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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Main, Hugh (1883–1961)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Hugh Main (1883-1961), pastoralist and politician, was born on 27 August 1883 at Saltcoats, Ayrshire, Scotland, son of Hugh Main, salmon-fishing leaseholder, and his wife Mary, née Sim. The family migrated to South Australia next year, but his father died at Medindee in 1885. Young Hugh was educated in England at Tonbridge School, Kent, and in Adelaide at the Collegiate School of St Peter and Roseworthy Agricultural College where he was champion athlete and gained his diploma in 1902. In 1903 he took up orcharding at Clare; three years later, with his brother George, he purchased a wheat and wool property at Bethungra, New South Wales, where they bred racehorses including Hem which won the Australian Jockey Club Doncaster handicap (1919) and Salitros, winner of the A.J.C. Derby (1920). Main enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force at Cootamundra in October 1916 and served in France with 2nd Division supply and motor transport units, rising to the rank of sergeant. Upon discharge in May 1919 he returned to Bethungra where he resided until his death.

In 1920, standing as a Progressive, Main was the third member elected to the Legislative Assembly for Cootamundra, ahead of the sitting member and premier, W. A. Holman. In his first campaign speech, Main emphasized that his party represented country interests which, hitherto, had relied upon 'the scant mercies of city lawyers and other nominees of Sydney'. He supported private enterprise and insisted that primary producers must be free of government direction in developing their markets. Although a champion of soldier settlers, he argued that they must stand on their own feet.

In December 1921 he joined the 'True Blues' led by (Sir) Michael Bruxner and D. H. Drummond who opposed a coalition with the National Party, and who upheld rural interests in 1922-25 during the ministry led by Sir George Fuller with W. E. Wearne and other Progressives. Main's support was crucial in ensuring that objectives of the 'True Blues' were not ignored. Although the principles espoused by him in 1920 were tempered by time and experience, they remained the basis of his political philosophy.

Holding Cootamundra in 1922 and 1925 (for the renamed Country Party), Main represented Temora in 1927-38. He served as minister for agriculture from 16 May 1932 until 1 April 1938 in the Stevens-Bruxner ministries. Ex officio chairman of the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission, he did much to revise and update the legislation administered by his department. Nevertheless, he was often adversely criticized by interest-groups such as the Agricultural Bureau of New South Wales which were unwilling to accept reductions in expenditure as part of governmental economy. Probably his most significant achievement was the enactment of legislation to reduce Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area settlers' rents and debts owing to the Irrigation Commission. However, R. A. Struck of Leeton, a returned serviceman who had benefited from that legislation, unsuccessfully petitioned the governor for the cancellation of Main's appointment after he had denied wild assertions that Struck and other ex-servicemen had been victimized by the Irrigation Commission.

In 1938 Main retired from politics although he continued to take an interest in the Country Party of which he was a councillor in 1934 and 1956-57. In parliament, despite his shyness, he had been 'both acute in argument and lucid in exposition', rarely indulging in point-scoring at the Opposition's expense and respected by colleagues regardless of their political affiliations.

Main died on 27 August 1961 at Cootamundra where he was buried with Presbyterian forms. He was survived by his wife Joan Helen, née Tregarthen, whom he had married in St Mark's Church, Darling Point, Sydney, on 30 January 1923, and by two daughters and a son. He was a life member of the Farmers and Settlers' Association and a member of the Union and Australian clubs. In retirement, much of his time was devoted to his grazing property and family.

Select Bibliography

  • U. R. Ellis, The Country Party (Melb, 1958)
  • D. Aitkin, The Colonel (Canb, 1969)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1961-62, p 478
  • Cootamundra Herald, 18 Feb, 19, 29 Mar 1920, 28 Aug 1961
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12, 13 Oct 1937, 4 July, 9 Oct 1940
  • B. D. Graham, The Political Strategies of the Australian Country Parties From Their Origins Until 1929 (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1958).

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Main, Hugh (1883–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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