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Kent Hughes, Sir Wilfrid Selwyn (Billy) (1895–1970)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Wilfrid Selwyn Kent Hughes (1895-1970), by Murray Griffin, 1942

Wilfrid Selwyn Kent Hughes (1895-1970), by Murray Griffin, 1942

Australian War Memorial, ART26205

Sir Wilfrid Selwyn (Billy) Kent Hughes (1895-1970), soldier and politician, was born on 12 June 1895 in East Melbourne, second of seven children of Wilfred Kent Hughes, a Victorian-born surgeon, and his English-born wife Clementina Jane, née Rankin (d.1916). Ellen Kent Hughes and Gwenda Lloyd were his sisters. Billy attended Trinity Grammar School until the age of 13 when he won a scholarship to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. The brightest boy of his year, he became school captain, an officer in the cadets, and captain of athletics and football.

On 17 August 1914 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was posted to the 7th Battalion. In Egypt, Sergeant Kent Hughes learned that he had won a Rhodes scholarship. Commissioned in April 1915, he transferred to the headquarters of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade, commanded by his uncle Frederic Godfrey Hughes. Billy was to serve at Gallipoli, and in the Sinai, Palestine and Syria. In 1917 he won the Military Cross for his work as staff captain. He was promoted major and appointed deputy adjutant and quartermaster general, Australian Mounted Division. Mentioned in dispatches four times, he wrote his first book, Modern Crusaders (Melbourne, 1918), describing the exploits of the Light Horse.

At war's end, Kent Hughes entered Christ Church, Oxford (B.A., 1922). He threw himself into undergraduate life, represented Australia in the 400-m hurdles at the 1920 Olympic Games at Antwerp, Belgium, and pursued a well-born American girl Edith Kerr, nearly seven years his junior, whom he married on 3 February 1923 at the 1st Congregational Church, Montclair, New Jersey, United States of America.

In April 1923 Kent Hughes returned to Australia and joined his father's publishing firm. Standing for the Legislative Assembly as a Progressive Nationalist, he won the seat of Kew in 1927; he was to retain it until 1949. He was appointed secretary to Sir William McPherson's cabinet in November 1928 but, with his friend (Sir) Robert Menzies, resigned in July 1929. Rebels against the conservative establishment and the mediocrity of State politics, in 1930 Kent Hughes and Menzies formed the Young Nationalist Organisation which became a major force in Victorian non-Labor politics.

Kent Hughes held various portfolios in the United Australia Party-Country Party ministry of 1932-35, among them railways, labour and transport; his responsibilities also included unemployment relief. For arranging the Duke of Gloucester's tour, he was appointed M.V.O. in 1934. In November 1933 Kent Hughes had published four articles in the Melbourne Herald explaining why he had become 'a Fascist—without a shirt'! Spurning 'domineering dictators, picturesque uniforms, and Roman salutes', he admired fascism as 'the spirit of the age' and, with its emphasis on economic planning, as the 'half-way house' between laissez faire and socialism.

In August 1939 he resigned as deputy-leader of the Opposition and was appointed major in the Militia. He was seconded to the A.I.F. in June 1940 and was D.A. & Q.M.G. of the 8th Division in Malaya by April 1941. Colonel Kent Hughes was captured at the fall of Singapore in February 1942 and spent six months at Changi before being transferred to Formosa (Taiwan) and later to Manchuria. Released in August 1945, and appointed O.B.E. (1947) for his 'inspiration' to all ranks during his incarceration, he brought home a recurring amoebic complaint, an enduring interest in Asia, and a long poem written in captivity which was published as Slaves of the Samurai (Melbourne, 1946).

Tall, lean, his hair and moustache turning grey, Kent Hughes joined the recently formed Liberal Party and became deputy-premier to Tom Hollway in 1948. In the following year he was elected to the House of Representatives for the seat of Chisholm; he was to hold it until his death. Menzies elevated Kent Hughes to the ministry in May 1951, handing him the portfolios of the interior and of works and housing. But the man who liked to get things done was given too much to do. Frustrated and outspoken, he upset important people by criticizing 'masses of red tape, inefficiency and bumbledom', and by telling Canberra's voters, as their 'uncrowned king', that they should rise above 'parish pump' politics. Privately, he complained of being the 'junior office boy' who dealt with hedge-cutting and the installation of water meters.

One public duty gave him the greatest satisfaction. As chairman (from 1951) of the organizing committee, he overcame the squabbling which threatened the removal of the 1956 Olympic Games from Melbourne and presided over their success. Offered a knighthood, he accepted a K.B.E. (1957) only after assurances that other committee-members would receive awards.

After the 1955 elections Menzies had dropped Kent Hughes from the ministry, citing administrative inefficiency and the need to bring in new men. Perhaps he was also reacting to public comments that Kent Hughes had made in Tokyo criticizing government foreign policy. Billy was now unmuzzled, and a potential trouble-maker. Restrained only by his sense of propriety, and by an idiosyncratic view of party loyalty, he became a prophet of gloom on the communist threat in Asia and Africa; he accused Menzies of knowing nothing about the 'Far East' and caring less; and he attacked the government's deficiencies in preparing Australia's defences. Kent Hughes relished chairing (1956-61) the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs and, from 1960, regularly issued, and paid for, some three hundred copies of his own 'Intelligence Bulletin' to fellow parliamentarians and selected Liberal Party branches. Frequent trips to London, Oxford, Washington and Asia, and his close contacts with Thai and Taiwanese leaders, meant that he was often better informed than the ministers he interrogated. Billy also managed to irritate his party chieftains by supporting the Netherlands' retention of West Irian, calling for the removal of 'White' from Australia's immigration policy, and attacking Britain's Labour government for imposing economic sanctions against Rhodesia while trading with communist countries.

Mostly, he walked alone, neither seeking nor attracting a following among the back-bench conservatives and malcontents. Looking and sounding like a survival of an earlier age, when Melbourne Grammar boys rushed to serve king and country, he sat erect on his mount on Anzac Day in 1968 wearing the uniform of the Light Horse. Friends and political opponents recognized in the man a dignity, integrity, vitality and kindliness. Those closest also knew that behind the formal exterior was a devotion to family, a capacity to talk to anyone, and a dry sense of humour which dictated hiding the best whisky when visited by his sister Gwenda, the 'family communist'.

Sir Wilfrid retained his involvement in sport, and stayed fit by skiing, tramping in Gippsland and jog-trotting around Lake Burley Griffin. Survived by his wife and three daughters, he died on 31 July 1970 at Kew; he was accorded a state funeral and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at $107,670. Three portraits are held privately.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Howard, Kent Hughes (Melb, 1972)
  • P. Hasluck, The Chance of Politics, N. Hasluck, ed and introduction (Melb, 1997)
  • Kent Hughes papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Robert Menzies papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Liberal Party of Australia records (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Kent Hughes, Sir Wilfrid Selwyn (Billy) (1895–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kent-hughes-sir-wilfrid-selwyn-billy-10723/text19001, published in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 25 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Wilfrid Selwyn Kent Hughes (1895-1970), by Murray Griffin, 1942

Wilfrid Selwyn Kent Hughes (1895-1970), by Murray Griffin, 1942

Australian War Memorial, ART26205