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Turnbull, Sir Winton George (1899–1980)

by Donald Boadle

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

Sir Winton George Turnbull (1899-1980), auctioneer and politician, was born on 13 December 1899 at Hamilton, Victoria, youngest of three children of Adam Beverly Turnbull (d.1922), farmer, and his wife Georgina Agnes, née Drummond (d.1934), both Victorian born. A compulsive chronicler of family milestones, Winton was proud of his great-grandfather, Rev. Adam Turnbull, and of his grandfather, another Adam, who held Winninburn station and helped to establish St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Coleraine. He seldom mentioned his father. His parents' only surviving son, he attended local schools for short periods, but was educated mainly by his mother.

After farming near Horsham, Turnbull and his mother settled at Warracknabeal. In 1922-32 he was employed by Young Bros as an auctioneer of livestock. With his mother's encouragement, he took part in debates and eisteddfods, winning in the open impromptu-speech category at Ballarat's South Street competitions. They moved to Essendon in 1933. Turnbull worked for Macarthur & Macleod Pty Ltd at the Newmarket saleyards and claimed to have made the first wireless broadcasts of livestock-marketing reports from there in 1936. A regular visitor to the Mallee and Wimmera districts, he failed to win Country Party pre-selection for the House of Representatives seat of Bendigo in 1937, but, at the State general election in March 1940, finished a respectable runner-up in the poll for the Legislative Assembly seat of Lowan. On 9 July he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. In April 1941 he was sent to Malaya with the 2nd/2nd Convalescence Depot. Captured at the fall of Singapore in February 1942, Staff Sergeant Turnbull was incarcerated for three and a half years at Changi; he helped to maintain morale by organizing debates and giving talks on his saleyard experiences.

Turnbull returned to Australia in October 1945. Next month he unsuccessfully contested the Victorian Legislative Assembly seat of Borung. In January 1946 he was endorsed as a Country Party candidate for a by-election for Wimmera in the House of Representatives. He cut a striking figure on the hustings. Still in uniform, 5 ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall and gaunt, with hazel eyes, receding hair, and a slouch hat tilted rakishly over his forehead, he gently badgered listeners in a 'rapid, high-pitched voice'. Judged 'a first-class platform speaker', he was decisively elected on 9 February. He was discharged from the army on 26 February and took his place in parliament on 6 March. On the following day he made a stylish, conventionally country-minded maiden speech, prompting one member on his own side to declare that 'Wimmera has at last found a man'.

At the manse of St John's Presbyterian Church, Essendon, on 22 December 1947 Turnbull married Beryl Bradley, a 32-year-old tailoress. They lived at St Arnaud for about ten years before moving to Boort. A regular churchgoer, Winton enjoyed a flutter at the races, but eschewed parliamentary 'perks', having 'not the slightest doubt' that trips abroad could be 'overdone'. Beryl gardened, preserved fruit, and entertained visiting journalists by holding paper spills which her husband cut into strips with a stockwhip.

Appointed Country Party whip in February 1956, Turnbull never missed a single day's sitting during his twenty-six years and eight months in the House of Representatives. In his opinion, that constituted an 'unchallenged world record'. From 1949 he represented Mallee, part of his original Wimmera electorate. While members accustomed to hearing him champion rural malapportionment jeered that he wanted votes for rabbits and kangaroos, he exulted in having 'burned out' seven Holden motorcars in travelling around his 18,500 sq. mile (48,915 km²) constituency. As spokesman for '80 per cent of the dry fruits area of Australia', he shamelessly manned the 'parish pump'. In 1968 he was appointed C.B.E.

Turnbull measured his performance at question time against Eddie Ward, who asked fewer questions but scored more points. When Turnbull repeatedly brandished a bunch of skeleton weed, Ward suggested that he indicate which was the weed. Good humoured and generous amid the rough and tumble of debate, though increasingly given to speeches as rotund as his ageing figure, Turnbull once asked rhetorically, 'What is life's greatest gift?' He ignored shouts of 'raisins and currants', and patiently explained that it was 'the will to serve, not the capacity'.

In 1972 Turnbull was knighted. He retired from parliament that year. Well liked on both sides of the chamber, he was respected for his probity and 'undiminished ardour in everything pertaining to his duties'. Sir Winton died on 15 January 1980 at Bendigo and was cremated. His wife survived him; there were no children.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Killen, Killen (Syd, 1985)
  • P. de Serville, Pounds and Pedigrees (Melb, 1991)
  • St Arnaud Mercury, 8 Feb 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11 May 1963
  • Herald (Melbourne), 18 June 1968
  • Turnbull family papers (Royal Historical Society of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Donald Boadle, 'Turnbull, Sir Winton George (1899–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/turnbull-sir-winton-george-11894/text21303, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 April 2014.

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

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