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John James (Jack) Dwyer (1890–1962)

by Chris Batt

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John James Dwyer (1890-1962), by unknown photographer, c1918

John James Dwyer (1890-1962), by unknown photographer, c1918

Australian War Memorial, E01731A

John James (Jack) Dwyer (1890-1962), politician and soldier, was born on 9 March 1890 at Port Cygnet, Tasmania, son of Charles Dwyer, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Scanlon. Jack was educated at Mills Reef State School until the age of 12. From 1910 he cut cane and timber in Queensland before returning to Tasmania in 1913 to work on the Lake Margaret Hydro-electric Power Scheme.

Enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 4 February 1915, Dwyer sailed for the Middle East and joined the 15th Battalion on Gallipoli in August. Following the evacuation in December, he was sent to Egypt and transferred to the 4th Machine-Gun Company. He moved to France in June 1916, was promoted temporary sergeant in April next year (substantive in August), and was wounded in action on 9 June 1917. Near Zonnebeke, Belgium, on 26 September 1917 Dwyer had charge of a Vickers machine-gun during an attack. When an enemy machine-gun began to inflict casualties among his comrades, he rushed his Vickers forward, fired at point-blank range, killed the German crew and carried their gun back to his lines. Commanding both weapons, he helped to repulse a counter-attack. Next day he fought with equal determination and inspired his sector. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. Commissioned in May 1918, he was promoted lieutenant in August and returned home in October. His A.I.F. appointment terminated on 15 December.

Under the soldier-settlement scheme, Dwyer established an orchard on Bruny Island. On 24 September 1919 at St Brendan's Catholic Church, Alonnah, he married Myrtle Mary Dillon. The irregularity of income from his farm led him to join J. J. Dillon & Sons, his father-in-law's sawmilling enterprise near Alonnah. Dwyer served as a Bruny Island councillor (from 1924) until he moved to New Norfolk in 1928. He set up his own sawmill at Moogara.

Encouraged by Dillon to enter parliament, in May 1931 Dwyer was elected to the House of Assembly as a Labor member for Franklin. He was to retain the seat until his death. As Speaker (1942-48) of the House, he was renowned for his fairness and his insistence on 'a fair go for all', particularly new members. He was appointed minister for agriculture on 29 June 1948 in (Sir) Robert Cosgrove's cabinet. Following an electoral redistribution, in 1949 Dwyer sold his sawmill and moved to Glenorchy within the redrawn boundaries of Franklin. From 26 August 1958 to 12 May 1959 he served as deputy-premier. Respected as a competent minister, he developed a network among rural interests, especially in the Huon and Derwent valleys, but was forced by illness to resign his portfolio on 19 September 1961.

Dwyer was a 'grassroots' politician who believed in maintaining personal contact with his constituents: he was returned to parliament in ten successive elections. Jovial and kindly, he enjoyed a beer with his friends, but, perhaps because of his impoverished upbringing, he had a stern sense of propriety and a strong work ethic. He seldom discussed his war experiences. Eric Reece recalled that, when asked about his exploits in Belgium in 1917, Jack modestly replied that he 'was drunk at the time'. Keenly interested in community and social life, Dwyer was a justice of the peace (from 1924), a member of the New Norfolk licensing court and the fire brigade board, and an official visitor to Lachlan Park Mental Hospital. He belonged to the New Norfolk Golf Club, and the Buckingham and Claremont bowling clubs.

In 1961 Dwyer spent time in hospital with dermatitis, which his family attributed to exposure to mustard gas during World War I. Survived by his wife, son and five daughters, he died on 17 January 1962 on Bruny Island; he was accorded a state funeral with military honours and buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • Returned Services League of Australia (Tasmania), On Service, Apr 1986
  • Mercury (Hobart), 18, 19 Jan 1962
  • private information.

Citation details

Chris Batt, 'Dwyer, John James (Jack) (1890–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 22 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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