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Thomas Dunbabin (1883–1973)

by K. H. Waters

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Thomas Dunbabin (1883-1973), journalist, was born on 6 July 1883 at Bream Creek, Tasmania, son of Thomas Dunbabin, farmer, and his wife Sarah Ada, née Murdoch. He was first cousin to Robert Leslie Dunbabin. Educated privately, then at Officer College, Hobart, he graduated from the University of Tasmania (B.A., 1905; M.A., 1910), winning a Rhodes scholarship and going up to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1906. Graduating B.A. in 1908 he became geography scholar, gained the geography diploma in 1909 and returned to Hobart where he began a journalistic career on the Mercury, reputedly as the result of a bet with the owner, Charles Davies. On 29 December 1909 Dunbabin married Beatrice Isabel Beedham with Congregational forms.

After a period on the Melbourne Argus about 1920, he moved to Sydney, becoming news-editor of the Sun in 1926, then working as editor of the Daily Telegraph in 1931-34 and of the Sun in 1934-36. Dunbabin spent 1929-31 and 1936-38 in London as manager of the Australian Newspapers Cable Service. Early in World War II he became a press censorship liaison officer with Eastern Command, while continuing to contribute special articles to the Telegraph. In 1944 he went to Ottawa as press attaché to the Australian legation. Briefly director of the Australian News and Information Bureau in London (1945-47) and New York (1947-48), he also worked in the Sydney office of the bureau after his Ottawa post was abolished in 1950. He then returned to Canada where he remained representative for Consolidated Press (Sydney) until 1955.

Dunbabin's journalistic writings, mainly on historical and geographical topics are ephemeral; he had no well-defined ideology, but was highly patriotic, with particular interest in whalers and men of the sea. A predilection for curious detail is exemplified by his column in the Sun, 'Does Ripley Know This?', and in his serious writings by a leaning to the anecdotal and picturesque rather than analysis and interpretation. In 1912 he succeeded in interviewing Roald Amundsen on his return from the South Pole, but failed to obtain confirmation of his success. Dunbabin's first monograph The Making of Australasia (London, 1922) was for some time popular in the schools. He also wrote Sailing the World's Edge: Sea Stories from Old Sydney (London, 1931) and Slavers of the South Seas (Sydney, 1935). In 1954 he printed privately in Hobart A Farm at the World's End, a history of the Dunbabin family.

An omnivorous reader with a highly retentive memory, Dunbabin also enjoyed sport, particularly rowing and cross-country running. An interest in fish and birds led to membership of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales. He was a teetotaller. A solid, powerful-looking man with many friends in all professions, he was remembered for 'his wit, bluntness, occasional impetuous lack of tact, absent-mindedness and his extraordinary disregard for many of the small conventions'; he commonly addressed his fellows as 'old fish'. Dunbabin died on 2 October 1973 at Ottawa, survived by his wife and daughter. His son, Thomas James (1911-55), was a distinguished classicist and archaeologist who, as a member of the British Intelligence Corps during World War II, became a leader of the resistance in Crete.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Information Service Weekly Newsletter, 5 Oct 1973
  • Koolewong, Mar 1974
  • People (Sydney), 31 Jan 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Oct 1973
  • Mercury (Hobart), 18 Oct 1973.

Citation details

K. H. Waters, 'Dunbabin, Thomas (1883–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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