Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tanner, Sir Edgar Stephen (1904–1979)

by Mark McGinness

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

Sir Edgar Stephen Tanner (1904-1979), sports administrator and politician, was born on 10 August 1904 at Albany, Western Australia, eldest of four children of Edgar Tanner, a Victorian-born labourer and later a hotelkeeper, and his wife Emily, née Prosser, from England. Young Edgar attended All Saints Grammar School, St Kilda, Melbourne (school captain 1922). He joined the advertising staff of the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd and studied commerce at the University of Melbourne where he won a Blue for boxing. Of the more than one hundred amateur bouts that he contested as a featherweight, he lost only a handful. In the 1930s he was secretary of the Victorian Amateur Boxing and Wrestling Association. He managed Australia's boxing and wrestling team at the 1938 British Empire Games, Sydney. On 11 June 1938 at Holy Trinity Church of England, Balaclava, Melbourne, he married Edna May Ponsonby.

In 1929 Tanner had been commissioned in the Militia. He was appointed temporary captain, Australian Imperial Force, on 11 November 1941 and posted as intelligence officer of 'Gull Force' which was sent to Ambon, Netherlands East Indies, in January 1942. Superior numbers of Japanese troops overwhelmed the Australians next month. Tanner was imprisoned on Ambon and later on the Chinese island of Hainan. His zeal for organizing sporting competitions remained unbounded. On one occasion, he arranged a foot-race meeting between Japanese guards and Dutch and Australian prisoners desperate to win the prize of eggs. Defeated in the early races, the Japanese withdrew from the remainder. Only three weeks after Tanner's return to Melbourne in October 1945, he began organizing an amateur boxing tournament. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 3 January 1946.

Although Tanner resumed his position with the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, the Olympic movement became his life's work. In June 1946 he convened a meeting of the Victorian Olympic Council—at which he was elected secretary-treasurer—and began a campaign for the games to be held in Melbourne. He and the V.O.C.'s chairman, Bill Uren, lobbied businessmen and State political leaders and attracted the vigorous support of the lord mayor of Melbourne, (Sir) Raymond Connelly, and an Olympian and previous lord mayor, Sir Frank Beaurepaire. Tanner was appointed secretary-treasurer of the Australian Olympic Federation in 1947 and next year managed the national team at the games in London. Postwar austerity was such that he often had to thumb lifts to the stadiums for his team-members in lorries, wagons and private cars; one group of athletes reached Wembley Stadium in a garbage truck.

Tanner served as secretary of the organizing committee for the Melbourne Olympic Games, held in 1956. Despite international tensions and boycotts by seven countries, the Olympics proved a popular success and were dubbed the 'Friendly Games'. He was appointed C.B.E. (1957) for his work. In 1968 he was knighted. A member (1952-76) of the Australian delegations to six Olympiads, he also headed the Australian British Empire (and Commonwealth) Games Association and numerous national and State sporting bodies. In May 1955 he had won for the Liberal and Country Party the seat of Ripponlea in the Victorian Legislative Assembly, defeating T. T. Hollway. He held Ripponlea until 1967, then Caulfield. Sir Edgar was chairman of committees and deputy-speaker (1970-73) before retiring from parliament in February 1976.

Of stocky build, 5 ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, with brown hair and light-brown eyes, Tanner had sharp features which contrasted with his gentle, measured manner. He was a highly organized and decisive administrator but not officious. Although he expressed himself cautiously in public, he was not afraid to speak his mind. Perhaps because his background was in a sport that keenly differentiated between amateur and professional status, he maintained an uncompromising view that Baron de Coubertin's Olympics should not be tainted by professionalism. In 1952 he had refused to exempt the cyclist E. R. Mockridge from a fidelity bond to remain amateur for two years after the Helsinki Games. A majority of the A.O.F. overruled him and accepted a compromise that allowed Mockridge to take part.

In March 1973 Tanner succeeded Sir Harold Alderson as president of the A.O.F. but by then much younger men such as David McKenzie, Kevan Gosper and Phil Coles were emerging as Olympic administrators with new ideas and their own ambitions. After thirty-one uninterrupted years of executive service in the A.O.F., Tanner was defeated in ballots for president and vice-president in 1977. He died on 21 November 1979 at North Caulfield and was buried in New Cheltenham cemetery. His wife and their daughter survived him, as did their son Ted who became the Liberal member for Caulfield in 1979. Two amateur boxing trophies were established in Sir Edgar's name.

Archie Lionel Tanner (1908-1975), Edgar's brother, was Victorian lightweight amateur boxing champion as a young man, and a referee of that sport at Olympic Games in 1956-68 and at British Empire and Commonwealth Games in 1962-66. He had served as a clerk in the Royal Australian Air Force in 1940-45. After twice unsuccessfully contesting Gippsland in the Victorian Legislative Council, he was Liberal member for Morwell in the Legislative Assembly in 1967-70.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Gordon, Australia and the Olympic Games (Brisb, 1994)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 2 Aug 1972
  • private information.

Citation details

Mark McGinness, 'Tanner, Sir Edgar Stephen (1904–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tanner-sir-edgar-stephen-11821/text20033, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2014.

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

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