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Prentice, John Murdoch (1886–1964)

by Andrew Moore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

John Murdoch Prentice (1886-1964), army officer and broadcaster, was born on 10 March 1886 at Buangor, Victoria, fourth child of John Prentice, a Scottish-born farmer, and his wife Mary, née Usher, late Sands, who came from Mauritius. John grew up in an unassuming country family. He claimed that he had matriculated at the University of Melbourne in 1906 and worked as an accountant, but he did neither. By 1912 he was a salesman, living at Moonee Ponds. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 20 May 1915 and served in Egypt; by May 1916 he was a staff sergeant, handling records at A.I.F. Headquarters, France. Commissioned in June 1917, he was posted to the 39th Battalion on the Western Front in July and promoted lieutenant in September. On 30 August 1918 he was severely wounded in the right arm and admitted to hospital. He sailed for Australia in November. After his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 6 March 1919, he worked at Army Headquarters, Melbourne. He was mentioned in dispatches (1918), awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre and appointed to the Ordre de la Couronne (1919).

On 1 October 1919 Prentice rejoined the A.I.F. Eight days later he sailed from Sydney as adjutant in a transport which took German prisoners to Rotterdam, the Netherlands. Resigning his A.I.F. appointment in London on 20 April 1920, he returned to Australia via the United States of America. In the early 1920s he worked for the War Service Homes Commission in Hobart.

An influential figure in Sydney in the pioneering days of commercial radio, Prentice—as 'Uncle Jack'—hosted a programme for children from 1925 for Broadcasters Ltd's radio-station 2UW. He also presented grand operas and symphonies (without commercial breaks) and delivered foreign affairs and political commentaries, strident in their anti-communism, until the 1950s. Anti-communism became the centrepiece of his political life. His outlook was characterized by the extremist remedies popular with some of his generation. He wrote in 1931 that General Sir John Monash was 'the one man in Australia . . . I could have accepted and gladly served under . . . as a DICTATOR'. In the late 1930s Prentice was a prominent appeaser.

The brief time Prentice had spent in the U.S.A. convinced him of the evils of prohibition, which he opposed in Sydney in the late 1920s. Keenly interested in astrology and the occult, he had attended meetings of theosophists in London, but grown suspicious of Annie Besant and Anglo-Indian theosophy. Back in Sydney, he criticized Charles Leadbeater, took a prominent role in the split in the Theosophical Society in Australia and by 1938 presided over the Sydney branch of the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society.

Prentice was called up on 7 September 1939 for intelligence duties in the Militia. Promoted major in July 1940, he was appointed general staff officer, 3rd grade, at Eastern Command, Sydney, in September; he became G.S.O.1 and temporary lieutenant colonel in February 1942. He served at Victoria Barracks, Paddington, and was placed on the Reserve of Officers in December 1946. On the one hand, he was an energetic spymaster who revelled in the hierarchies of military life and the status of his position, believing that such covert work—particularly on the home front—proved decisive in winning the war. On the other, he promoted an Australia First Movement internee to a sensitive position in ciphers. In 1946 he was a central, if unimpressive, witness in the treason case against the broadcaster Charles Cousens.

At the height of the Cold War Prentice wrote 'intelligence bulletins' for 'The Association', a proto-fascist auxiliary, and contributed to the magazine, Man, and the journal, Reveille. Apart from showing diligent research, his articles suggest ongoing connections with the intelligence services. In 1955 he gave evidence against A. J. Dalziel at the (Petrov) royal commission on espionage. Prentice attended conferences of the Asian Peoples' Anti-Communist League in Manila (1956) and Saigon (1957). He was treated as a 'bosom friend' of President Syngman Rhee who awarded him the Korean medal for 'Education and Culture'.

Prentice was fraught with contradictions. He worked hard to disguise his humble origins beneath a 'colonel blimp' persona, wearing a bow-tie, speaking in a sing-song, cultivated accent, and exaggerating his educational qualifications. Bespectacled and podgy, he enjoyed a large circle of well-connected friends, but was malicious and self-absorbed, 'a curious mixture of a sincere, upright, likeable man—and a phoney'. Unmarried and possibly homosexual, he lived in his Lavender Bay flat with his sister, but was often accompanied by a young mercantile marine engineer, whom he invariably introduced as his son. After suffering from diabetes mellitus for years, Prentice died on 4 November 1964 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord. His body was delivered to the University of Sydney, according to his will, and later cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Chapman, Tokyo Calling (Syd, 1990)
  • Australian Intelligence Corps Bulletin, 1, no 6, Dec 1957, p 27
  • A. Moore, 'Fascism Revived? The Association Stands Guard 1945-52', Labour History, no 74, May 1998, p 105
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 May, 24 Aug, 14 Sept 1928, 26 Nov 1932, 13 Aug 1934, 7 Sept 1935, 26 June 1941, 20 Aug 1943, 30 Jan 1948, 11 Jan 1950, 3 May, 27 June, 16 Aug 1951, 15 Apr, 24 Aug, 15 Nov 1955
  • A6122/40, item 2, A367, item C94121, Honours, A462, item 829/1/99, A1838, items 1516/6/15 (National Archives of Australia)
  • J. M. Prentice letters (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Prentice, John Murdoch (1886–1964)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/prentice-john-murdoch-11454/text20417, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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