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Sir Thomas Rainsford (Tom) Bavin (1874–1941)

by John McCarthy

This article was published:

Thomas Rainsford Bavin (1874-1941), by unknown photographer, 1927

Thomas Rainsford Bavin (1874-1941), by unknown photographer, 1927

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23122008

Sir Thomas Rainsford (Tom) Bavin (1874-1941), lawyer and politician, was born on 5 May 1874 at Kaiapoi near Christchurch, New Zealand, son of Rev. Rainsford Bavin, a Methodist minister from Lincolnshire, England, and his New Zealand-born wife Emma, née Buddle. He was educated at Auckland Grammar School and, after his father's call to Sydney in 1889, at Newington College. He taught at his old school and as an evening student attended the University of Sydney where he was editor of Hermes, became a lifelong friend of (Sir) John Peden, and graduated B.A. in 1894 with first-class honours in logic and mental philosophy. He won the (Sir George) Wigram Allen Scholarship and graduated LL.B. in 1897 with first-class honours and the University Medal.

Bavin was admitted to the Bar on 28 May 1897 and shared chambers with B. R. Wise. Here he met (Sir) Edmund Barton, who inspired him with the cause of Federation; he campaigned vigorously for the Constitution bill at the 1898 referendum and that year unsuccessfully contested Canterbury for Barton's National Federal Party. He taught briefly at the law school and in 1900 was acting professor of law at the University of Tasmania.

Next year Bavin became private secretary to Barton, and wrote many of his speeches. When Barton was appointed to the High Court in 1903, Bavin became his associate, while remaining private secretary to the new prime minister Alfred Deakin. He was encouraged by both men, who became lifelong friends, and learned some of his political philosophy from them. On 6 February 1901 at St Andrew's Church of England, Summer Hill, he had married Edyth Ellen, daughter of Frederick Winchcombe; neither she nor her father approved of politics as a career for Bavin.

In 1904 he returned to Sydney to practise as a barrister in University Chambers. At first briefs were scarce and he supplemented his income by coaching: one of his students was Billy Hughes. He also wrote newspaper articles and in 1907, while Deakin was in England, took over his 'Australian Correspondent' column in the London Morning Post; on Deakin's return they shared it until 1911. Briefed by trade unions and the government, in 1908 Bavin was junior counsel for the defendant in the important constitutional case over steel rails, The Attorney General of New South Wales v. The Collector of Customs for New South Wales. From in 1911 he chaired the royal commission on food supplies and fish; he resigned in 1913 but Premier James McGowen dissolved the unwieldy commission and appointed Bavin alone to inquire into food supplies and prices. Shocked by the great difference in prices received by producers and those paid by customers, he went to sea with the trawlers and followed the catch through every agency until it reached the consumer. He checked each item of food in like manner and roundly condemned the whole system of marketing through middlemen. His most important proposal was to set up a kind of anti-monopoly bureau with powers to investigate prices and to recommend prosecution of trusts and combines.

Bavin lived at Chatswood; in 1911-14 he was an alderman on the Willoughby Municipal Council and became widely known on the North Shore. He had not abandoned his political ambitions and told Deakin that 'I can't rid myself of my desire to go into federal politics … I should much rather be in politics with a small practice, than out of politics, with a big one'. Perhaps partly because of his sympathy with much of Labor's social welfare programme, he lost Liberal pre-selection for East Sydney and Cook in 1910 and North Sydney in 1911. A strong believer in Imperial federation, next year he became a foundation member of the New South Wales group of Round Table and helped to prepare articles for its quarterly review.

Bavin had been a member of the Australian National Defence League in 1906-09. During Would War I he advocated compulsory military service for those without domestic responsibilities, and with Jack Fitzgerald became joint secretary of the Universal Service League in 1915. In 1916 he won Progressive pre-selection for Albury, but the elections were deferred. In 1917 he narrowly won the Legislative Assembly seat of Gordon as a Nationalist, on a platform which included proportional representation, continuation of six-o'clock closing, and reforms in the production, handling, marketing and distribution of food. Rejected as medically unfit for active service, from 20 December 1917 he served with the Royal Australian Naval Brigade as a lieutenant-commander on part-time intelligence work inquiring into reports of enemy action at sea.

In parliament Bavin became strongly critical of William Holman's National government and in 1919 called for the resignation of the minister of agriculture W. C. Grahame. Disenchanted with the Nationalists' lack of a constructive policy and their aura of corruption, at a party meeting in January 1920 he unsuccessfully moved no confidence in Holman as leader and resigned from the party. He rejoined G. S. Beeby's Progressives, won Ryde in the 1920 elections and became their deputy leader in October. On 20 December 1921 he was attorney-general for seven hours in (Sir) George Fuller's short-lived ministry; he held the same portfolio in Fuller's second ministry in 1922-25. Responsible for the government's controversial industrial legislation, such as the restoration of the 48-hour week, he was frustrated in his attempts to simplify the arbitration system. He was narrowly elected leader of the Nationalists in 1925.

As leader of the Opposition Bavin under-estimated Jack Lang, but with the help of the Legislative Council had some success in modifying some of his social legislation. In 1926 Bavin was strongly criticized by his party for opposing the Bruce-Page referendum seeking additional powers over industrial matters for the Commonwealth; his allies in the 'No' campaign included the Australian Workers' Union, J. S. Garden, Sir Arthur Robinson, Lang and (Sir) Robert Menzies. Moreover, his support of adult franchise at local government elections was not popular with the Nationalists.

In 1927 the National and Country parties agreed not to oppose each other at the election and Bavin committed himself not to repeal Labor social welfare legislation, although he later did so. He formed a coalition ministry with E. A. Buttenshaw, in which he was premier and colonial treasurer. Ironically, one of his most far-reaching acts was to sign the Commonwealth-States financial agreement setting up the Loan Council. Long a believer in graduated income tax, he enraged his own supporters with his Income Tax (Management) Act of 1928, in which the incomes of husband and wife were added together, and taxes were increased on higher incomes. He carried the Constitution (Legislative Council) Amendment Act, 1929, making abolition of the council impossible without a referendum. Largely successful in taking direct religious faction-fighting out of politics, he spoke at the opening of the 1928 Eucharistic Congress at St Mary's Cathedral. Some of his young ministers such as (Sir) Bertram Stevens, David Drummond and (Sir) Michael Bruxner had solid achievements, but the coalition was uneasy and Bavin was troubled by persistent ill health.

While he was in England from April to August 1929, trying to negotiate a new loan, Buttenshaw removed rural workers from the basic wage award. Bavin had mishandled the timber strike and was confronted with trouble on the coalfields: he presented a plan to reduce the price of coal, which included a 1s. wage-cut. When the miners rejected it, the Northern Collieries' Association began a lock-out on 2 March. The Federal attorney-general ordered the prosecution of John Brown and a joint Commonwealth-State royal commission on the industry was set up. By October coal was allegedly running short in Sydney and Bavin decided the government would lease the Rothbury mine. 'Free labour' was recruited in Sydney and the colliery was picketed: in an ensuing skirmish a miner was shot dead by police, who had been attacked with stones. Bavin was uncompromising in his stand that the men must accept a wage reduction; he was believed by many to have promoted the owners' interests. The pits remained closed until May 1930.

In the face of depression in 1930 Bavin reduced the salaries of public servants and politicians, restored the 48-hour week, employed men on public works projects at under-award wages and imposed an income tax levy of 3d. in the £ for unemployment relief. In August at the Premiers' Conference he adhered to the 'Melbourne agreement' to balance budgets.

In the election campaign in October Bavin could only prophesy gloom and stress the need for self-sacrifice: Lang won a landslide victory. He remained leader of the Nationalists despite silent disapproval from prominent members of the National Association. He regarded the All for Australia League as a threat to democracy and, despite the support of Nationalist branches for the league's proposed fusion with the National Party, Bavin continued to distrust its motives. Faced with a challenge by Stevens, he resigned as leader in March 1932; the United Australia Party was formed without further opposition.

Bavin was appointed K.C.M.G. in 1933 and that year a volume of extracts from his speeches was published. He resigned from parliament in October 1935 on being appointed a Supreme Court justice. Plagued by continued ill health, he sat mainly in chambers and in causes, and was 'characterized by the same high standards as had distinguished his political career'. Outside politics, he had long found mental refreshment trout-fishing in the Snowy River, near Khancoban, with close friends such as (Sir) John Latham and A. J. Arnot. He was founding president of the League of Nations Union in 1920 and president of the Sydney University Law Society in 1907 and 1922-41. He belonged to the Royal Sydney Golf Club and the Australian and University clubs and helped to organize the Rotary movement. A man of wide culture, and considerable learning in literature and art, he shared a love of music with his wife and was a founder of the Sydney Repertory Theatre Society. He was also a committee-man of the Bush Book Club of New South Wales. In 1936-40 he was president of the Australian Institute of International Affairs and chaired the 1938 British Commonwealth Relations Conference at Lapstone in the Blue Mountains. In 1940 he edited The Jubilee Book of the Law School of the University of Sydney 1910-1940. Invited to give the Macrossan lectures at the University of Queensland in 1940, he became ill, and they were read for him and published as Sir Henry Parkes, His Life and Work (1941).

Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, Bavin died of cancer on 31 August 1941 at his home in Bellevue Hill, and was cremated after a state funeral service at St Andrew's Cathedral. He had abandoned Methodism when a student and, a confirmed Anglican, had worshipped at St Mark's Church, Darling Point. His estate was valued for probate at £519. His portrait by Jerrold Nathan is held by the Sydney University Law School.

Bavin regarded life as 'a high adventure', and some of his actions appeared quixotic. He was, in fact, a decided mixture: a political liberal, yet in later life a social conservative; imbued with a Deakinite vision of social justice, he opposed Lang's social welfare programme; he defended parliamentary democracy, yet the union movement in New South Wales came with some justification to see him as an enemy. Reserved and aloof, Bavin lacked magnetism as a leader, although he was greatly admired for his courage both as a politician and in refusing to be defeated by his lingering illness. With his medium height, medium build and regular features, he was the despair of political cartoonists.

Select Bibliography

  • I. N. Steinberg, Australia—the Unpromised Land (Lond, 1948)
  • University of Sydney Union, Union Recorder, 11 Sept 1941
  • Australian Law Journal, 19 Sept 1941
  • Australian Quarterly, Sept 1941
  • M. Savage, ‘A high adventure’, Australian Quarterly, Dec 1941
  • Round Table, 31 (1941-42)
  • Otago Daily Times, 6 Sept 1941
  • Bavin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • John Latham papers (National Library of Australia).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John McCarthy, 'Bavin, Sir Thomas Rainsford (Tom) (1874–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 20 July 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

Thomas Rainsford Bavin (1874-1941), by unknown photographer, 1927

Thomas Rainsford Bavin (1874-1941), by unknown photographer, 1927

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23122008

Life Summary [details]


5 May, 1874
Christchurch, New Zealand


31 August, 1941 (aged 67)
Bellevue Hill, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

Military Service
Key Events
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Political Activism