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Sir Charles Edward Merrett (1863–1948)

by Margaret Vines

This article was published:

Sir Charles Edward Merrett (1863-1948), merchant and agriculturalist, was born on 8 January 1863 at South Yarra, Melbourne, son of English parents Samuel Headen Merrett, civil servant, and his wife Sarah Ashton, née Baxter. His father, who had migrated to Victoria in 1853, built railways in suburban Melbourne and designed its first Exhibition Building. A victim of the 'Black Wednesday' 1878 retrenchments, he died soon after. Charles, at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, was forced to forgo a university education, and in 1880 joined the firm of Welch, Perrin & Co., machinery merchants and manufacturers' representatives, as an office-boy. He worked his way up to become a partner in 1890 and managing director in 1916.

Merrett's career in the armed forces began in 1880 when he joined the St Kilda Rifles. He rose through the ranks, transferring to the Victorian Mounted Rifles in 1883, becoming lieutenant and quartermaster (1889) and captain (1892). Transferring to the Australian Light Horse, he served as captain (1903) and major (1905) with the 10th, 11th and 29th brigades before becoming, in 1915, lieutenant-colonel of the 5th Light Horse Brigade and the oldest serving light horse officer. To his disappointment he was not to go overseas in World War I, but served instead on the selection committee for officers of the Expeditionary Forces. He retired in 1920 with the rank of colonel.

Related to his military career was Merrett's long association with the sport of rifle-shooting, beginning in 1878. In 1907 he became chairman of the Victorian Rifle Association and later also chaired the Commonwealth Council of Rifle Associations. In 1914, 1928 and 1937 he took the Bisley team to England and in 1941 was elected a vice-president of the National Rifle Association in England. A council-member of the Victorian Rifle Association for over thirty-three years, he is commemorated by the Merrett Rifle Range at Williamstown.

From the time he began work at Welch, Perrin & Co., Merrett showed a developing interest in agriculture and the land. Long-standing service to the Royal Agricultural Society of Victoria culminated in his record term as president in 1915-47. Melbourne Punch believed that the R.A.S. had 'never had a more energetic or able president'. Large land purchases extended the showgrounds, and a building programme added pavilions, halls and grandstands, most of which are still in use. Merrett's aim was to produce a better educated farmer, and he built up the Melbourne Show accordingly. He was also associated with the founding of Young Farmers and of the Country Women's Association.

Politics attracted Merrett and he joined the People's Liberal Party (Victoria), founded in 1910 to muster support for the Fusion. In his only parliamentary attempt he stood unsuccessfully for the Federal seat of Melbourne Ports in 1913. Thenceforth he concentrated on party organization, becoming an executive-member of the National Federation after it merged with the People's Liberal Party. By the 1920s he was disenchanted with the Nationalists. He called for a return to liberalism and with Thomas Ashworth of the Employers' Federation formed the Liberal Union, as a breakaway from the National Union, protesting against its continued support of Billy Hughes. They rallied financial support and in 1922 supported the successful Federal election campaign of (Sir) John Latham, as an Independent Liberal. The Liberal Union's policy manifesto supported private enterprise, efficiency and economy in government. Stanley (Viscount) Bruce saw it as conservative but it gained enough support to operate through the 1920s, still supporting candidates in the 1929 elections.

In State politics Merrett emerged in the mid-1920s as one of the key figures protesting at the government's neglect of the metropolitan area. He was one of the five founders in 1926 of the Australian Liberal Party which, although short-lived, brought down the Allan-Peacock government.

Merrett collected a large number of public commitments. He was a South Melbourne councillor in 1915-37 and mayor in 1922-23. He chaired the Canned Fruits Export Control Board, the Big Brother Movement, the Empire Day Movement, the New Settlers League, the State Employment Council and the Society for the Protection of Animals. A justice of the peace from 1919, he was appointed C.B.E. in 1929 and knighted in 1934.

Merrett had married Annie Florence Slocombe at St Peter's Church, Melbourne, on 21 April 1891. He died at his Brighton home on 11 November 1948, survived by a son and a daughter. His other son Charles, a flight lieutenant, was killed at Dover, England, in 1916.

Select Bibliography

  • F. H. Noble and R. Morgan, Speed the Plough (Melb, 1981)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1916, 29 Sept 1921
  • Table Talk, 22 Sept 1927
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1948
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Nov 1948
  • M. Vines, The Instability of Governments and Parties in Victoria in the 1920s (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1975).

Citation details

Margaret Vines, 'Merrett, Sir Charles Edward (1863–1948)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 January, 1863
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


11 November, 1948 (aged 85)
Brighton, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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