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McEwin, Sir Alexander Lyell (1897–1988)

by Judith Raftery

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir Alexander Lyell McEwin (1897-1988), farmer and politician, was born on 29 May 1897 at Hundred of Hart, near Blyth, South Australia, youngest of four children of South Australian-born Alexander Lyell McEwin, farmer, and his wife Jessie Smilie, née Ferguson. After primary schooling at the one-teacher school at Hart, he attended Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, as a scholarship boy. He left at 14, nursing resentment over treatment he had received from the history master J. F. Ward for choosing music lessons over history. For the next ten years he farmed with his father, for keep and pocket money, honing the values of thrift and self-reliance that were to become the hallmarks of his personal and public lives. On 16 February 1921 at the Blyth Methodist Church he married Dora Winifred Williams (d.1981). He began farming on his own account on family-owned land at Wyndora, Blyth.

Becoming prominent in local sporting, cultural and agricultural activities, McEwin represented the State (1925-27) in rifle-shooting, played bowls, and belonged to Blyth’s Literary and Debating and Agricultural and Horticultural societies, and the Hart Mutual Improvement Society. He also sat on the Hart school committee and Blyth Public Hospital management board, and played violin in the Clare orchestra. Engaging more widely in public life, he held leadership positions in the Blyth branch of the Agricultural Bureau of South Australia, and in 1930-41 was a member (chairman 1935-37) of the State’s Advisory Board of Agriculture. Early in the 1930s he sat on State and Federal government advisory committees dealing with matters of agricultural settlement, debt adjustment and meat export. He served (1932-53) on Hutt and Hill Rivers (from 1935 Blyth) District Council. Standing in 1934 as a Liberal Country League candidate for Northern District, and campaigning as ‘a practical farmer’ with ‘a full knowledge’ of both ‘agriculture in all its phases’ and ‘the problems of the men and women in the country’, he was elected to the South Australian Legislative Council.

McEwin was to remain in parliament for over forty years. In 1939-65 he was in successive Playford cabinets, as chief secretary and minister of mines and of health. His political achievements were due, in part, to timing. He was in office during a period of rural prosperity, when limited franchise for the Legislative Council and the malapportionment of Lower House electorates ensured an amplified voice for landed property interests and greatly diminished Labor’s chances of electoral success. His electoral support came from the smaller towns, rural settlements and farming and pastoral areas rather than from the larger centres of Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Whyalla. McEwin’s personal values and skills also contributed to his success. His ‘waste not, want not’ philosophy, his fear of the corrosive effects of ‘welfare’ and his conviction that it was folly, in politics as in farming, to ‘spend what you haven’t got’, meant that he was temperamentally well-matched to Playford, who valued him for his ability to hold down expenditure in non-income-earning areas of government. He was widely recognised as an able administrator.

Subsequent assessments of McEwin have paid tribute especially to his work in public health and in mines and energy. As minister of health he urged local boards of health to use their legislative muscle to ensure good sanitation, food purity and effective infectious diseases control. He supported the Mothers and Babies’ Health Association, school health services and the national campaign against tuberculosis. Throughout his time in office, and beyond, he was held in high regard in rural communities because of his commitment to building and expanding district hospitals through a policy of capital expenditure grants, based on a two-for-one subsidy of local fund-raising. This policy guaranteed him warm receptions at ‘his’ country hospitals. Within the metropolitan area, he was the force behind the provision of what became the Lyell McEwin Hospital—’a country district hospital [built] at minimal cost with the barest essentials’—in the satellite town of Elizabeth. When it opened in 1959 its pared-back design attracted criticism, but McEwin extolled it as ‘economic efficiency in operation’. By contrast, the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Adelaide’s western suburbs, opened in 1954 as part of a policy of decentralisation of Adelaide’s hospital services, was touted as the most modern in the southern hemisphere.

As minister of mines McEwin benefited from the vision of some senior public servants and from Playford’s determination to secure a reliable power supply for South Australia and a more secure, diversified and decentralised basis for the State’s economic development. Like other conservative LCL members of the Legislative Council, he was initially wary of the ‘socialistic’ intervention by government in economic matters that this development entailed. However, he was loyal to Playford, and adamant that the Upper House was a house of review and not of veto. Thus he was prepared to support the 1940s legislation that enabled the development of the Leigh Creek coalfield, the establishment of a power station at Port Augusta, and the formation of the Electricity Trust of South Australia through government takeover of the Adelaide Electric Supply Co. Ltd. He worked in concert with Playford to foster uranium mining in South Australia, and was closely associated with the Radium Hill project which, although short-lived, secured international sales of uranium and employed many postwar migrants. He also supported legislation that fostered successful exploration for oil and gas by private industry.

President of the Legislative Council from 1967, McEwin retired from parliament in 1975; he had been knighted in 1954. Declaring himself ‘an old square on the outer’, he railed against such ‘depravities’ of the modern world as the impact of television on family life, a general excess of freedom and indulgence, the ‘political bribery’ of the welfare state, the undue influence of the trade unions and the destruction of initiative and the will to work. He criticised his political successors as being improperly concerned with personal publicity and financial gain, maintaining the view that political life should be about service.

Tall, heavily built and with a friendly expression, McEwin was, in private, a man of blunt speech and firm views, not easily convinced by others and not lavish with praise. Although he tended not to bring his work home nor to initiate political discussion, he expected his family to share his political stances, his values of hard work and frugality and his down-to-earth approach to life. His extra-political interests included music, theatre, Freemasonry, and the promotion of Scottish culture. An active member, and chieftain for ten years, of the Royal Caledonian Society of South Australia, he encouraged the establishment of the Adelaide Highland Games in conjunction with the inaugural Adelaide Festival of Arts in 1960.

Sir Lyell was a devout Presbyterian; opposed to the formation (1977) of the Uniting Church, he eschewed involvement with it, and in his final years worshipped regularly at St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, North Adelaide. Survived by his four sons and daughter, he died on 23 September 1988 at Aldersgate Village, Felixstow, and was cremated. His ashes were interred at Blyth. A portrait of him, painted in 1971 by (Sir) Ivor Hele, is held by the South Australian parliament

Select Bibliography

  • N. Blewett and D. Jaensch, Playford to Dunstan (1971)
  • S. Marsden, Business, Charity and Sentiment (1986)
  • W. N. Johnson (comp), Blyth, a Silo of Stories 1860-1990 (1991)
  • B. O’Neil et al (eds), Playford’s South Australia (1996)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Chamber, South Australia), 7 Nov 1945, p 813, 20 Nov 1945, p 982, 19 Dec 1945, p 1401, 3 Apr 1946, p 100, 9 Apr 1946, p 136
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 June 1954, p 3, 22 Apr 1959, p 3, 9 Mar 1967, p 3, 2 Feb 1982, p 5, 24 Sept 1988, p 10
  • B. O’Neil, interview with A. L. McEwin (typescript, 1980, State Library of South Australia)
  • S. Marsden, interview with A. L. McEwin (typescript, 1981, State Library of South Australia)
  • A. L. McEwin papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Judith Raftery, 'McEwin, Sir Alexander Lyell (1897–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcewin-sir-alexander-lyell-15104/text26305, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 July 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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