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Charles Downey Hardy (1898–1941)

by Andrew Moore

This article was published:

Charles Downey Hardy (1898-1941), timber merchant and politician, was born on 12 December 1898 at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, son of Charles Hardy junior, contractor, and his wife Mary Alice, née Pownall. The Hardy family was well known in the Riverina. Charles Hardy senior had settled at Wagga in 1862 and established the firm C. Hardy & Co. which supervised the construction of many public buildings and bridges in the area. His son Charles junior (d.1934) took over the firm; deeply religious, he was known locally as 'the white man of the Riverina'. Charles, the grandson, was educated at Wagga High School and at the Geelong Church of England Grammar School. He returned to Wagga in 1915 where he trained as an apprentice carpenter. On 2 January 1917 he enlisted as a sapper in the Australian Imperial Force, serving in the 1st Pioneer Training Battalion and 1st Field Company, Australian Engineers, before being gassed in March 1918. One month before the Armistice he was promoted lance corporal. On his discharge in September 1919 he returned to the family firm, having gained experience of concrete engineering and draughting with Trollope Colls Ltd of London. On 11 July 1922 at St Hilary's Anglican Church, Kew, Melbourne, he married Alice Margaret Ann Trim.

Hardy was an energetic and ambitious businessman. He formed Hardy's Ltd in 1920. In 1924 he visited the United States of America to study afforestation, timber-handling techniques and industrial relations, and spent £35,000 on modern timber-dressing machinery which was put to use processing logs brought from Tumbarumba; this project also entailed the construction of a railway four miles (6.4 km) into precipitous mountain terrain. Hardy also acquired contracts to supply timber for Canberra's housing. The firm survived 'financial adversity' during the Depression although in 1934 Alpine Ash (Pty Ltd from 1937) was formed to take over its assets. By 1940 Hardy had also established a third company, Bogo Timbers Pty Ltd.

Throughout the 1920s Hardy was active in local affairs. He was a mainstay of the Wagga sub-branch of the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. In 1928 he proposed the formation of the Riverina Development League, concerned largely with local matters such as irrigation, and in 1930 he became a member of the United Australia Association. Hardy achieved national prominence next year as leader of the Riverina Movement which had its main centres at Wagga and Narrandera; he was strongly supported by the prominent Narrandera storekeeper and rice-grower, Robert Henry Hankinson. Hardy advocated the replacement of State parliaments with provincial councils and threatened that the Riverina would secede. He rivalled the leader of the New Guard, Eric Campbell, for intemperate criticism of the New South Wales government of Jack Lang. Robert Clyde Packer, managing editor of Associated Newspapers Ltd, and other members of an employing class which had become disillusioned with parliamentary democracy, championed Hardy as the 'Cromwell of the Riverina', a Mussolini-style Messiah, who, like another 'lowly carpenter', had returned to his earthly kingdom for the day of judgment. With a campaign mounted and co-ordinated by the O'Brien Publicity Co., Hardy swooped around New South Wales in an aeroplane, delivering demagogic speeches as part of his 'message of hope'. He did not shrink from describing himself as a Fascist and referred obliquely to a 'Silent Division' within the movement, which he termed 'the country method of upholding law and order', but which others have interpreted as a secret paramilitary arm not unlike the New Guard.

Hardy's truculent oratory generated interest among the police and the Commonwealth Investigation Branch and consternation from the leaders of the United Country Party, who, while involved in another, hardly less militant rural separatist organization, the New England New State movement, perceived Hardy to be a threat to their leadership. The Riverina Movement was gradually subsumed by the parliamentary party; in August 1931 Hardy became chairman of the jointly formed United Country Movement and was elected to the Senate as a United Country Party candidate in December. Nevertheless, in May 1932, during the final tempestuous days of the Lang government, he was 'theatrical' in urging that the country movements step outside the constitution and set themselves up in office. It was later alleged that he had drivers ready to rush proclamations to four hundred rural centres, a twelve-man emergency junta ready to assume office and a military organization prepared to defend these leaders against arrest.

After the demise of the Lang government Hardy's political career followed more orthodox lines until his defeat in the 1937 general elections. He took an active and important part in the administration of the Country Party. Several times leader of its Riverina division during the 1930s, he was the party's leader in the Senate from October 1935 until June 1938. During World War II Hardy served as honorary co-ordinator of works with the Royal Australian Air Force and as liaison officer to the business member of the Air Board supervising constructional expenditure, until being seconded to the Department of Defence Co-ordination. He died on 27 August 1941 in an air crash at Coen, Queensland. Survived by his wife and two sons, he left an estate valued for probate at £16,653.

Select Bibliography

  • U. R. Ellis, The Country Party (Melb, 1958)
  • E. C. G. Page, Truant Surgeon, A. Mozley ed (Syd, 1963)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 2 Apr 1931
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 28 Aug 1941
  • W. A. Beveridge, The Riverina Movement and Charles Hardy (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Sydney, 1954)
  • C. L. A. Abbott, Family background. The Upper Hunter Abbotts, Abbott papers (MS 4744, National Library of Australia)
  • Charles Hardy scrapbook (Charles Sturt University)
  • Hardy letters (MS 3775, National Library of Australia)
  • Intelligence reports, CRS A367 item C94121 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Andrew Moore, 'Hardy, Charles Downey (1898–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 April 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

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