydney, in 1909. He was attached to the British Army for training in 1897 and 1913. Most of this was at his own expense. He was also staff officer for army engineering services in 1906-12 and aide-de-camp to the governor-general in 1908-17. He supported the introduction of compulsory training and was a leader in the development of service rifle-shooting. His devotion to the army made lasting impressions typified in a letter from a Gallipoli veteran in 1934: 'He gave his Youth, Leasure [sic] and Purse to perfect himself and us'.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Hobbs was given command of the artillery of the 1st Division, Australian Imperial Force. During the first few weeks on Gallipoli in 1915 he clashed with his commander, Major General (Sir) W. T. Bridges, over the employment of his guns. Bridges insisted that they be dragged up the steep ridges and emplaced in the front line although their fire was ineffective. However, by June Hobbs and the other artillery commanders had organized a workable deployment of all batteries so that the Anzac front was covered. He commanded the 1st Division temporarily in October but despite his protests was evacuated from Gallipoli on 9 November suffering from dysentery. He was appointed C.B. at this time.

After the expansion of the A.I.F. in March 1916 Hobbs went to France with the increased 1st Divisional Artillery which he commanded successfully throughout the heavy fighting for Pozières and Mouquet Farm. He was acting commander of the 1st Anzac Corps Artillery from October until December when he was given command of the 5th Division. His promotion to major general followed on 1 January 1917. For two years Hobbs 'commanded a division with great distinction, made fewer mistakes than most, and earned the undying affection of 20,000 men', according to Major General Sir Brudenell White who had special opportunities for observing him. Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash considered he 'succeeded fully as the Commander of a Division, by his sound common sense, and his sane attitude towards every problem'. Hobbs was known for his justice and integrity and quickly won the affection and loyalty of his staff. He created harmony throughout his division which became 'the ruling passion of his life'. Looking back to 1917-18 in 1938, he declared those years to have been the most momentous and wonderful of all.

When his division was in the line he was frequently with his brigadiers, one of whom was the redoubtable H. E. Elliott. During the advance to the Hindenburg line in March 1917 Elliott ordered an attack in flagrant disobedience of Hobbs's orders, the latter stopped the operation and drove immediately to Elliott's headquarters. Had word of this affair reached the corps commander, Lieutenant-General Sir William Birdwood, Elliott could hardly have escaped dismissal. Hobbs would also speak bluntly to his superiors; on at least three occasions he protested against the employment of his division when he knew that it was in dire need of rest. He so impressed Birdwood on this point in May 1917, before the 2nd battle of Bullecourt, that his representations were passed on to General Headquarters with the result that all the Australian divisions were withdrawn to rest as they came out of that battle. He played a notable part in the heavy fighting of 3rd Ypres, especially in September at Polygon Wood, where his determination helped to turn an adverse situation into a remarkable victory. He was appointed K.C.B. in December.

In April 1918 Hobbs was largely responsible for the recapture of Villers-Bretonneux. His diary for 27 April claims: 'I really planned it—but I feel I should never get the credit of it'. In the quieter period following this feat he was concerned with the development of a steel casemate for machine-guns in the trenches. It was his own invention and its manufacture was ordered by (Sir) Winston Churchill, the British minister for munitions. The early deliveries of the casemate in France coincided with the great allied offensives so that it was never used in battle. During the controversy over the command of the A.I.F. Hobbs made clear to Prime Minister Billy Hughes and others his support for Birdwood's retention of the position. He was one of the three generals considered by Birdwood for command of the Australian Corps. In the offensive battles opening on 8 August 1918 he won further laurels especially in the capture of Péronne on 2 September and the piercing of the Hindenburg line at Bellicourt. He temporarily commanded the Australian Corps when it was withdrawn to rest in October and succeeded Monash in command on 28 November 1918 as acting lieutenant-general. Appointed K.C.M.G. in January 1919, he was also awarded the Serbian Order of the White Eagle (1917), the French Croix de Guerre (twice) and was mentioned in dispatches eight times. His son, John Mervyn, a gunner on Gallipoli, was commissioned in 1915, won the Military Cross in France and served after the war in the Indian Army where he was awarded a Bar to the M.C. and became a brigadier. Hobbs's brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Howard Frederick Hobbs, joined the British Army in 1914 and won the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross.

Even before he relinquished command of the Australian Corps in May 1919 Hobbs became deeply involved in the erection of memorials to the Australian divisions, having been appointed to select sites, prepare designs and arrange for construction. Four of the five designs were his. He chose Polygon Wood for the memorial to the 5th Division and Villers-Bretonneux for the Australian national memorial. On returning to Perth in October he told an interviewer that he would 'try to become a good citizen again' and that 'for the rest of my life I shall be at the service of the men who did so very much to win this war, the Australian soldiers'. He had hardly resumed civilian life when, in February 1920, he was called to Melbourne as one of a committee of six generals advising the government on the organization, size and equipment of the army. In 1921 he was made commander of the 5th Division and the 13th Mixed Brigade, Australian Military Forces, appointments which he held until retirement from the army in 1927. From 1922 he was military representative on the faculty of engineering, University of Western Australia, which had conferred on him the honorary degree of LL.D. on his return from the war.

Hobbs was busy with his profession; the architect now vied with the soldier but the two were united when he was chosen to design the Western Australian War Memorial which was dedicated in 1929. Athol, his younger son, who had resigned from the Indian Army in 1923, had by then joined his firm. Hobbs was on the Western Australian Board of Architects and was a fellow of the Western Australian, Victorian and British institutes. His success in war had made him an important public figure whose help was continually sought by government, ex-service and private bodies. He was chairman of a committee organizing the visit of the Prince of Wales to Western Australia in 1920, Western Australian commissioner at the Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, and a delegate to the League of Nations Assembly in 1933. At various times he was chief scout of Western Australia, State president of Toc H, a patron of Legacy, warden of the Western Australian War Memorial, and a director of three companies. Above all he devoted himself to the welfare of returned soldiers to whom he was, in the words of one of them, 'our loved commander of the 5th Divvy'.

In April 1938 Hobbs left for France with his wife and daughter to attend the unveiling of the Australian war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, the competition for which he had adjudicated. He suffered a heart attack at sea and died on 21 April. His body was brought back from Colombo to Perth for burial with state and military honours on 14 May after a service at St George's Cathedral. He was survived by his wife and children. His estate was valued for probate at £31,137. A memorial to Hobbs was unveiled in 1940 on the Esplanade in Perth. Portraits by James Quinn, Frederick Leist and Albert Fullwood are in the Australian War Memorial, Canberra, and by Ernest Buckmaster in the West Australian Army Museum, North Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1912)
  • A. D. Ellis, The Story of the Fifth Australian Division (Lond, 1920)
  • J. Monash, The Australian Victories in France in 1918 (Lond, 1920)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac (Syd, 1921, 1924), and The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • J. M. Freeland, The Making of a Profession (Syd, 1971)
  • L. Hunt (ed), Westralian Portraits (Perth, 1979)
  • Reveille (Sydney), Jan 1935, June 1938
  • West Australian, 11 Oct, 9 Nov 1901, 4 Jan 1918, 31 Oct 1919, 22, 23 Apr 1938
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Apr 1919, 23, 28 Apr, 16 May 1938
  • Daily News (Perth), 22 Apr 1938
  • Argus (Melbourne), 14 May 1938
  • J. J. T. Hobbs papers and copies of his diaries (Australian War Memorial).

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Citation details

A. J. Hill, 'Hobbs, Sir Joseph John Talbot (1864–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 October 2016.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2016

Joseph John Talbot Hobbs (1864-1938), by Fred Leist

Joseph John Talbot Hobbs (1864-1938), by Fred Leist

Australian War Memorial, ART02926