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Townley, Reginald Colin (Rex) (1904–1982)

by Max Bingham

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Reginald Colin Townley (1904-1982), pharmacist and politician, was born on 5 April 1904 in Hobart, third of four children of Tasmanian-born parents Reginald George Townley (d.1906), accountant, and his wife Susan, née Bickford. Athol Townley was his younger brother. ‘Rex’ attended Elizabeth Street State and Hobart High schools. In June 1927 he qualified as a pharmaceutical chemist after study at Hobart Technical College and the University of Tasmania. Following work experience in Melbourne and Sydney he returned to Hobart where, in 1930, he and his uncle, Harry Sidwell, established the pharmaceutical business Sidwell & Townley. On 4 July that year he married Irene Winifred Jones at Hobart Baptist Church.

A keen sportsman, Townley played Australian rules football for North Hobart and cricket for New Town. He was a member of the Tasmanian State cricket team in 1927, 1929 and 1936; a highlight of his career was the taking of (Sir) Donald Bradman’s wicket in a match against South Australia in 1936. Prominent in the Baptist Church, he served (1936-39) as an honorary pastor of the Sandy Bay church and as president (1939, 1946) of the Baptist Union of Tasmania. In 1946 he helped to establish St Ann’s Rest Home in Hobart. Experience made him sympathetic to the plight of the less well-off and contributed to the formation of a social conscience. He was a member of the Australian Labor Party for some years. The Townley brothers, partners in the business from 1935, were both well known for their philanthropic attitude to customers, but Athol often rebuked Rex for being ‘too generous’. Rex became known as the ‘radio chemist’, broadcasting on a weekly local radio program on health in the late 1930s. He remained its host until he left for war service and resumed on his return to civilian life.

Having been commissioned in the Citizen Military Forces in 1931, Townley began full-time service as a major, Australian Imperial Force, in September 1940. He commanded the 2/2nd Base Depot Medical Stores in the Middle East in 1940-42 then joined the staff of the director-general of medical services in Australia. Promoted to lieutenant colonel in October 1944, he served in 1945 at Advanced Allied Land Forces headquarters, Hollandia, Netherlands New Guinea, and on Morotai. His AIF appointment terminated in Melbourne in October 1945 and he returned to the pharmacy business.

In 1946 Townley was petitioned by members of the Hobart business community to nominate for the House of Assembly election in November. Standing as an Independent in the multi-member electorate of Denison, he topped the poll with 32 per cent of the vote, ahead of the ALP premier, (Sir) Robert Cosgrove, who received just under 17 per cent. Good humoured and reasonable, he was respected by members of the assembly for his integrity and judgement.

The Liberals, who had been in opposition since 1935, sought new leadership in 1950. In February, three months prior to the election that year, the leader Neil Campbell offered his place to Townley, who accepted on condition that he could continue to exercise his own judgement on issues as they arose. The ALP retained office. Premier Cosgrove and the Tasmanian ALP had captured the moderate middle ground of opinion, distancing themselves from the Chifley government’s nationalisation plans and accusations of ALP links with communism. Townley was also unable to attract sufficient voters in 1955.

Pressured to relinquish the leadership of the Liberals, Townley resigned on 26 June 1956, citing health reasons. He and his supporters blamed the Hare-Clark electoral system for his inability to retain the seat. His critics pointed out that his efforts to maintain popularity with both sides of the House made him appear to vacillate on various issues. Although he was well known in Hobart, he was little known elsewhere in Tasmania, unlike Premier Cosgrove. He retired from parliament in June 1965. The same year he published Heart Disease and Common Sense, noting in its preface that he had suffered a serious coronary occlusion ‘some six years ago’. In 1968 he was appointed CMG.

After leaving parliament Townley continued his association with the pharmacy and widened his business interests to include forming links with Singapore and Malaysia on behalf of Australian companies seeking to enter those markets. At the invitation of Tunku Abdul Rahman, he provided advice to the Malaysian prime minister’s department. He was also an Australian representative for the Japanese Cultured Pearl Association. In retirement he was a keen gardener and retained his interest in community affairs. He was prominent in the campaign to oppose the establishment of Wrest Point Casino.

Of middle height and well built, Townley had a broad, high forehead and regular features. He had a latent twinkle in his eyes, which were likely to light up when he heard a good story in support of a plea for discounted or free medicine. Friendships made in his primary-school days persisted throughout his life; he held office as the president of the waterside workers’ cricket and football clubs while he was leader of the Liberal Party. He had a strong working-class following during his political career; his compassion, integrity and generosity were legendary. Predeceased by his wife and survived by his three sons and one daughter, he died on 3 May 1982 in Hobart

Select Bibliography

  • S. R. Davies (ed), The Government of the Australian States (1960)
  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (1965)
  • L. Rowston, One Hundred Years of Witness (1984)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6 Feb 1950, p 1, 22 Sept 1962, p 37, 27 May 1965, p 1, 28 May 1965, p 3, 27 Apr 1971, p 4, 5 May 1982, p 9
  • Mercury Centenary Magazine, 5 July 1954, p 77
  • Examiner (Launceston), 5 May 1982, p 4
  • Advocate (Burnie), 5 May 1982, p 2
  • Advance (Launceston), July 1982, p 8
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Max Bingham, 'Townley, Reginald Colin (Rex) (1904–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/townley-reginald-colin-rex-15622/text26822, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 April 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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