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Cramer, Sir John Oscar (Jack) (1896–1994)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published online in 2018

John Cramer, c.1939

John Cramer, c.1939

Stanton Library, 000067

Sir John Oscar Cramer (1896–1994), property developer and politician, was born on 18 February 1896 at Jacob and Joseph Creek (Gaspard), near Quirindi, New South Wales, fourth of six children of New South Wales-born parents John Nicholas Cramer, farmer, and his wife Emily Eleanor, née Cullen. His father was of German descent, while his mother was a local farmer’s daughter of Scottish and Irish descent. Raised as a Catholic, Jack left Gaspard Public School at 14 to work on the family farm, then managed a fruit shop his father had purchased at Quirindi. He played cornet and euphonium in local brass bands and had a good voice and a talent for comic songs. With his brother Charles, who played the piano, he was much in demand for concerts and musical evenings. At one such evening, in Sydney in 1917, he met his future wife, Mary Teresa Earls, a teacher. They married with Catholic rites on 14 January 1922 at St Thomas’s Church, Lewisham, Sydney. It was to be a long and happy marriage.

Cramer had moved to Sydney in 1917 in search of work. He found it with Paramount Pictures Ltd, employed as a clerk by day, and at night, with Charles, providing the music for silent films, with comic songs in the intervals. In 1920 Jack and Charles formed Cramer Bros real estate agents and auctioneers, opening an office at Crows Nest, North Sydney. By 1924 they had joined a syndicate to acquire and subdivide vacant land, including 104 acres (42 ha) on Edinburgh Road, Willoughby, which they called Sunnyside Estate. They also became partners in Higgins (Building) Ltd, constructing blocks of flats and collecting the rents. Another brother, Reg, joined them, and the businesses expanded rapidly.

During the Depression Cramer became interested in politics, initially through the All for Australia League (1931–32), a forum for debating non-party policies that in 1932 became part of the United Australia Party (UAP). He also joined the Rotary Club of North Sydney in 1931, finding himself a rare Catholic, though tolerated among the members. As an alderman in North Sydney from 1931 (mayor, 1939–41), he was closely involved in the development that resulted from the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, though his efforts to make Crows Nest the commercial centre eventually failed and Chatswood forged ahead. From 1935 he also represented the North Shore on the Sydney County Council, which regulated the electricity supply for the Sydney area. His experience as chairman (1946, 1948–49) of the council, trying to maintain power for industrial and domestic use during the communist-led strikes of the Australasian Coal & Shale Employees' Federation, helps to explain his abiding hatred of both communism and the union movement. During those dour times, he became known as ‘Calamity Cramer,’ forever announcing power restrictions or failures.

Following the collapse of the UAP in New South Wales in 1943, Cramer had won preselection for the short-lived Democratic Party and stood unsuccessfully for the division of Lane Cove at the 1944 State election. He was active in moves to bring together the non-Labor factions in New South Wales politics, and was elected to the provisional executive of the New South Wales division of the Liberal Party of Australia in January 1945. Cramer’s claims in his autobiography (1989) to be one of the founders of the Liberal Party are often brushed aside, but there can be no doubt that he was continuously active in conservative politics in New South Wales from the early 1930s, and that he took a leading role in the affairs of the Liberal Party, especially in maintaining a voice for New South Wales in response to perceived Victorian dominance.

Overcoming ‘sectarian bitterness’ (Cramer 1989, 101), Cramer gained Liberal preselection for the Federal division of Bennelong in 1949, winning comfortably at the election in December. With the exception of the close 1961 poll, he retained the seat without difficulty at ten consecutive elections. He remained closely in touch with the local community through his real estate interests and the connections he established with sporting and ex-service clubs in his electorate. Mary’s community work was likely a factor too. Continuing as a partner with his brothers in real estate and property development, he profited from the construction of apartment blocks along the North Shore railway line.

In 1956 the prime minister, (Sir) Robert Menzies, made Cramer minister for the army, which puzzled him because he had no army expertise: ‘I had to study night and day’ to learn ‘what the portfolio was all about’ (Cramer 1989, 163). His eight years as minister coincided with the final years of the Malayan Emergency and the beginning of the army’s involvement in Vietnam. A focus on the suppression of communism was evident in his 1958 tour of South-East Asia, during which he met the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem for official talks and a private dinner at which, according to Cramer, his wife charmed the Vietnamese leader. In 1962 the government sent thirty military advisers to South Vietnam. Tackling sectarianism in the army, he achieved a significant breakthrough when, with the help of a Presbyterian army chaplain who lived in North Sydney, he was able to negotiate a form of religious observance for army parades that was acceptable to both Catholics and Protestants.

Cramer believed that Menzies, who referred to him openly as ‘the Papist,’ tolerated him because he was an effective minister and perhaps because of his influence in New South Wales, but blocked his political advancement. After the Federal election in 1963, Cramer offered to resign to make room for a younger minister. Remaining on the back bench for a decade, he became weary of the stress of politics and did not seek preselection in 1973. He would have preferred Peter Coleman to John Howard as his successor in Bennelong. Howard later recalled that Cramer was ‘an able rather than a spectacular administrator’ and ‘a quintessential local politician’ (Howard 1994, 14). Retiring from parliament at the 1974 election, Cramer enjoyed lawn bowls and the fellowship of his weekly Rotary meetings.

Cramer regarded himself as a custodian of the aims and ideals on which the modern Liberal Party was founded. Described as ‘a beefy, broad-shouldered political street-fighter’ who ‘possessed strong views and a stentorian voice’ (Sydney Morning Herald 1994, 4), he was ardently opposed to communism, suspicious of socialism, and single-minded in his advocacy of free enterprise. He was proud of his ancestors’ pioneering background in the Hunter Valley, while his experience of farm life in his youth and then of building a substantial business from scratch gave him a great affinity with ordinary people. Never averse to a gathering where he could lead the community in singing or join in the dancing, he wore his religion lightly, but was nonetheless socially conservative, disapproving of divorce, contraception, and abortion. He was critical of (Sir) John Gorton’s performance as prime minister (1968–71) and was quick to nominate (Sir) William McMahon as leader immediately after Gorton voted himself out of office.

On Menzies’s recommendation Cramer was knighted in June 1964; then in 1971 his wife Mary, whom McMahon admired greatly, was appointed DBE for her charitable work. After Mary’s death in 1984, Cramer devoted himself to writing his memoirs, which he dedicated to her. Their elder son John, a doctor, died in 1964 of a brain tumour. Survived by his two daughters and younger son, Cramer died on 18 May 1994 at Lulworth House, Elizabeth Bay. Following a state funeral at St Mary’s Church, North Sydney, he was buried in the Northern Suburbs cemetery, North Ryde.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Cramer, John. Pioneers, Politics and People: A Political Memoir. North Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1989
  • Hancock, Ian. The Liberals: A History of the NSW Division of the Liberal Party of Australia 1945–2000. Annandale, NSW: Federation Press, 2007
  • Henderson, Gerard. Menzies’ Child: The Liberal Party of Australia, 1944–1994. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1994
  • Howard, John. ‘Traditional Liberal Who Helped Establish Party.’ Australian, 1 June 1994, 14
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7553, Papers of John Cramer, 1912–1986
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Liberal Member Was Political Street-Fighter.’ 19 May 1994, 4 

Additional Resources

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Cramer, Sir John Oscar (Jack) (1896–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cramer-sir-john-oscar-jack-27503/text34902, published online 2018, accessed online 18 September 2019.

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