Australian Dictionary of Biography

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David John Gilbert (1873–1950)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published:

David John Gilbert (1873-1950), journalist and comptroller of repatriation, was born on 18 December 1873 at Minchinbury, New South Wales, son of John Gilbert, vigneron, and his wife Margaret, née Hanna, both Irish-born. After a state school education Gilbert accepted a cadetship on the Daily Telegraph, although he had earlier hankered after a naval career. Later, during four years on the editorial staff of the Sydney Bulletin, he became an active Federationist, forming friendships with Henry Lawson, William Astley and (Sir) Edmund Barton. He was appointed assistant to the secretary of the Australasian Federation League of New South Wales, Atlee Hunt, and in 1899 campaigned strenuously with Barton, Hunt, and Leopold Broinowski in Queensland.

Gilbert worked briefly for the Brisbane Courier in 1900 before returning to Sydney as general reporter and editor of the agricultural section of the Daily Telegraph. He married Lilian Ethel Lewington, eight years his senior, at St Philip's Church of England, Sydney, on 13 April 1901; they had two sons and one daughter. In 1907 he joined the Sydney Morning Herald as leader-writer, remaining until 1911 when he founded the Land as a weekly mouthpiece of the Farmers and Settlers' Association of New South Wales. With a reputation as a clear, concise writer, Gilbert also acted briefly as Australian correspondent for the London Times.

He did not complete the law studies which he began in 1909 at the University of Sydney, and in 1912 he left journalism to work for a gas-light company in Queensland. Then, in 1913, he became secretary to the Commonwealth royal commission on Northern Territory railways and ports. Declining a subsequent government invitation to write a book on the Territory, in April 1914 he accepted J. C. Watson's offer of the editorship of a new Labor newspaper, the World. The outbreak of World War I, however, precluded publication and Gilbert followed Watson into repatriation work when the latter was appointed honorary organizer of the State War Councils in 1915.

As secretary of the State War Council in Sydney Gilbert helped draft the report on which the system of soldier land settlement was founded. Next year he became secretary of the board of trustees of the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Fund which was authorized to appeal to the public for money to be distributed through the war councils. Gilbert was also general secretary of the National Referendum Council in 1916. In August 1917 the Australian Soldiers' Repatriation Act abolished the inefficient Repatriation Fund and provided for a Repatriation Department. Gilbert, as deputy to the comptroller (Sir) Nicholas Lockyer, supplied the basic drafts for the creation of the department which began operation in April 1918. He became comptroller in June and, with (Sir) Robert Gibson, formulated the principles of a repatriation scheme afterwards acknowledged as the most generous and comprehensive of that of any country engaged in the war. In 1931 Lockyer paid tribute to Gilbert's 'rare intellectual ability', his 'genius and singular foresight' in developing the system.

Gilbert retired from the comptrollership in June 1920 and spent the following two years recuperating from a period of strain. In 1922 he moved to Adelaide as secretary to J. E. Davidson's newly founded News Ltd, becoming manager and director, and finally general manager. From there he went to Perth as managing director of the Daily News in 1931-32. His wife had died in 1925 and on 19 September 1932 at St George's Cathedral, Perth, he married Florence Emily Western Hodgetts. A member of the National Party, Gilbert was perturbed by the Western Australian secession movement and in 1933 he became publicity officer for the Federal League. He wrote A Word to the Wheatgrowers before the April referendum and, after the affirmative vote for secession, was one of the Federal committee in Canberra which prepared The Case for Union (1934). At this time he also submitted a scheme to the Federal government for rural debt adjustment.

Big, heavy and solemn-looking, but witty, a warm-hearted family man and well-respected journalist, Gilbert worked with passion for interests dear to him, especially Federation, repatriation and the welfare of rural workers; he was indifferent to the personal accumulation of material goods. He spent the 1940s in Melbourne and died of coronary occlusion at Toorak Gardens, Adelaide, on 13 May 1950, survived by his second wife and the children of his first marriage. He was buried in St Saviour's cemetery, Glen Osmond.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • Newspaper News, 1 Apr 1931
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 12 Aug 1907
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Apr 1914, 23 July 1918
  • Pearce papers, MS 213/16/543, 213/17, 1927/3/796 (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'Gilbert, David John (1873–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


18 December, 1873
Minchinbury, New South Wales, Australia


13 May, 1950 (aged 76)
Toorak Gardens, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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