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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Robson, Ewan Murray (1906–1974)

by Michael Hogan

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

Ewan Murray Robson (1906-1974), politician, soldier and solicitor, was born on 7 March 1906 at Ashfield, Sydney, second son of William Elliott Veitch Robson, a native-born solicitor, and his wife Mabel Jackson, née Wise, who came from Victoria. Murray proceeded from Newington College to St Paul's College, University of Sydney (B.A., 1927; LL.B., 1930); while there, he rowed for the university. Admitted as a solicitor on 4 June 1930, he practised in the family firm, Robson & Cowlishaw (Robson, Cowlishaw & Macready from 1955). On 31 March 1931 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, he married Lesley Alison Martin. Both his father and grandfather (William Robson) had served in the New South Wales parliament. In August 1936 Murray won the by-election for the Legislative Assembly seat of Vaucluse as an Independent United Australia Party candidate. He had an impressive appearance, being good-looking and 6 ft 2 ins (188 cm) tall. Beneath his 'unbending exterior' he had 'a warm and kindly disposition'.

Soon after his election Robson joined the U.A.P., but associated with a group of rebels who were unhappy with the government's economic management and the party's control over pre-selection. He was prominent in the struggle that led to the resignation of the premier (Sir) Bertram Stevens and his replacement by Alexander Mair in August 1939.

A lieutenant in the Militia from 29 September 1939, Robson was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force on 29 December. He embarked with the 2nd/5th Field Regiment in May 1940, but on reaching Scotland transferred to the 2nd/31st Battalion. In June 1941 Captain Robson received a shrapnel wound to the foot while fighting in Syria. Attached (from October) to the Middle East Tactical School, he rejoined his unit in February 1942 and accompanied it to Australia.

In August 1942 Robson sailed with the 2nd/31st to New Guinea where he suffered bouts of malaria. Promoted temporary major (September), he commanded the battalion as lieutenant colonel from May 1943. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for 'courage, coolness, [and] determined and resourceful leadership in the field' throughout the Lae campaign (September-December), and was thrice mentioned in dispatches. In July 1945 he led the unit in the invasion of Balikpapan, Borneo, and in September accepted the surrender of Japanese forces at Bandjarmasin. Relinquishing command, he returned to Sydney and was placed on the Reserve of Officers in November.

Robson found it difficult to adjust to civilian life. During the war he had become estranged from his wife; they lived apart and she divorced him in October 1947. At St Peter's Anglican Church, Watsons Bay, on 8 December 1950 he married Naomi Priscilla Other Gee, a 34-year-old milliner.

While on leave from parliament, Robson had missed the political upheavals of the collapse of the U.A.P. and the foundation of the Liberal Party. Following his return, he persuaded (Sir) Robert Askin, a former sergeant in his battalion, to enter parliament. Robson's political interests were mainly parochial; his most frequent interventions concerned traffic problems and public transport in the Eastern Suburbs. In August 1954, after (Sir) Vernon Treatt had lost three successive elections, Robson was persuaded to accept the leadership of the Liberal Party as a compromise candidate.

Like other senior members of the party, Robson had no experience in government. He had little interest in policy except for Cold War anti-communism. Described by Katharine West as 'swashbuckling', 'fiery and flamboyant', he could be 'unpredictably moody'. His 'extraordinary want of tact and diplomacy' and military style of leadership won him few allies, and he alienated the Liberal Party machine by trying to forge a closer alliance with Colonel (Sir) Michael Bruxner's Country Party. After months of 'continuous intrigue' Robson was replaced as leader in September 1955. He never had the opportunity to lead his party in a general election.

In July 1957 Robson resigned from parliament and returned to his legal practice. He belonged to the University, Royal Sydney Golf, Rose Bay Bowling and Tattersall's clubs. In 1966 he was appointed C.B.E. Survived by his wife and the two sons of his first marriage, he died of a coronary occlusion on 26 August 1974 at his Rose Bay home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • D. Clune, The New South Wales State Election, 1941 (Syd, 1995)
  • F. Frost, The New South Wales State Election, 1956 (Syd, 1999)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 27 Aug 1974, p 638
  • Australian Quarterly, Dec 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Sept 1955, 27 July 1957, 1 Jan 1966
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 28 July 1957.

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Citation details

Michael Hogan, 'Robson, Ewan Murray (1906–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 October 2020.

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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