This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988
Sir George Ritchie (1864-1944), river trader and politician, was born on 14 December 1864 on the banks of the River Murray at Goolwa, South Australia, third son of James Ritchie, mariner and river trader, and his wife Allison, née Johnstone. After education at Goolwa, the colony's main river port, and the Victorian port of Echuca, he was apprenticed to a draper.
In 1884, following his father's death in 1882, he formed a partnership on the Murray with his two brothers, in 1891 buying them out. It was a shrewd move. Ritchie began with one steamer, the Pioneer; but he had inherited the nous of his father who pioneered the river trade with Francis Cadell; and George was to own a dozen boats at different times. That was no small achievement in the 1880s and 1890s when the river trade at the 'Bottom End' was in decline because of the extension of railways.
In 1899 he contested the House of Assembly seat of Encounter Bay and lost. Three years later, now Goolwa's mayor, he won Alexandra, a new seat subsuming Encounter Bay, and held it for twenty years. In parliament he deplored centralization, boosted Goolwa, Victor Harbor and other outports, and advocated locking and major harbour improvements at or near the Murray mouth. 'With proper facilities at the end of the river', he said in 1909, 'South Australia would … command the bulk trade of the whole navigable 3200 miles [5150 km] of the rivers'. It was a dream. The river trade was practically dead and too many vested interests were opposed to its resurrection.
If Ritchie entered parliament as the defender of a narrow sectional interest, he attained greater things in conservative politics. From November 1914 for five months he was commissioner of public works and minister for water supply. In the Peake Liberal-National Coalition government he was briefly minister for agriculture and commissioner of crown lands and immigration in 1917; and commissioner of public works and minister for agriculture from May 1919 to April 1920. Under (Sir) Henry Barwell, he was treasurer and minister for education from April 1920 to November 1922. He resigned to contest the Federal seat of Angas and, undaunted by defeat, re-entered State politics as member of the Legislative Council for Northern, a seat he held from 1924 until 1944. With the fall of the Hill and Richards governments in 1933, he returned to the ministerial benches under (Sir) Richard Butler and Thomas Playford as chief secretary and minister of mines (1933-39), afforestation (1933-35) and health (1935-39)—and was occasionally acting premier, being appointed K.C.M.G. during one such spell in 1935. He resigned from the ministry in August 1939. He had been a member of the Adelaide City Council in 1932-34 and of the council of the University of Adelaide in 1927-32.
In the conservative governments of the 1930s Ritchie was highly respected; Playford admired his adherence to principle; an obituary praised the 'kindly manner, and at times whimsical humour' he brought to politics. No other politician had held almost every ministerial post short of premier, in two houses at that. There was a cost to this. Ritchie's tenure of office was usually too short for him to affect policy making. An exception was education. He supported the establishment of higher primary schools in the country and a correspondence school for outback children.
Ritchie had married Charlotte Annie Knapman of Port Adelaide on 25 October 1899. He was a tall, erect, bald man, a Methodist and a Freemason, and became a chief of the South Australian Caledonian Society. He died on 7 August 1944 at his Kent Town home. His wife, two sons and a daughter survived him, and his ashes were buried in the Currency Creek cemetery, near Goolwa.
A. J. Stimson, 'Ritchie, Sir George (1864–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ritchie-sir-george-8216/text14377, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 19 April 2014.
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This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988