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White, Sir Ernest Keith (1892–1983)

by Chris Cunneen

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

Sir Ernest Keith White (1892-1983), timber merchant and political activist, was born on 14 August 1892 at Gosford, New South Wales, youngest of eight children of New South Wales-born parents Robert John White, timber contractor, and his wife Bertha, née Davis. Educated at Gosford Public School, Ernie served in the junior cadets and worked for his father from the age of 12. At night he studied sanitary engineering by correspondence with Sydney Technical College. Qualifying through the Royal Sanitary Institute, London, he worked as a sanitary inspector for shire councils at Gosford and Moree while studying for a local government and shire clerk’s certificate.

Having passed his local government examinations, White enlisted on 8 June 1915 in the Australian Imperial Force. On 15 November that year at the Sacred Heart Catholic Church, Darlinghurst, Sydney, he married Pauline Marjory Mason, schoolteacher and daughter of the mayor of Gosford. White embarked as a second lieutenant with reinforcements for the 4th battalion in January 1916. Nearly six feet (183 cm) tall with grey eyes, he weighed 11 st. 13 lb. (76 kg) and gave his religion as Church of England. At Pozières, France, in July he was wounded in the shoulder. Returning to his unit two months later, he became its adjutant in July 1917 and was mentioned in despatches in May 1918. The previous month, at Strazeele, he had twice reconnoitred the front line while under heavy fire and for this action won the Military Cross. He was promoted to captain in September, having acted in that rank from May. His AIF appointment was terminated in Australia on 5 April 1919.

Rejoining his father’s timber business, White moved the headquarters to Sydney, and lived at Strathfield. R. J. White & Co. (Sydney) Pty Ltd prospered under his management. It supplied logs from the north and south coasts of New South Wales, mainly for telegraph poles, wharf piles and railway girders, to be shipped locally and overseas. He also engaged in land development, including subdivisions at Terrigal, Wamberal and Forresters Beach, and bought a large timber-bearing property at Terreel, near Gloucester. In his youth a keen swimmer, footballer, woodchopper and cyclist, later he was a low-handicap golfer. White was a member of the Australian Jockey Club, an enthusiastic racegoer and a heavy gambler. He also owned successful racehorses, including Mollison and Winalot (which he did in 1928). Helped by his winnings, the next year he purchased land on Kurraba Point, Neutral Bay, which he subdivided and developed, building himself a house, Baden (1936), in opulent ‘P & O’ style.

In July 1936, with Brigadier H. A. Goddard, White called a meeting at the Millions Club, Sydney, to establish the British American Co-operation Movement for World Peace (later the Australian-American Association). Variously federal and State president of this influential organisation, he proposed and was the guiding figure behind the erection of the Australian American Memorial in Canberra, unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II on 16 February 1954.

By 1943 White had become alarmed by the ascendency of the Australian Labor Party federally and in New South Wales. Having failed to persuade (Sir) Roden Cutler, VC, to head a proposed National and Services Movement of Australia, on 16 April, with S. S. Crick, White launched the Liberal Democratic Party, described by the historian Ian Hancock as ‘the most self-consciously democratic’ of the non-Labor splinter groups. Relations between White and the United Australia Party (renamed the Democratic Party) became increasingly bitter. The LDP contested nine seats in the August 1943 Federal election and fifteen in the New South Wales election the following May but won none. It was wound up when White became a member of the provisional executive of the Liberal Party of Australia in December 1944, although he soon resigned. In the Federal election in 1954 he stood unsuccessfully as an Independent Liberal, against the endorsed Liberal candidate for Warringah, F. A. Bland, and was expelled from the party.

White was appointed OBE (1954), elevated to CBE (1967) and knighted (1969). A keen member of Tattersall’s and the American National clubs, he was close to Eric White, Sir Arthur Rickard and Sir Iven MacKay. White was a stern parent and autocratic in business. To Sir John Cramer, a factional opponent, he was ‘very aggressive and dominating’, with ‘dreams of being a political Messiah’. Hancock described him as ‘selfless, a clear thinker and respected for his integrity’ though ‘difficult and peppery’. Sir Ernest died on 1 August 1983 in North Sydney and was cremated after a service at St Stephen’s Presbyterian Church. His wife and their two daughters survived him; their son, Flying Officer Baden Keith White (1923-1944), had been killed during war service.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cramer, Pioneers, Politics and People (1989)
  • I. Hancock, National and Permanent? (2000) and The Liberals (2007)
  • M. Hogan and D. Clune (eds), The People’s Choice, vol 2 (2001)
  • Commonwealth Law Reports, vol 120, 1968, p 191
  • Smith’s Weekly, 27 Apr 1940, p 7
  • Bulletin, 9 June 1943, p 9
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Aug 1983, p 13
  • Ernest White papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'White, Sir Ernest Keith (1892–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-sir-ernest-keith-15803/text27002, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 April 2019.

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

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