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Clarence Edward Martin (1900–1953)

by Paul White

This article was published:

Clarence Edward Martin (1900-1953), schoolteacher, barrister and politician, was born on 9 February 1900 at Ballarat, Victoria, only child of Australian-born parents Edward Henry Martin, bootmaker, and his wife Catherine Josephine, née Burke (d.1919). After her husband deserted her, Catherine married Bartholomew Mulvenney in 1906 and the family moved to Broken Hill. From Broken Hill District School, Clarrie entered Teachers' College, Sydney, on a scholarship in 1917. He taught at city schools and became active in the Teachers' Federation of New South Wales while studying at the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1923; M.Ec., 1932; LL.B., 1936). Posted to Young District School in 1923, he moved to Newcastle where he was employed (1926-29) by the Workers' Educational Association. He joined the Australian Labor Party and was its State junior vice-president in 1928.

Having defeated a candidate backed by Jack Lang in a bitter contest for Labor pre-selection, Martin won the Legislative Assembly seat of Young in October 1930. In the conflict between Federal and State Labor over economic strategy, Martin supported Lang, seeing him as a better defender of living standards. None the less, he criticized Lang's leadership style and participated nervously in a small, anti-Lang ginger group in caucus. Following Lang's dismissal, Martin lost his seat in the 1932 elections. At the party's State conference in 1933, he helped to organize 'socialisation units': when they unsuccessfully sought to remove Lang from control of the party, Martin's overriding concern was to avoid expulsion from the A.L.P.

At Moore Theological College chapel, Newtown, on 22 December 1933 Martin married with Anglican rites Janet Doreen Wrightson, a 26-year-old nurse; they later lived in Lang Road, Centennial Park. During the mid-1930s he largely disengaged himself from politics, took various jobs and completed his law degree full time. Admitted to the Bar on 20 November 1936, he mixed with (Sir) Garfield Barwick and his friends rather than with Labor lawyers, such as Clive Evatt, towards whom he held some personal animosity. That year Martin was involved in battles against Lang for control of radio 2KY and the Labor Daily which brought together the nucleus of the Industrial Labor Party under R. J. Heffron. Martin's victory in the Legislative Assembly by-election for Waverley in 1939 set off a chain of events which led directly to Lang losing the leadership in September. Under (Sir) William McKell, Martin became caucus chairman. As attorney-general from 1941 until 1953, he had ambitious plans for substantial law reform. His most notable achievement was widening legal aid through establishing the posts of public defender (1941) and public solicitor (1944). In the face of wartime pressures, party hostility and indifference, he failed in his endeavours to abolish the death penalty and to reform the married women's property law.

Hoping to strengthen his political credentials, Martin was commissioned in the Militia in March 1942 and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 15 July. In 1943-44 he was staff captain at Port Moresby Base. As a field co-ordinator (1944-45) on the staff of the quartermaster general, Land Headquarters, Melbourne, he rose to temporary major and travelled around the South-West Pacific Area. He was placed on the Reserve of Officers on 18 October 1945. His war service, however, isolated him from politics, even though he had not resigned his portfolio. After Labor's victory in the 1944 elections, he acted as a 'numbers man' for McKell in an unsuccessful bid to prevent Clive Evatt's re-election to cabinet and was surprised by the animus that he caused. When McKell resigned in January 1947, Martin backed Heffron rather than James McGirr, who won narrowly. Evatt returned to favour, and Martin's prospects dimmed. After the elections in May, Martin retained his portfolio. Increasingly, he was excluded from power and influence. His health began to deteriorate and he contemplated taking a judicial appointment. On J. M. Baddeley's retirement in September 1949, he lost the deputy-premiership by one vote to J. J. Cahill.

At the end of 1950 Martin suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, but after several months leave returned to politics and his many activities. As a fellow (1941-53) of the university senate he sponsored adult matriculation and fought hard to obtain recognition for immigrants with professional qualifications from abroad. He was president (1941-53) of the Fabian Society of New South Wales, and a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales (1948-53) and the Sydney Cricket Ground (1952-53); he was also involved in Australian Rostrum and belonged to Tattersall's Club. Invariably cheerful, courageous and kind, he never forgot a birthday—even when on active service.

Following McGirr's resignation in April 1952, Martin decisively lost the leadership to Cahill, who appointed him minister for transport after the February 1953 election. Martin took some initiatives to deal with his department's large operating losses. He died of a haemorrhage from a duodenal ulcer on 5 September 1953 at his Centennial Park home and was cremated. His wife and 14-year-old son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 5, 8 Sept 1953, pp 463, 544
  • Australian Highway, 1953, p 50
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6 Sept 1953
  • P. White, C. E. Martin: A Political Biography 1900-1953 (M.Ec. thesis, University of Sydney, 1986)
  • Martin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • teacher's record, Dept of Education Archives, Sydney.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Paul White, 'Martin, Clarence Edward (1900–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 16 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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