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Edward Davis Millen (1860–1923)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

Edward Millen, by Alice Mills, 1910s

Edward Millen, by Alice Mills, 1910s

National Library of Australia, 23460598

Edward Davis Millen (1860-1923), journalist and politician, was born on 7 November 1860 at Deal, Kent, England, son of John Bullock Millen, Cinque Ports pilot, and his wife Charlotte, née Davis. Educated in England, he worked in a marine insurance office before migrating to New South Wales about 1880. He was a journalist living in Walgett when he married Constance Evelyn Flanagan on 19 February 1883 in a civil ceremony at Bourke. They soon moved to Brewarrina, where Millen took up nearby grazing leases, and about 1887 to Bourke. He joined the staff of the Central Australian and Bourke Telegraph and reputedly became part-owner of the paper. By 1889 he was editing the Western Herald and Darling River Advocate, which he owned in partnership with Philip Chapman until 1901. In the late 1890s Millen set up as a land, mining and financial agent; by 1902 he had an office in O'Connell Street, Sydney, and a house at Burwood.

Standing unsuccessfully in 1891, Millen had been elected to the Legislative Assembly for Bourke in 1894 as a free trader and follower of (Sir) George Reid. He 'fought strenuously' for improved conditions for the man on the land. He believed in Federation but mistrusted the leadership of (Sir) Edmund Barton and was rejected for the Australasian Federal Convention in 1897. Fiercely critical of provisions in the draft constitution that he considered either undemocratic, notably the powers and composition of the Senate, or unfair to New South Wales, next year he campaigned vigorously for 'No' at the referendum, and in consequence narrowly lost Bourke. However, on 8 April 1899 he was nominated to the Legislative Council, pledged to support Federation.

Resigning from the council in 1901, Millen represented New South Wales in the Senate in 1901-23. A skilled debater and forceful speaker, he brought to the Senate a reputation for political astuteness, a profound knowledge of parliamentary tactics and a fund of funny stories. Only 5 ft 4 ins (163 cm) tall, he had wavy, dark hair and a luxuriant moustache. Still supporting Reid, he became Opposition leader in the Senate in 1907. He was vice-president of the Executive Council in Deakin's Fusion ministry in 1909-10. As government leader of a minority in the Upper House he managed to carry legislation with consummate skill and tact, then led the Opposition again in 1910-13.

Minister for defence under (Sir) Joseph Cook from 24 June 1913 to 17 September 1914, in August Millen was closely involved in the government's response to the outbreak of war. He supervised recruiting and equipping 20,000 men for the Australian Imperial Force and by 19 August the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force was dispatched against German New Guinea. However, after the government lost the election in September he again became Opposition leader in the Senate. From late 1915 he was a member of a parliamentary sub-committee on repatriation.

In 1916 the Labor Party split over conscription: when W. M. Hughes formed his Nationalist ministry on 17 February 1917 Millen was again appointed vice-president of the Executive Council, with charge of repatriation; from 28 September he was formally minister for repatriation. He appreciated what he was undertaking: it 'will kill me, either politically or physically'. With the help of Major (Sir) Nicholas Lockyer he had to create an entirely new government department: since it was staffed almost exclusively by returned soldiers lacking administrative experience, blunders occurred. According to Charles Bean in 1918 all soldiers had 'a dread of Millen as a politician first, last and all the time'. As well as sustaining the 160,000 men returning after the Armistice until they were absorbed into the workforce, vocational training and housing schemes were devised, medical services provided and widows and children supported. Millen was the target for bitter attacks in the press, especially for administrative failures and scandals in the war service homes branch, and accepted 'responsibility for errors made by certain officials, without his knowledge or sanction'.

Meanwhile, during the absence of Hughes and illness of W. A. Watt, Millen was acting prime minister in July 1919 and, with his 'nimble, suave and tactful methods', successfully mediated in the seamen's strike. However the strain of office was affecting his health and he contemplated retiring: on 30 July the governor-general Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson wrote to him that 'it has seemed to me all along that the practical working of the Commonwealth administration renders it a kind of Suicide Club for leading Ministers'. One of Hughes's closest colleagues, Millen retained his portfolio until 9 February 1923. In November-December 1920 he represented Australia at the first meeting of the General Assembly of the League of Nations at Geneva and secured all the promised mandates despite Japanese displeasure. He visited war graves then went on to London where he reorganized Australia House, promoted government-assisted immigration and arranged for the funding of the Commonwealth's debts before returning to Australia in March 1921.

Millen died of chronic nephritis on 14 September 1923 at Caulfield, Melbourne. Granted a state funeral, he was buried in Rookwood cemetery, Sydney, after Presbyterian services in Parliament House, Melbourne, and St Stephen's Church, Sydney. His wife and two daughters survived him and inherited most of his estate, valued for probate at £18,309.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Scott, Australia During the War (Syd, 1936)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • Western Herald, 26 Apr 1890, 4 May 1898, 19 Sept 1923
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 Apr 1912, 30 Apr, 20 Aug 1914, 7 Apr 1921, 20 Sept 1923
  • Fighting Line, 19 Mar, 19 Apr 1913, 18, 20 June 1914, 20 Apr 1917, 27 Sept 1920
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12, 28 Aug, 19 Sept 1914, 6 Jan, 19 Oct 1915, 27 Jan, 17 May, 7, 19 July 1916, 21 Feb, 17 May, 19 July 1917, 5 Apr 1918, 12, 17 June, 25 July, 16 Sept 1919, 3 Apr, 23 Sept, 10, 16 Dec 1920, 6, 13 Jan, 4 Feb, 14, 24, 25 Mar, 14 Apr, 21 Dec 1921, 11 Nov 1922, 15, 17 Sept 1923
  • Australian National Review, 20 Sept 1923
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1924, 16, p l
  • Henry Parkes papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Novar papers (National Library of Australia)
  • C. E. W. Bean diaries (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Millen, Edward Davis (1860–1923)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 April 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

Edward Millen, by Alice Mills, 1910s

Edward Millen, by Alice Mills, 1910s

National Library of Australia, 23460598

Life Summary [details]


7 November, 1860
Deal, Kent, England


14 September, 1923 (aged 62)
Caulfield, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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