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Wearne, Walter Ernest (1867–1931)

by John Atchison

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

Walter Ernest Wearne (1867-1931), grazier and politician, was born on 2 September 1867 in Sydney, son of James Teare Wearne, flour-miller, and his wife Emily, née Dengate, both English born. While attending Cleveland Street Public School, Walter made a lifelong commitment to teetotalism. His education continued in public schools at Inverell and at Bingara where James opened his own flour-mill and sawmill in 1881.

Walter spent eight years acquiring a thorough knowledge of these industries. On 16 November 1887 at Bingara he married with Wesleyan forms Clara Louisa Bridger (d.1892); they were to have two children. Secretary of most Bingara organizations, Wearne was first clerk of Bingara Municipal Council (1889-1910). He branched out as an auctioneer and commission agent, established the stockyards in 1890, and was licensed as a government and municipal valuer. On 25 September 1894 at Piedmont he married with Anglican rites Alice May Capel, a squatter's daughter. Wearne acquired 250 acres (101 ha) in 1903 on the Gwydir River and by 1920 had consolidated Beaufort into a 5000-acre (2024 ha) mixed farm.

A public spirited man who 'knew the land and believed in the land', Wearne was a gifted raconteur, skilled musician and elocutionist. He was an executive-member of the Farmers and Settlers' Association (1909-22) and defeated George Black for the seat of Namoi in the Legislative Assembly in 1917 when both stood as Independent Nationalists. Wearne represented Namoi until 1927 when he won Barwon as a Nationalist. While a F.A.S.A. representative on the National Association of New South Wales, he had believed that country interests were endangered and formed the country parliamentary committee. With two sons at the front, Wearne and his wife were active in war work and in promoting the welfare of soldiers. To boost morale, he wrote The Voluntary Camp Song during the 1917 general strike in which his brother Reginald shot dead a striker, Mervyn Flanagan.

When (Sir) George Beeby resigned from cabinet in July 1919, Wearne and E. A. Buttenshaw joined him; next year Wearne was elected leader of the Progressives. Short, squat, bluff and big-hearted, he was a trustworthy politician and keen debater, but faced a dilemma in defending country interests. Premier James Dooley resigned in December 1921. After consulting his party and insisting on the priority of decentralization as a condition, Wearne joined Sir George Fuller's seven-hour cabinet on 20 December as secretary for lands and minister for forests. Wearne enjoyed the overwhelming support of his electorate, but the party split when (Sir) Michael Bruxner and his 'True Blues' refused to countenance any coalition. Genuinely upset by the 1921 split and by the lack of endorsement of his actions, Wearne bore with honour the 'jihad' waged against him by W. W. Killen.

As deputy leader in the coalition 'Coffinship Cabinet' (1922-25), Wearne held his previous portfolios. Aided by Under-Secretary C. P. Fleming, he paid meticulous attention to soldier settlement, promoted voluntary subdivision of larger estates and secured the border railways agreement (Barnes to Balranald). His spectacular achievement was 'Ziff Wearne's Circus and Menagerie' train which carried sceptical politicians to the Pallamallawa-Warialda prickly pear infestations, a tactic successful in securing the passage of his Prickly Pear Act of 1924, despite lampooning by metropolitan newspapers. His pioneering leadership with Cactoblastis cactorum achieved wide recognition. Wearne strained his health by a punishing schedule of office hours. He renewed the coalition pact prior to the 1925 election, but resigned as deputy.

Exhausted by ministerial office, Wearne did not contest the 1930 election. He died on 17 January 1931 at Molong Private Hospital, Sydney, and was cremated after a service at Bondi Junction Methodist Church. His wife, daughter and four sons survived him, as did the son and daughter of his first marriage; his estate was sworn for probate at £8138.

Select Bibliography

  • U. Ellis, The Country Party (Melb, 1958)
  • U. Ellis, A History of the Australian Country Party (Melb, 1963)
  • B. D. Graham, The Formation of the Australian Country Parties (Canb, 1966)
  • B. Batterham (compiler), Bingara—a Collection of Historical Stories (Bingara, NSW, 1977)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • R. Milliss, City on the Peel (Syd, 1980)
  • Australian Society for Labor History (Sydney branch), Hummer, special issue no 21, Labor Day, 1988
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16, 28 Apr 1920, 19 Jan 1931
  • Scone Advocate, 17 Apr 1925
  • private information.

Citation details

John Atchison, 'Wearne, Walter Ernest (1867–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wearne-walter-ernest-9017/text15881, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 25 November 2017.

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

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