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David Miller (1857–1934)

by Peter Harrison

This article was published:

David Miller (1857-1934), by unknown photographer, 1910s

David Miller (1857-1934), by unknown photographer, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23323268

David Miller (1857-1934), public servant and soldier, was born on 27 March 1857 at Glebe, Sydney, son of Irish-born Frederick Thomas Miller, timber merchant, and his English wife Martha, née Croxford. After a public school education he joined the New South Wales survey branch of the Department of Lands in February 1875, becoming clerk to the surveyor-general in 1882. He was assistant accountant in the department in 1887. On 2 April 1878 in Sydney he had married Emily Eliza Langdon (d.1883); they had one son. On 23 April 1890 he married Jane Mary Elizabeth Thompson at Harris Park. After a period as chief clerk in the Government Printing Office, he was appointed a treasury inspector in August 1898.

A citizen soldier since 1885, Miller was major commanding the New South Wales Army Service Corps when he embarked with the Imperial Bushmen's Contingent in April 1900 for the South African War, returning after fourteen months service with the Queen's South Africa medal and four clasps. Appointed lieutenant-colonel in 1902 and I.S.O. in 1903, he became honorary colonel in 1912.

On his return from the war Miller had entered the Federal service in November 1901 as the first secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Home Affairs. In Melbourne 'the Colonel' efficiently ordered his rapidly expanding department. C. S. Daley described him as alert and vigorous with an impressive military manner, decisive in his dealings but considered by some to be an over-strict disciplinarian. He dealt diplomatically with a succession of ministers, but had his troubles with King O'Malley, who, making no secret of his contempt for the public service and its procedures, spoke of Miller as the 'gilt-spurred rooster'.

Not the least of Miller's departmental responsibilities was the search for a Federal territory, the conduct of an international competition for the design of the capital and the formidable task of establishing the new city. He was the chairman of a departmental board appointed in 1912 by O'Malley to report on the competition designs. The board did not recommend Walter Burley Griffin's winning design but produced its own plan, which was adopted by the government in January 1913 but widely condemned. Deeply committed to the creation of the Federal capital and the board's plan, Miller arranged to be seconded as administrator of the capital territory, transferring to Canberra in October 1912. His 'residency' was its first permanent building. He was appointed C.M.G. in the following year.

When Griffin was appointed Federal capital director of design and construction in October 1913, and the departmental board and its plan was abandoned by O'Malley's successor W. H. Kelly, Miller was humiliated. In the not entirely baseless belief that Griffin's ideas were too extravagant to be realized and that his three-year appointment would not be extended, Miller did his best to ignore Griffin's contract and his design. He was encouraged by the next minister, W. O. Archibald, who detested Griffin and his ideas.

O'Malley's return as minister in October 1915, now as enthusiastic ally of Griffin, made things impossible for Miller who arranged a further secondment to the Department of Defence in January 1916. With the title of commandant of A.I.F. camps in New South Wales and the rank of temporary colonel, he reviewed and submitted a report on camp administration in September. He retained his official residence in Canberra.

A royal commission was set up in June 1916 to inquire into the administration of the Federal capital. In the course of the seven-month inquiry, on 14 November, O'Malley resigned from his portfolio before the formation of the second Hughes National Labor ministry. The new government made the works branch of home affairs a separate Department of Works and Railways, with W. D. Bingle acting for Miller as its permanent head. The following month Miller resumed his post of administrator of the Federal territory.

Miller's credibility had suffered under six days examination before the royal commission in September and October 1916 and Wilfred Blacket's finding, delivered in March 1917, that there was 'a combination, including the Honorable W. O. Archibald and certain officers hostile to Mr Griffin and to his design for the city' was, unlike many of his other findings, irrefutable.

Miller had already sought early retirement and took leave from Canberra in June 1917, retiring officially on 31 August. He retired from the army, as honorary brigadier general, in 1920. Until his death he lived with his wife and son Selwyn on a grazing property at Wellingrove near Glen Innes, New South Wales. He died on 27 November 1934 at Glen Innes and was buried in the local cemetery with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Defence Department, Official Records of the Australian Military Contingents to the War in South Africa, P. L. Murray ed (Melb, 1911)
  • A. R. Hoyle, King O'Malley ‘The American Bounder’ (Melb, 1981)
  • Royal Commission on Federal Capital Administration, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1914-17, 2, p 1067, 1917, 2, p 1
  • Punch (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1907, 23 July 1908, 27 Jan 1910, 30 Apr 1914, 28 Oct 1915, 27 Jan 1916
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Dec 1934
  • Canberra Times, 1 Aug 1964
  • staff cards, A151/1, Dept Home Affairs and A199, FC 17/125, Miller to Bamford, 2 Feb 1917 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Peter Harrison, 'Miller, David (1857–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 24 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

David Miller (1857-1934), by unknown photographer, 1910s

David Miller (1857-1934), by unknown photographer, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23323268

Life Summary [details]


27 March, 1857
Glebe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


27 November, 1934 (aged 77)
Glen Innes, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.