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Thomas Hugh (Tom) Garrett (1890–1943)

by Ian Carnell

This article was published:

Thomas Hugh (Tom) Garrett (1890-1943), public servant, was born on 18 October 1890 at Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, England, second of five children of James Edward Garrett, mines manager, and his wife Mary Cowling, née Vincent. In 1895 the family emigrated to Zeehan, Tasmania. Tom attended the local school of mines and in 1905 was employed as a telegraph messenger in the Postmaster-General's Department. Promoted in turn to clerical positions in the Hobart offices of the Department of Trade and Customs and of the Department of Defence, in 1916 he rejoined Trade and Customs in Melbourne. While attached to the public trustee's office, Garrett worked for the custodian of enemy property and controller of the clearing office (enemy debts). He married Annie Atherton on 25 February 1918 at St John's Anglican Church, Launceston.

On secondment to the Development and Migration Commission, in 1927-28 Garrett examined voluntary organizations involved with immigration: his detailed, incisive reports criticized the performance of the New Settlers' League of Australia; he also recommended that the Commonwealth cease subsidizing the efforts of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia to find jobs for former Imperial servicemen.

Garrett was officer-in-charge of commercial intelligence (1929-30), Department of Markets and Transport, and chief clerk and accountant (1930-32), Department of Transport, before moving to Canberra as senior clerk, miscellaneous administrative section, Department of the Interior. He enjoyed overseeing and leasing out Canberra hotels, and agitated his devout wife by telling her that he would love to run a pub. Promoted chief clerk in 1936, he was closely involved with immigration issues. In 1936-37 the department was embroiled in controversy following the government's decision to refuse Mrs Mabel Freer entry to Australia. Freer was a British woman who had 'conceived an affection' for a married Australian army officer when he was stationed in India. After taking a stand on moral grounds, cabinet relented.

Wishing to be seen to be humanitarian, but determined to restrain numbers, in December 1938 J. A. Lyons's government announced that 15,000 European refugees would be admitted to Australia over the next three years. Garrett had been promoted assistant-secretary in April. He toiled on mountainous case-work, and visited Britain and Europe in 1939 to assess the situation. His reports included harsh generalizations on the unsuitability of many Jews as immigrants, particularly those living in Poland. Tragically, only a modest number of Jews were allowed into Australia in 1938-39. Politicians and public servants, among them Garrett, were preoccupied with administrative neatness and constrained by the policy that refugees should be readily 'absorbed into the Australian community without affecting living standards and without detrimental effect to Australian workers'.

Garrett was highly regarded and as 'hard as nails': a colleague once said, 'he must be human, I heard him laughing with one of his kids'. It was assumed that he would succeed J. A. Carrodus as head of the department, but the stresses of 1939 had impaired his health. Survived by his wife, son and three daughters, he died of a coronary occlusion on 23 June 1943 in Canberra Community Hospital and was buried in Canberra cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Blakeney, Australia and the Jewish Refugees 1933-1948 (Syd, 1985)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1934-36, p 1768
  • Canberra Times, 16 Dec 1932, 24 June 1943
  • Argus (Melbourne), 17 Feb 1939
  • P. Bartrop, Australia and the Holocaust 1933-1945 (Melb, 1994)
  • A220/1 item S32/99, 160, A432/85 item 1936/1360, item 1943/1139, A461 item A349/3/5 pt 2, A659 item 1947/1/2109, A5954/1 item 973/13, CP211/2 item 98 part 2, CP290/1 bundle 1/16, AA P437/1 item 1912/843 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Ian Carnell, 'Garrett, Thomas Hugh (Tom) (1890–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 18 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 October, 1890
Dalton-in-Furness, Lancashire, England


23 June, 1943 (aged 52)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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