Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir John Montgomery Dunningham (1884–1938)

by Peter Spearritt

This article was published:

John Montgomery Dunningham (1884-1938), by unknown photographer

John Montgomery Dunningham (1884-1938), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 22743

Sir John Montgomery Dunningham (1884-1938), bookmaker and politician, was born on 21 January 1884 in Sydney, son of English parents John Dunningham, labourer, and his wife Annie, née Fowler. He was educated at Forest Lodge Public School and St James College, Sydney. After working as an assistant at the library of the Sydney Mechanics' School of Arts, he took positions at Alex Cowan & Sons Ltd, paper merchants, and the Australian Gas Light Co. Displaying early ability as an organizer, he became secretary of the fitters' section of the New South Wales branch of the Federated Gas Employees' Industrial Union.

By 1911 Dunningham had established a hatter and mercer's shop in the Imperial Arcade, between Pitt and Castlereagh streets. On 22 February 1913 he married a widow Mary Agnes Britnall, née Hossack. Dunningham persevered with his shop until 1917, when he set up as a bookmaker; he graduated through the Flat, the St Leger and the Paddock, and respectability was conferred with committee membership of Tattersall's Club; he served as treasurer in 1928-31.

Dunningham was an alderman on Randwick Municipal Council in 1917-31 and was mayor in 1927-28. Local government provided the springboard to politics. He won the Legislative Assembly seat of Coogee for the Nationalists at a by-election in September 1928 and held it until 1938. He was whip for the Nationalists while in Opposition from 1930, remaining a bookmaker until 1932. Named minister for labour and industry in May 1932, he was one of (Sir) Bertram Stevens's more popular appointments as his bookmaking background gave him the appearance of being 'one of the boys'; many Labor members made a point of calling him 'Jack'. Yet that year he proposed amendments to the Industrial Arbitration Act which would have severely curtailed union power had they been adopted. The Communist Worker's Weekly later nicknamed him 'Slave Camp Dunningham' because of his allegedly harsh treatment of the unemployed. In 1935 he visited England, Europe and the Soviet Union and was appalled at the poor standard of living in the latter. On his return he wrote a short report, British Unemployment Insurance Law (1936).

In 1936 Dunningham was appointed minister in charge of preparations for Australia's 150th Anniversary celebrations and of those for the coronation in 1937. He was ideal for the job given his positions on sporting and other bodies—past president of the New South Wales Amateur Athletic Association, vice-president of the Royal Life Saving Society and of the New South Wales Rugby Union, and council-member of the National Roads and Motorist's Association and of the Royal Agricultural Society of New South Wales, and an office-bearer in local football, cricket, swimming and tennis clubs. He was also an active Anglican, excellent after-dinner speaker and sometime church organist. His organizing abilities were shown to good effect in these celebrations, the most elaborate ever held in Australia. However his desire to exclude the convict heritage, bushranging and Aboriginals roused some adverse criticism. The Aboriginals' day of mourning for the white man's seizure of their country held in Sydney on Australia Day 1938 was not part of his programme.

On 26 May 1938 Dunningham collapsed and died with heart disease in his office; he was buried with Anglican rites in Waverley cemetery after a service in St Andrew's Cathedral. Survived by his wife and son, he left an estate valued for probate at £17,287, almost half in realty. He was posthumously appointed K.B.E. in June; later a park at North Cronulla and a wing of Eastern Suburbs Hospital were named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • W. B. Lynch and F. A. Larcombe, Randwick, 1859-1959 (Syd, 1959)
  • Parliamentary Debates, (New South Wales), 1938, p 2
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Sept 1928, 27, 28 May, 2 July 1938
  • Australian National Review, 28 June 1932
  • Bulletin, 19 Oct 1932
  • Worker's Weekly, 24 Dec 1937
  • Referee (Sydney), 26 May 1938
  • J. M. McCarthy, The Stevens-Bruxner Government, 1932-1939 (M.A. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1967)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Spearritt, 'Dunningham, Sir John Montgomery (1884–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 22 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

John Montgomery Dunningham (1884-1938), by unknown photographer

John Montgomery Dunningham (1884-1938), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 22743

Life Summary [details]


21 January, 1884
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


26 May, 1938 (aged 54)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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