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Street, Geoffrey Austin (1894–1940)

by Cameron Hazlehurst

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Geoffrey Austin Street (1894-1940), by unknown photographer, 1940

Geoffrey Austin Street (1894-1940), by unknown photographer, 1940

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23513807

Geoffrey Austin Street (1894-1940), soldier, grazier, politician and cricket devotee, was born on 21 January 1894 at Woollahra, Sydney, son of John William Street, solicitor, and his wife Mary Veronica, née Austin. His great-grandfather John Street had come to New South Wales with merinos from the Henty flock in 1822. At Sydney Grammar School, Street was a prefect and represented the school as a cricketer, swimmer, athlete and Rugby footballer. He later excelled at hockey and golf, but cricket remained his first love: he bowled right arm googlies to great effect for the University of Sydney and the Melbourne Cricket Club; his remarkable memory for statistics was underpinned by a well-read library of nearly 600 cricket books.

While studying law at the University of Sydney he enlisted in August 1914 as a private in the Australian Naval, Military and Expeditionary Force. Persuaded that Europe rather than New Guinea would be the focal theatre of war, he transferred to the 1st Battalion of the 1st Infantry Brigade, Australian Imperial Force. Commissioned in September, he sailed with the 1st Division in October. He was wounded at the Gallipoli landing, and later served in a variety of combat and staff appointments until he was shot in the right wrist in September 1918. After three years in the Middle East, France and Belgium, Street admitted to being 'a little “war worn”', but told his parents that he was 'still in love with soldiering'. Although he had impressed (Sir) Brudenell White, served as brigade major, 15th Infantry Brigade under H. E. ('Pompey') Elliott from July 1917 to April 1918, and was awarded the Military Cross in December 1917, a post-war military career held little promise.

Street married Victorian-born Evora Francis Currie with Church of Scotland forms in St Columba's, London, on 29 June 1918. Purchasing a portion of his father-in-law's property, he established a prize-winning Polwarth flock and quickly became prominent in Western District pastoral circles as well as in local government. A member of Hampden Shire Council from 1924, he was president in 1931-32. He held office in the Lismore Agricultural and Pastoral Society, the Australian Sheep Breeders' Association, and the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. He had resumed army (militia) service as a major in the 4th Light Horse in 1931, and was promoted to lieutenant-colonel and regimental commander in December 1932.

Brought to wider notice as a member of the Transport Regulation Board set up by the Victorian government in 1933, he was recognized by (Sir) Robert Menzies as the principal author of its 'masterly report'. A reluctant recruit to Federal parliamentary politics when internal divisions loosened the Country Party's hold on his local electorate, he was successful as the United Australia Party candidate for Corangamite at the 1934 general election.

In Canberra, Street's qualities were soon discerned by his colleagues and by a press which delighted in his mobility (60,000 miles [96,558 km] travelled in his electorate, 1934-37) and integrity (he twice declined restoration of his parliamentary salary to its pre-Depression level because it had not been canvassed at the previous elections). He was a fluent debater, speaking with a particular authority on military matters that was further enhanced when he was given command of the 3rd Cavalry Brigade in 1935 and promoted to temporary brigadier in 1938. While carefully distancing himself from Labor's schemes for banking reform and rural rehabilitation, Street argued that defence should be 'above party politics'. In 1937 he advocated a small standing army and the inclusion of the leader of the Opposition in a reconstructed council of defence. He renewed his plea for a standing army in May 1938, questioning the wisdom of relying on the diversion of British naval strength to Singapore in wartime. Notwithstanding his critical stance, Street was invited by J. A. Lyons to become parliamentary secretary to the Department of Defence in July 1938. In this unsalaried post Street's brief embraced routine administration and parliamentary liaison, assistance in preparation of legislation, and answering questions on notice.

Beset with controversy over defence policy and H. V. C. Thorby's administration of the portfolio, but unwilling to yield to Menzies' preference for compulsory service, Lyons installed Street as minister for defence in November 1938. The new minister was also designated a member of a 'senior Cabinet group', replacing T. W. White who complained with scant credibility about the creation of a 'coterie' controlling government policy. Street had, as his U.A.P. colleague Sir Henry Gullett wrote, 'advanced himself neither by intrigue nor by making himself a conspicuous nuisance'.

Elevation to cabinet rank entailed relinquishing his militia command and, as it turned out, his ambition to lead the cavalry in battle. As defence minister he presided effectively over an expansion of the militia, air force and navy, as well as increased munitions production and shipbuilding. He steered the unpopular National Registration Act (1939) through parliament, unexpectedly accepting a suggestion to include a census of wealth.

On the creation of the Menzies U.A.P. government in April 1939, Street kept the defence portfolio, rising to fourth place in ministerial seniority after W. M. Hughes and R. G. (Lord) Casey. Menzies' commitment to accelerated defence preparations and his focus on the 'Near North' made Street's role pivotal. Closely allied with his friend J. V. Fairbairn who became minister for civil aviation and minister assisting the minister for defence, Street oversaw the final preparation of the Commonwealth War Book.

At the outbreak of war his personal knowledge of Australia's military leaders gave him a crucial voice in the allocation of army and headquarters commands. In November 1939 Menzies detached the ministries of air and navy from defence, and left Street with diminished but still formidable responsibilities as minister for the army and for repatriation. When the U.A.P. and United Country Party formed a coalition government in March 1940, Street retained his portfolios and cabinet seniority.

In his capacity as defence and army minister, Street's informality but obviously professional inspection of naval, military and air force establishments in every State made him a favourite with servicemen. The press reported an awesome régime of travel and deskwork, punctuated by well-publicized three-mile (4.8 km) morning runs, frequent riding and skating with his children Tony and Veronica ('Tim'), and occasional cricket matches. Relying on action rather than oratory, Street issued no major appeal for recruits until May 1940 when he announced the formation of the 8th Division.

Unaffected geniality and political intelligence made the manifestly unambitious Street a key member of the Menzies ministry. His death—with Fairbairn, Gullett, Brudenell White and others—in an aircrash in Canberra on 13 August 1940 was a severe blow to the war government. It also robbed post-war Australia of a mature and popular political leader with rare consensual gifts. Survived by his wife and two children, Street was buried at Lismore, Victoria.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vol 1 (Syd, 1921), C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916, 1918 (Syd, 1929, 1942)
  • P. Hasluck, The Government and the People, 1939-1941 (Canb, 1952)
  • C. Hazlehurst, Menzies Observed (Syd, 1979)
  • D. M. Horner, High Command (Canb, 1982)
  • J. Robertson and J. McCarthy, Australian War Strategy 1939-1945 (Brisb, 1985)
  • Sydneian, 1910-18
  • Street papers and newsclippings (National Library of Australia)
  • records (Australian War Memorial)
  • G. Armstrong recollections (typescript, privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Cameron Hazlehurst, 'Street, Geoffrey Austin (1894–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/street-geoffrey-austin-946/text15215, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 27 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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