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Pratt, Ambrose Goddard Hesketh (1874–1944)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Ambrose Goddard Hesketh Pratt (1874-1944), by unknown photographer, 1930-40

Ambrose Goddard Hesketh Pratt (1874-1944), by unknown photographer, 1930-40

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H98.51

Ambrose Goddard Hesketh Pratt (1874-1944), novelist, journalist and businessman, was born on 31 August 1874 at Forbes, New South Wales, second child of Eustace Henry Lever Pratt, medical practitioner, and his wife Caroline, née Kershaw. He was educated at St Ignatius' College, Riverview, and Sydney Grammar School. Private tutors polished his French, German, riding, boxing, fencing and shooting. His family circle was cultivated and intelligent.

When his father lost heavily in the 1890s depression Ambrose abandoned plans to follow him into medicine and turned to the law. Articled to solicitors at Lismore and then in Sydney, he was admitted in 1897 as a solicitor of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. He was then, he recalled, 'an insufferable coxscomb', affecting a monocle, beard and moustache and theatrical black dress, with a priest's collar and heavy gold watch chain. Nevertheless he impressed several of his father's influential conservative friends, who urged him to enter politics under their aegis. But Pratt's sympathies were pro-Labor; he was gaining a reputation as a polished debater and contributor to the Australian Worker.

Soon disenchanted with a solicitor's life Pratt joined a trading vessel to the South Seas as supercargo, then went droving in Queensland. After returning briefly to Sydney, where at St Mary's Cathedral on 16 February 1898 he married Eileen May Roberts, he sailed for England to attempt a career of writing and journalism. In 1898 the first of more than thirty novels, King of the Rocks, was published, to be followed by Franks: Duellist (1899), which was widely translated. His novels were, as Pratt unabashedly admitted, pot-boilers—colourful adventure yarns with themes such as bushranging and larrikinism. Impressed by his writing Lord Northcliffe invited him to join the Daily Mail, for which he wrote until 1905, for the last year from Australia.

In December 1905 Pratt joined the Melbourne Age. Through his leading articles he influenced opinion on issues such as the need for an Australian navy and adequate tariff protection. He published in 1908 a biography of David Syme which, although superficial and uncritical, did capture 'the essential Syme'. In 1910 he accompanied Prime Minister Andrew Fisher to South Africa for the opening of the Union parliament and in 1913 published The Real South Africa, remarkable for its understanding of the black South African's viewpoint.

In 1918-27 Pratt was editor and part-proprietor of the Australian Industrial and Mining Standard. Still concerned about protection he published The Australian Tariff Handbook: 1919, helped to found the Australian Industries Protection League (1919) and assisted in shaping the Massy-Greene tariff of 1921. His politics became conservative: a member of 'the Group' which engineered Lyons' defection from the Labor Party in 1931, Pratt wrote his resignation speech for him.

After his retirement from journalism in 1927 he devoted much time to the preservation of Australian fauna. He was president of the Royal Zoological and Acclimatization Society in 1921-36, and then vice-chairman of the Zoological Board of Victoria. He published The Lore of the Lyrebird (1933) and The Call of the Koala (1937) and in 1933 founded a League of Youth dedicated to the 'protection and preservation of the flora and fauna of Australia' and 'the development of ideals of citizenship in the minds of young Australians'. The latter aspiration was also reflected in his novel Lift up Your Eyes (1935).

From childhood, when he was tended by a Chinese amah, Pratt had a strong affection for the Orient. He pressed for government recognition of China and, in his play Point in Time, performed by the Gregan McMahon Players in 1941, attempted to interpret contemporary Chinese thought to an Australian audience. A mystic, he felt an affinity with Buddhism. From the 1920s he had business interests in Malaya and Siam (Thailand), eventually becoming director of twelve tin-dredging companies. He was confidential adviser to the government of Thailand which, in 1941, appointed him consul-general in Australia, conferring on him the Order of the White Elephant. In the last months of his life he publicly attacked the White Australia policy.

Having suffered from chronic respiratory disease, Ambrose Pratt died at his Surrey Hills home on 13 April 1944 and was cremated; his wife and daughter survived him. His modest estate was bequeathed to his long-time companion Violet Miriam Stevens. A dapper, kindly and courtly man who had retained his vandyke beard into a clean-shaven age, he had, said a contemporary, 'something in his bearing that suggested doublet and hose'. He had played many parts, 'all with a zest for adventure and a keen dramatic sense'. Pratt said of his own life: 'I never in my life cared for making money … What instigated me was either pleasure I derived from the work itself or a consciousness of power and desire to influence public opinion for the public good'. The Australian section of the Melbourne Zoological Gardens is named after him. His commissioned biography of Sidney Myer was eventually published in 1978.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Bridges, That Yesterday was Home (Syd, 1948)
  • R. Johnson, The Light and the Gate (Lond, 1964)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • C. Hazlehurst (ed), Australian Conservatism (Canb, 1979)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11, 13, 20 Sept 1930, 6 May 1931, 14 Apr, 16 May 1944
  • Sun-News Pictorial (Melbourne), 12 May 1931, 27 Feb 1937, 14 Apr 1944
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11 Apr 1939, 6 Oct 1941, 14 Apr 1944
  • Age (Melbourne), 25 Apr, 2 May 1944, 10 Mar 1945
  • Ambrose Pratt papers (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Pratt, Ambrose Goddard Hesketh (1874–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pratt-ambrose-goddard-hesketh-8096/text14131, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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