Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ryan, Rupert Sumner (1884–1952)

by Diane Langmore

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

Rupert Sumner Ryan (1884-1952), soldier, pastoralist and politician, was born on 6 May 1884 in Melbourne, elder child of Victorian-born parents (Sir) Charles Snodgrass Ryan, surgeon, and his wife Alice Elfrida, née Sumner. His sister Ethel Marian Sumner ('Maie') was to marry Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey. Rupert attended Geelong Church of England Grammar School in 1895-98, then completed his education in England, at Harrow School, and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, where he graduated with the sword of honour.

Commissioned in the Royal Artillery on 21 December 1904, Ryan was serving in England with 'T' Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, when World War I began. In December his unit joined the 7th Division on the Western Front. Ryan was transferred to divisional headquarters in April 1915 and wounded in the battle of Festubert in the following month. He served on the staffs of the XIII Corps (1915-16), Reserve (Fifth) Army (1916), Cavalry Corps (1916-17) and First Army (1917-20), rising from captain (October 1914) to brevet lieutenant colonel (June 1919). Six times mentioned in dispatches, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (1918) and three foreign honours.

In 1919 Ryan was appointed chief of staff to the military governor of Cologne in occupied Germany. On 10 January 1920 he was transferred to the headquarters of the Inter-Allied Rhineland High Commission at Coblenz. At the British consulate on 29 May 1924 he married (Lady) Rosemary Constance Ferelith, the 20-year-old daughter of the high commissioner Victor Alexander Hay, Lord Kilmarnock (Earl of Erroll), whom he served as deputy. In 1928 Ryan was appointed C.M.G. Following Kilmarnock's death in February, he acted as high commissioner until the occupation ended. He retired from the army in 1929 and joined Vickers Ltd as an arms salesman; he was probably also an intelligence-gathering agent for the British government. His flair for languages, easy manner and artillery expertise made him a capable representative of Vickers in Moscow (1930), Bangkok (1932-33) and other places, but, discouraged by his lack of success in Siam (Thailand), he resigned in 1934.

After his marriage ended in divorce in 1935, Ryan returned to Victoria where, with Maie, he had inherited a thousand-acre (405 ha) property, Edrington, at Berwick, south-east of Melbourne. While the Caseys remained in Canberra, Rupert and Patrick, his only child, settled at Edrington and built it into one of the largest Romney Marsh studs in the State. He also raised fat lambs, fattened cattle, experimented with pastoral improvement and pioneered the growing of flax in Victoria. With his sister and brother-in-law he learned to fly, and in 1939 built a landing strip on the property.

In World War II Ryan joined the Australian Military Forces and held administrative posts at Army Headquarters, Melbourne, until September 1940, when he stood as the United Australia Party candidate and won the seat of Flinders in the House of Representatives, succeeding James Fairbairn. He served on the joint committees on social security (1941-46) and foreign affairs (chairman 1952). His parliamentary career was unspectacular, but he won the affection of politicians on both sides for his kindliness and tolerance, and their respect for his knowledge of world affairs. Dame Enid Lyons saw him as 'a doughty champion of women'.

Described by Maie as short, compact and powerful, Ryan rode, fished for trout and continued to fly. With his clipped English accent, Springer spaniels, tweeds and pipe, he was the epitome of the country squire at Edrington, which he shared intermittently with the Caseys. A female journalist and friend admired his 'gay gallantry'. He died suddenly of cardiac failure on the night of 25 August 1952 at his home and was cremated. His son survived him. (Sir) John Longstaff's portrait (1898) of Ryan is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Casey, Tides and Eddies (Lond, 1966)
  • E. Lyons, Among the Carrion Crows (Adel, 1972)
  • D. Langmore, Glittering Surfaces (Syd, 1997)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 26 Aug 1952, p 604, 10 Sept 1952, p 1161
  • Corian, Aug 1952, p 136
  • Dandenong Journal, 31 July 1946
  • Times (London), 27 Aug 1952
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1952
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 27 Aug 1952
  • Maie Casey papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Ryan, Rupert Sumner (1884–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ryan-rupert-sumner-11593/text20697, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 23 December 2014.

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

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