White, Sir Thomas Walter (1888–1957)

by John Rickard

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

Thomas Walter White (1888-1957), by unknown photographer

Thomas Walter White (1888-1957), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23528200

Sir Thomas Walter White (1888-1957), airman, businessman and politician, was born on 26 April 1888 at Hotham (North Melbourne), third child of Charles James White, a London-born brass-finisher and later hardware merchant, and his Victorian-born wife Emily Jane, née Jenkins. Thomas attended Moreland State School and it is said that family circumstances prevented him from taking up a scholarship to Scotch College. At an early age he joined the Citizen Military Forces as a bugler. In 1911 he was commissioned in the 5th Australian Regiment. He prided himself as an athlete, competing in running, cycling and boxing events.

By 1914 White was also interested in aviation. Selected for the Australian Flying Corps, in August he became one of the first batch of officers to train at Point Cook, where he helped found the Australian Aero Club. On 1 April 1915 he was appointed captain, Australian Imperial Force, and adjutant of a small unit, known as the Half-Flight, which was sent to Basra, Mesopotamia, for service with the Indian Army. He survived several incidents which involved landing behind enemy lines but on 13 November, while on a mission to cut telegraph wires near Baghdad, was captured by Arabs and Turks. Imprisoned in Turkey, he escaped from a train in Constantinople (Istanbul) in July 1918, sailed to Odessa, Ukraine, Russia, as a stowaway in a cargo ship and reached London on 22 December. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and twice mentioned in dispatches for his exploits.

White was to describe his adventures in Guests of the Unspeakable (London, 1928). He was critical of the Australian tendency, in the wake of Gallipoli, to regard the Turks as honourable foes, pointing instead to the thousands of British and Indian prisoners who had died on long marches. After the war he closely identified with ex-servicemen's causes, and his war experience was fundamental to the shaping of his political persona. He also claimed that his encounter with Bolshevism at Odessa laid the foundations of his later vigorous anti-communism.

In London White met Vera, daughter of the former Australian prime minister Alfred Deakin. Within a few weeks they were engaged. Thomas left England in September 1919 and spent almost three months in the United States of America on the way home, making business contacts for his father's firm. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in Sydney on 6 January 1920. Overcoming resistance from some of the Deakin family, Vera and Tom were married on 22 March 1920 at St John's Church of England, Toorak, Melbourne.

From 1920 to 1932 White was managing director of C. J. White & Sons Pty Ltd. Beginning his political apprenticeship, in 1925 he stood unsuccessfully as Nationalist candidate for the seat of Maribynong in the House of Representatives; two years later he contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Prahran. In 1928 he failed in a bid to gain Nationalist pre-selection for the Senate. His opportunity came in 1929 when he won pre-selection, and on 3 August a by-election, for Balaclava, the safe seat that he was to hold in Federal parliament for twenty-two years.

White devoted his maiden speech to a subject he considered 'almost sacred', the building of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra. In October he found himself part of the Opposition to the Scullin government, which was, as he put it, 'unique, because it is 100 percent. a non-soldier ministry'. He soon made his mark as a pugnacious parliamentarian and on 14 January 1933 gained a place in the Lyons government, taking over from Sir Henry Gullett as minister for trade and customs.

Despite being a dedicated protectionist, White was required to continue his predecessor's work of reducing and consolidating the tariff. He saw himself as presiding over the greatest period of industrial expansion Australia had yet known. Although he was responsible for the implementation (from 1936) of the controversial and ultimately unsuccessful trade-diversion policy, which endeavoured to reassert the Imperial connection by increasing trade with Britain at the expense of Japan and the U.S.A., the policy itself owed more to Lyons and Gullett.

White was a strong supporter of the book and film censorship which his department administered. Nevertheless, he attempted to place himself at arm's length from the decisions involved, appointing an advisory board of 'scholarly and enlightened men', chaired by Sir Robert Garran, to make recommendations concerning books. White conceded that censorship, whether for indecency or sedition, had increased, but put this down to 'a greater production of books'. He privately expressed the view that James Joyce's Ulysses was 'the foulest novel yet in spite of the author's much vaunted new technique'.

In 1937 White came close to resigning as a minister in protest against the government's failure to introduce universal service. Lyons reconstructed the ministry in November 1938. On learning that R. G. (Baron) Casey had been advanced in seniority over him, White made his displeasure clear during the swearing in on 7 November. Next day, when he discovered that he had also been excluded from the inner cabinet that Lyons had established, he angrily resigned, condemning 'the control of the Government of Australia by a small coterie of Ministers'. One of that 'coterie' was the ambitious (Sir) Robert Menzies whom White had long disliked, partly because of his failure to serve in World War I. After Lyons's death in 1939, White nominated for the leadership contest ultimately won by Menzies, but in a field of four was the first eliminated.

White had travelled to England in 1938 with Menzies and Sir Earle Page to represent Australia in trade negotiations and, like Menzies, visited Germany. In July White was Australia's delegate at the inter-governmental conference on refugees held at Evian, France. He chaired a sub-committee which interviewed representatives of organizations involved in the reception of political refugees, most of them Jewish, from Germany and Austria. Much moved by the stories told, he affirmed that Australia would play its part, but also said that, having 'no real racial problem, we are not desirous of importing one by encouraging any scheme of large-scale foreign migration'. In 1929-38 he was, as his father-in-law had been, an occasional anonymous correspondent for the London Morning Post (Daily Telegraph and Morning Post).

On his return from Europe, and even more so after his resignation, White urged the importance of defence. As a lieutenant colonel in the C.M.F., he had commanded the 6th Battalion in 1926-31. On 9 April 1940 he transferred to the Citizen Air Force as a temporary squadron leader. Taking leave from parliament, he commanded a training school at Somers then in 1941 went to England where he administered Australian aircrew and acted as liaison officer with the Royal Air Force. He still longed to fly, and on several occasions surreptitiously took part in operations as a second pilot. From the outset, he had been a strong supporter of the Empire Air Training Scheme. His 'story in verse', Sky Saga (London, 1943), saluted the Imperial heroes of the air.

Returning to Melbourne in 1943, White served at the Royal Australian Air Force Staff School before being demobilized as honorary group captain on 9 December 1944. He resumed parliamentary duties and took part in the October 1944 conference in Canberra that led to the founding of the Liberal Party of Australia. Old rivalries were put to one side and, when Menzies led the Liberal Party and Country Party coalition to victory in the 1949 general election, he invited White to take the portfolios of air and civil aviation. On 21 June 1951 White resigned from parliament to become Australian high commissioner in Britain, a post that he filled with his customary energy and good humour. Next year he was appointed K.B.E. After his term expired in 1956, he lived in Melbourne.

Throughout his career White was active in a range of organizations including Legacy, the (Royal) Flying Doctor Service of Australia and the Royal Empire Society; in particular he had a long involvement with the Royal Life Saving Society (Australian chairman 1934-51). He shared an interest in the arts with his wife and while high commissioner in London sponsored the Society of Australian Writers there. Sir Thomas suffered from emphysema. Survived by his wife and their four daughters, he died of myocardial infarction on 13 October 1957 at his South Yarra home and was buried in Point Lonsdale cemetery.

Well dressed and debonair, White had been friendly and approachable but as a politician his style was vigorous and combative. He was a loyal imperialist, insisting (Australian Statesman, January 1944) that 'the magnificent work of the British Empire must go on'. His sense of duty had led him to volunteer as a special constable during the 1923 Melbourne police strike, and in the Depression he saw the New Guard and 'other loyal organisations' as having 'created a feeling of security among the law abiding'. He retained many of the values of the self-made man, and was attuned to the interests of small rather than big business. In a family dispute he once described his brother-in-law Herbert Brookes as employing the technique of 'the business bully—the coward who skulks behind all the social privileges and the protection of capital'. He was devoted to his wife and depended much on her for advice and support; she may also have been useful in bringing him into contact with social networks able to assist his career. Through his loyalty and generosity White won the respect of friends and associates. In a remarkable tribute (Sir) Edward Dunlop described him as 'perhaps the best loved man of his generation'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Martin, Robert Menzies, vol 1 (Melb, 1993)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 22 Aug 1929, p 261, 29 Nov 1929, p 520
  • People (Sydney), 23 May 1951
  • Argus (Melbourne), 9 Nov 1938
  • White papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

John Rickard, 'White, Sir Thomas Walter (1888–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/white-sir-thomas-walter-12013/text21545, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 29 June 2016.

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

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