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Trevor Donald Oldham (1900–1953)

by R. Wright

This article was published:

Trevor Donald Oldham (1900-1953), barrister and politician, was born on 10 March 1900 at St Kilda, Melbourne, eldest of three sons of Victorian-born parents Arthur Eggleston Oldham, solicitor, and his wife Ethel Constance, née Krcrouse. Trevor was educated at Melbourne Church of England Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1921). A schoolboy cadet and a member of the Melbourne University Regiment, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 7 November 1918, four days before the Armistice.

Joining the family firm, Oldham & Oldham, he was admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor on 1 March 1923. In addition to that practice, he was also associated with another that bore his grandfather's name—his uncle's firm of Krcrouse, Oldham & Bloomfield (later Krcrouse, Oldham & Darvall). A specialist in commercial law, Oldham eventually became vice-chairman of Henry Berry & Co. (Australasia) Ltd, and a director of Hoadley's Chocolates Ltd, Ruskin Motor Bodies Ltd and Ensign Dry Cleaners Ltd. At the Presbyterian Church, Toorak, on 25 September 1929 he married Kathleen Norma MacLeod Cooch; they were to have three children.

Oldham had been commissioned in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve in March 1926. Promoted to paymaster lieutenant in 1927, he served at Navy Office in August-November 1939. On 29 April 1933 he had been elected to the Legislative Assembly as a United Australia Party candidate for the seat of Boroondara. An approachable and effective local member, he was to be returned in eight successive elections, thrice unopposed: he retained Boroondara until its abolition in the redistribution of 1945 and then won the new seat of Malvern which he held until his death.

Conservative advocacy, a grasp of detail and a flair for debate helped Oldham to rise in the U.A.P. and subsequently in the Liberal (and Country) Party. From September 1943 to October 1945 he was minister without portfolio in (Sir) Albert Dunstan's cabinet. Attorney-general and solicitor-general from November 1947 to June 1950 in T. T. Hollway's two ministries, he was also minister for health (3 to 7 December 1948) and chief secretary (19 to 27 June 1950). He served on the statute law revision committee (1937-51), the House committee (1935-37), the library committee (1942-45) and the McPherson's Ltd pension fund investigatory committee (1950). Temporary chairman of committees from May 1940 to June 1944, he was State delegate to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference (1952) in Ottawa.

As a minister, Oldham earned a reputation for efficient administration, law reform and, more controversially, for his strike-breaking Essential Services Act (1948). As a parliamentarian, he was known to help new members of all parties with procedure and protocol. It was, however, as a party reformer and leader that he was best known. In 1930 he had been a founder of the Young Nationalist Organisation which became a significant faction for change within the Victorian branch of the U.A.P. Later that decade he publicly argued the need to modernize the party's organizational arm. And, until his death, he sought reform of an electoral system that had maintained Country Party dominance of Victorian conservative politics—a case, Oldham declared, of the 'tail wagging the dog'. He insisted that reform would never be achieved 'by sitting down calmly and waiting for something to turn up'.

In November 1945 Oldham was elected Hollway's deputy. Two years later he honoured an earlier agreement and relinquished the deputyship to (Sir) Wilfrid Kent Hughes who had returned from internment as a prisoner of war. When Kent Hughes resigned in October 1949, Oldham again assumed the deputy-leadership of the party and was deputy-premier (November 1949 to June 1950). His frustration over electoral distribution deepened. Despite opposition within his party, he strongly endorsed Hollway's '2 for 1' proposal—by which each Federal seat in Victoria would be divided into two State seats—even though he knew that it would reduce his party's numbers. In December 1951 Hollway and Oldham were replaced as leader and deputy-leader of the Liberals by Leslie Norman and (Sir) Henry Bolte.

Five ft 7 ins (170 cm) tall, dapper and bespectacled, with fair hair and blue eyes, Oldham had been a keen university debater and was later a dedicated gardener. With his wife, he was active in community affairs, especially charities which he unobtrusively assisted as a trustee of the Henry Berry Estate. He served on the councils of the Old Melburnians (1927-41), the University of Melbourne (1939-53), the Law Institute of Victoria (1942-50) and Legal Education; he was also deputy-chancellor (1949-51) of the university, honorary consul (1930-33) in Victoria for Yugoslavia, president of the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital, vice-president of the Victorian branch of the Navy League and chairman of the Metropolitan Firewood Supply Committee. Active in the Empire Day Movement, he belonged to the Naval and Military, Yorick and Constitutional clubs.

At the general election on 6 December 1952 Labor won government and Hollway defeated Norman for the seat of Glen Iris. Oldham was elected leader of the Liberal and Country Party. He was widely tipped to be the next premier. As leader of the Opposition he was invited to attend Queen Elizabeth II's coronation. He and his wife embarked for London on 30 April 1953. At Singapore they boarded a British Overseas Airways Corporation Comet which crashed on 2 May 1953 near the village of Jangipara, India, twenty-five miles (40 km) north-west of Calcutta, killing all on board. On 6 May a state memorial service for the Oldhams was held at St Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne. They were survived by their son and two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • K. West, Power in the Liberal Party (Melb, 1965)
  • P. Aimer, Politics, Power and Persuasion (Syd, 1974)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 8 Sept 1953
  • Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, Melburnian, May 1953
  • University of Melbourne Gazette, May 1953, p 34
  • Melbourne Graduate, 4, no 2, Dec 1953, p 97
  • Argus (Melbourne), 18 May 1938, 24 Jan 1950, 4, 5 May, 2 July 1953
  • Age (Melbourne), 27 Jan, 4, 5 May, 5 Sept, 25 Nov 1953, 18 Oct 1954
  • private information.

Citation details

R. Wright, 'Oldham, Trevor Donald (1900–1953)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 March, 1900
St Kilda, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


2 May, 1953 (aged 53)
Jangipara, West Bengal, India

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.