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Scott, William John (1888–1956)

by Andrew Moore

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

William John Rendell Scott (1888-1956), insurance manager, soldier and Old Guard leader, was born on 21 June 1888 at Bingara, New South Wales, eldest child of Donald Allan Hyde Scott, an English-born bank-manager, and his Sydney-born wife Maria Caroline, née Street. Allan Humphrey Scott was a brother. Educated at Sydney Grammar School, Scott was managing an insurance company branch when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in May 1915. He served with the 19th and 20th Battalions, was wounded, and promoted major in April 1917. Twice mentioned in dispatches, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for his work at Flers on 14 November 1916. During demobilization he was president (May-September 1919) of the board of survey and fitting of transports. On 12 March 1918 he had married a Canadian nurse, Jean Marguerite Mitchell, in London. On his return to Sydney, he set up the insurance broking firm, Scott & Board.

Scott became deeply concerned about the possibility of socialist revolution in Australia and was an active polemicist in various Empire loyalist and returned soldiers' organizations. In 1921-23 he held executive office in The King and Empire Alliance. In 1926 he joined the committee of the Constitutional Association of New South Wales. Intermittently an active militia officer, he was also prominent in the foundation of the Sydney branch of Legacy in 1926 and in 1929 topped the voting for membership of the State council of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia.

At the same time Scott was a central figure in clandestine counter-revolutionary preparations to ensure that if Australian workers emulated Lenin's Bolsheviks they would have to face an antipodean 'White Army'. In May 1921 Scott was prominently involved in a dramatic episode in the Sydney Domain when excited 'loyalists' stormed socialist platforms. Next year he probably met the visiting English writer, D. H. Lawrence; the character Jack Callcott in Lawrence's novel Kangaroo (1923) may have been based on Scott. Callcott's characteristics—lean, delicate features, solid frame with broad shoulders, a streak of violence beneath outward bonhomie—led the Killara bridge and social circles in which Scott later moved to believe that he had been immortalized in print.

In November 1925, acting on the instructions of Prime Minister S. M. (Viscount) Bruce, Scott selected 500 ex-A.I.F. men to assist the police should plans to deport the union leaders Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson instigate a violent response from the labour movement. In 1931 Scott became chief of staff of the 30,000-strong Old Guard, a predominantly rural secret army sworn to defend 'law and order' in the event of civil government collapsing. His work for the Old Guard was Scott's most notable achievement, but in the final resort its activities were subversive of its professed commitment to democratic values. Scott's role in Premier J. T. Lang's dismissal is uncertain. Scott's uncle Sir Philip Street, lieutenant-governor and chief justice of New South Wales, warned Governor Sir Philip Game that 'the public may take violent action if the present condition is allowed to continue for long'. Scott came very close to mobilizing the Old Guard and the governor's decision to intervene was influenced by his perception that sections of the public were indeed contemplating 'violent action'. Even after the Old Guard's disbandment in August 1932, a nucleus of its leaders held meetings in Scott's office.

During the early 1930s Scott publicly professed profound enthusiasm for all things Japanese, and his close associations with Japanese business interests eventually attracted adverse comment. Between 1932 and 1935, collaborating with Japanese consular officials, he wrote numerous articles and letters for the Sydney Morning Herald praising Japanese industry and defending Japanese foreign policy. In 1934 he visited Japan by official invitation and discussed the prospects of sheep and wool production in Manchukuo (Manchuria) with business interests. On behalf of Sir John Latham he investigated tertiary education in Tokyo and sounded out the prospects for cultural exchanges.

In April 1935 Scott joined military intelligence and, under Lieutenant-Colonel J. M. Prentice, directed a civilian sub-group which worked closely with the New South Wales police commissioner, W. J. MacKay. His insurance partnership with Broad ended in 1936. Scott protested to the Commonwealth attorney-general, W. M. Hughes, in 1937 against the undermining of the Australian trade commissioner (a clandestine intelligence officer) in Tokyo, E. Longfield Lloyd. In 1939 Scott employed an agent, W. H. K. Freame, to infiltrate the Japanese community in Sydney, and represented military intelligence at a conference in September called to iron out differences between military and civilian intelligence.

A member of the Australia-Japan Society, which was suspected by the Commonwealth Investigation Branch of successful espionage activity, and arrogant and high-handed in his relationships with other intelligence officers, Scott had become a focal point for interdepartmental wrangling. H. E. Jones, director of the C.I.B., disdained 'merchants' undertaking 'professional' intelligence work, but Scott's commanding officer, Brigadier B. Combes, defended him staunchly as an intelligence officer, and was convinced that Jones was waging his campaign simply because Scott was 'able to get information about Japanese activities which the Investigation Branch cannot'. Ultimately, however, Scott's detractors triumphed and he was refused access to secret files. His energetic Imperial patriotism rested uneasily with his ardour for Japan.

In June 1940 Scott was appointed to the General Staff in Melbourne and from February to May 1941 commanded the guerilla warfare training centre for Independent companies at Wilson's Promontory. He returned to headquarters and from December was liaison officer there for A.I.F. troops moved to Timor and Ambon. 'Gull Force' on Ambon, about 1100 troops consisting mainly of the 2/21st Battalion, under Dutch command, faced imminent assault by the Japanese in overwhelming strength. After pessimistic messages recommending evacuation, Lieutenant-Colonel L. D. Roach was relieved of his command of Gull Force and Lieutenant-Colonel Scott, aged 53 but confident of his ability to lead and inspire, volunteered to replace him.

He reached Ambon on 16 January 1942. Obviously physically unfit, Scott impressed few of the 2/21st's officers with his capacity to command. The Japanese landed on 30 January, the Dutch surrendered on 1 February and, recognizing the futility of further resistance, Scott submitted on the 3rd. In October he and about one-third of the Australian prisoners were transferred to the island of Hainan. Both on Ambon and Hainan he handed over individual Australians to the Japanese for punishment. He was aloof and withdrawn and his mental health precarious; some officers attempted to have him certified. Release came in August 1945. A recent historian has remarked: 'Scott seemed intent in his reports of 1946 … to destroy the reputation of 2/21st Battalion and its former commanding officer'. Most of the survivors despised Scott, who never attended a battalion reunion.

After the war Scott lived in Melbourne. He had been divorced in 1926 and on 8 February 1930 had married a widow Andree Adelaide Oatley, née Kaeppel. After their divorce in 1948, on 5 May he married Evora Francis, née Currie, widow of his kinsman G. A. Street, a former minister of defence. She survived Scott when he died, childless, in Adelaide on 19 November 1956; he was cremated.

Much remains uncertain about Scott's career. Stern patrician, he was capable of light-hearted frivolity and flamboyance, his rich voice delighting small groups of friends with lusty renditions of popular music. Happy in the company to be found in the Imperial Service Club, Sydney, he was also highly attractive to women. His military intelligence and counter-revolutionary activities demanded great circumspection, yet he was incorrigibly indiscreet. Lawrence's observation about his character Jack Callcott could equally apply to Scott: there was 'a devil in his long, wiry body'.

Select Bibliography

  • K. W. Street, Annals of the Street Family of Birtley (priv pub, 1941)
  • L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canb, 1957)
  • E. Campbell, The Rallying Point (Melb, 1965)
  • R. Darroch, D. H. Lawrence in Australia (Syd, 1981)
  • F. Cain, The Origins of Political Surveillance in Australia (Syd, 1983)
  • J. Beaumont, Gull Force (Syd, 1988)
  • Reveille (Sydney), 30 Nov 1929
  • Bulletin, 20 May 1980
  • A. Moore, ‘Send Lawyers, Guns and Money!’ A Study of Conservative Para-Military Organisations in New South Wales 1930-1932, Background and Sequel 1917-1952 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1982).

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Scott, William John (1888–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-william-john-8373/text14695, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 16 September 2014.

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

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