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Mitchell, Thomas Walter (Tom) (1906–1984)

by B. J. Costar

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

Thomas Walter Mitchell (1906-1984), barrister, politician and skier, was born at Towong, Victoria, on 11 November 1906, son of Victorian-born Walter Edward Mitchell, grazier, and his Sydney-born wife Winifred Hatton, née Dibbs. Educated at Cranbrook School, Sydney, Tom went to England and entered Jesus College, Cambridge (BA, 1929; MA, 1932). He was admitted to the Inns of Court on 30 April 1926 and called to the Bar at the Inner Temple on 29 April 1931. While at Cambridge he had developed a passion for snow skiing. He first represented Australia in international skiing at Mürren, Switzerland, in 1931. After extensive travel, he returned to Australia and was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 29 October 1931. On 4 November 1935 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne, he married with Anglican rites Sibyl Elyne Keith Chauvel, daughter of Sir Henry Chauvel and later a prominent author of children’s books.

Lean and rangy, Mitchell managed the family grazing property, Towong Hill station, through the 1930s and skied competitively in Austria, Switzerland and North and South America. In 1933 he captained the Australian team. He was a gold medallist in Britain, Australia and New Zealand, Australian champion in slalom (1932, 1934, 1936, 1937) and downhill (1931, 1934) events, and also four times combined champion. In 1937 he published the first Australian skiing manual, Ski Heil.

Mitchell’s political career began in 1935 with his election to the Upper Murray Shire Council. In 1937 he unsuccessfully contested the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Benambra for the United Australia Party. He studied international relations at Harvard University in 1938. Commissioned in the Australian Imperial Force in July 1940, he was promoted to captain in January 1941 and from May served in Malaya and Singapore with the 8th Division. He was taken prisoner in February 1942, and while held at Changi camp taught himself Japanese (he was also fluent in Latin and a number of Aboriginal languages) and helped found the ‘Changi Ski Club’. His AIF appointment terminated in Australia on 13 November 1945.

Returning to Towong Hill, Mitchell again became a member (1947-58) of the Upper Murray council (president 1946-47) and in June 1947 won Benambra for the Country Party at a by-election. He served as solicitor-general (1950-51) in the minority government of (Sir) John (Jack) McDonald—the last politician to hold that post—and as attorney-general (1950-52). Mitchell was a personable and affable man who held very conservative opinions. He had no compunction in recommending the execution of Jean Lee, and remained a strong supporter of capital punishment, voting against its abolition in 1975.

Although Mitchell never again held ministerial office, he served on several parliamentary committees, gaining a reputation for oratory—and for eccentricity when, as therapy for an injured hand, he knitted in the cabinet room and Assembly chamber. He was the initiator of the idea of ski villages (Mount Buller, Mount Hotham and Falls Creek) built in the 1950s. Active in his local community, he served as a district commissioner (1946-72) and assistant headquarters commissioner for the Victorian branch of the Boy Scouts Association (Scout Association of Australia). He was a qualified pilot, and a local historian who published Corryong and ‘The Man from Snowy River’ District (1981). In 1976 he retired from parliament and was appointed CMG. Survived by his wife, their two daughters and younger son, he died on 4 February 1984 at Richmond, Melbourne, and was buried on his property. His estate was sworn for probate at $2,415,660.

Select Bibliography

  • J. M. Lloyd, Skiing into History, 1924-1984 (1986)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 28 Feb 1984, p 2706
  • Border Morning Mail (Albury), 31 May 1975, pp 2 and 10, 11 Feb 1984, pp 10 and 20
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Feb 1984, p 9
  • National Party in Victoria, National Outlook, Mar 1984, p 1.

Additional Resources

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Mitchell, Thomas Walter (Tom) (1906–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-thomas-walter-tom-14976/text26165, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 February 2019.

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

View the front pages for Volume 18

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