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Sir Henry Newman Barwell (1877–1959)

by Maryanne McGill

This article was published:

Henry Newman Barwell (1877-1959), by unknown photographer

Henry Newman Barwell (1877-1959), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22921993

Sir Henry Newman Barwell (1877-1959), lawyer and premier, was born on 26 February 1877 in Adelaide, son of Henry Charles Barwell, clerk and produce merchant, and his wife Clara, née Brooke. Educated at Whinham College and the Collegiate School of St Peter, he graduated from the University of Adelaide (LL.B., 1899) and was admitted to the Bar that year. He practised at Clare for nine months, then went to Port Pirie. As partner in a successful practice, Barwell & Hague, he was solicitor to the local corporation and successful counsel for the defence in seven murder trials. He was prominent in the Port Pirie School of Mines, the Mechanics' Institute, and the local branch of the Liberal Union of South Australia. On 19 August 1902 he married Anne Gilbert Webb at Clare.

In 1915 Barwell entered the House of Assembly for the district of Stanley and moved to Adelaide. He was a clear and logical debater: the confident, arrogant tone of his maiden speech was characteristic of his style — 'I am here and I have come to stay'. He defended the restricted franchise for the Legislative Council by arguing that Labor should not 'secure absolute political control over the capital that employs labor, and over the superior intellect that governs that labor'. Caustic about 'the pettifogging parochialism' of parliamentarians, he was proud to be labelled a Tory and a conservative. From the start he vehemently expressed his own views, irrespective of party policy, and gained many enemies both within and outside his party. This outspokenness on delicate issues finally overshadowed his substantial contribution to the administration of the State.

When the Labor government resigned in 1917 following the split over conscription, Barwell became attorney-general and minister of industry in A. H. Peake's Liberal Union government. He lost this portfolio a month later when a Liberal-National coalition government was formed. Following the 1918 elections, he again became attorney-general, and minister of industry in charge of town planning, for which he established a new department headed by Charles Reade; he published two papers on soldiers' settlements and town planning in 1918 and 1919. A 1919 Act provided for the establishment of a garden suburb at Mitcham, but the far-reaching Town Planning and Development Act, 1920, which Barwell introduced and strongly supported, was shorn of its effectiveness in the Legislative Council.

In March 1920 the coalition was dissolved after years of friction between the two parties. Thus, when Peake died and Barwell became premier a few weeks later, his government consisted solely of Liberals, although it depended for support on Nationalists. Some felt he had 'effected a Cromwellian usurpation' and the Opposition claimed he had found difficulty in gathering a ministry. But Barwell, who had already demonstrated his talent for efficient management, promoted several rivals to powerless positions and took firm command of his cabinet. His policy was enunciated in 1922 when he said: 'we want sound and safe administration … The less legislation the better'. Major changes included the appointment in 1921 of a royal commission on the public service which aimed to effect improvements in method and economies in administration. Barwell thought the service 'overmanned and inefficient'. He tackled in a far-sighted way the rehabilitation, through a £5 million programme, of the State's notoriously uneconomic railways, personally recruiting a brilliant American expert, W. A. Webb, as director. New passenger-cars became known as 'Barwell Bulls'.

He also attempted to abolish the State arbitration system by the industrial disputes bill, 1922. Together with his avowed intention of reducing wages, it was seen as a direct attack on labour and earned him much hostility in the community and in parliament, where the Nationalists voted with Labor to defeat the bill.

During the 1922 parliamentary recess Barwell visited England and was appointed K.C.M.G. While there he launched a short-lived 'Barwell Boys' immigration scheme, through which youths were brought to South Australia and indentured to farmers; the aim was to replace the 6000 South Australians killed in World War I. However, this was overshadowed by the controversy, aroused on the eve of his departure from London by his public statement that the Northern Territory should be developed by coloured labour. In spite of the storm of protest, he repeated his views in a letter to The Times. Although he emphasized that he was speaking as a private citizen, this seriously embarrassed the Liberal Union, caused a no confidence motion at the opening of the 1922 session of parliament, and became a factor in the Liberals' 1924 electoral defeat. Hostility from the temperance lobby and unease about award of railway contracts to American firms were also relevant. He remained parliamentary leader, but was encouraged by friends to enter Federal politics. When Senator J. V. O'Loghlin died in 1925 the Liberals used their numbers to elect Barwell to replace him, although this was a departure from precedent as O'Loghlin had been a Labor man—the Labor leaders strongly protested. Barwell's intransigence continued to alienate Federal colleagues; he was an uncompromising defender of the rights of small States, and his relations with Prime Minister (Viscount) Bruce were not happy.

In 1928 Barwell resigned to become South Australia's agent-general in London. A fervent imperialist, he made many speeches on 'reciprocal trade and reciprocal preference'. He was a director of a trust company there after his term expired in 1933. Back in South Australia in 1940, after an unsuccessful attempt to win pre-selection for Stanley, he retired from politics. By this time he was very deaf and could not return to the Bar. He was an active synodsman in the Anglican Church, and until his death filled positions on various State boards, most notably that of the South Australian Housing Trust, of which he was deputy chairman in 1945-59. For many years he had had symptoms of arteriosclerosis and he died of cerebro-vascular disease at his Unley Park home on 30 September 1959, survived by his wife, three daughters and a son; he was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £1811.

Select Bibliography

  • R. I. Jennings, W. A. Webb, South Australian Railways Commissioner, 1922-1930 (Adel, 1973)
  • Parliamentary Debates (South Australia), 1915, 1299, 2333, 1922, 62, 350
  • Observer (Adelaide), 10 June 1922, 26 Dec 1925
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 1 Oct 1959
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 1 Oct 1959, p 16
  • records (Supreme Court, South Australia).

Citation details

Maryanne McGill, 'Barwell, Sir Henry Newman (1877–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 14 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Newman Barwell (1877-1959), by unknown photographer

Henry Newman Barwell (1877-1959), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22921993

Life Summary [details]


26 February, 1877
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


30 September, 1959 (aged 82)
Unley Park, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.