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Sir Arthur Gordon Rylah (1909–1974)

by B. J. Costar

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Sir Arthur Gordon Rylah (1909-1974), politician and solicitor, was born on 3 October 1909 at Kew, Melbourne, son of Walter Robert Rylah, a Victorian-born solicitor, and his wife Helen Isabel, née Webb, who came from New Zealand. Arthur was educated at Trinity Grammar School and the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1931; LL.B., 1932). Admitted to practice as a barrister and solicitor on 2 May 1934, he joined the family firm of Rylah & Anderson (later Rylah & Rylah). At Holy Trinity Church, Kew, on 10 September 1937 he married with Anglican rites Ann Flora Froude Flashman, a veterinary surgeon.

In 1931 Rylah had been commissioned in the Militia. On 1 May 1940 he was appointed temporary major (substantive in November), Australian Imperial Force. Posted to the 2nd/14th Field Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, he served in the Northern Territory (July 1941-January 1943), in New Guinea (November 1943-December 1944) and on New Britain (December 1944-December 1945). He was mentioned in dispatches. After his A.I.F. appointment terminated in Melbourne on 30 January 1946, he returned to the law and joined the newly formed Liberal Party. When (Sir) Wilfrid Kent Hughes transferred to Federal parliament in 1949, Rylah won a hard-fought pre-selection ballot for the seat of Kew in the Legislative Assembly; the strong field included (Sir) Rupert Hamer and (Sir) John Rossiter. He was elected to parliament at a by-election on 17 December 1949.

Rylah's colleagues quickly recognized his talents. In 1951 he topped the ballot for deputy-leader of the parliamentary Liberal and Country Party. He was denied the position due to a party rule which required the deputy to be a rural member if the leader—at that time Les Norman, a Melbourne businessman—held an urban or suburban seat. The young (Sir) Henry Bolte received the post. Norman lost his seat in 1952. When Trevor Oldham, the new leader of the L.C.P., was killed in a plane crash in 1953, (Sir) Arthur Warner employed all his considerable political skills and influence to ensure that Bolte gained the leadership over Rylah, who became his deputy.

The split in the Australian Labor Party in 1955 destroyed the government of John Cain. On 7 June Rylah was appointed deputy-premier, chief secretary and government leader in the Legislative Assembly. Next day he was also appointed attorney-general. Over the ensuing years he rose to all these challenges and became the government's most active and successful minister. While a back-bencher, he had served (1950-55) on the Statute Law Revision Committee. As attorney-general (until 9 May 1967), he used this body to initiate wide-ranging reform of the State's laws.

A 'human dynamo', Rylah had a prodigious capacity for work. In 1958 he completed a consolidation of all Victoria's statutes, and was justifiably proud of his companies bill (passed that year) which served as a model for other Australian and foreign jurisdictions. The Chief Secretary's Department administered a wide range of activities. Rylah introduced legal off-course betting (1960), allowed picture theatres to open on Sundays (1964), reformed Victoria's outmoded liquor laws (1965) and liberalized restrictions on Sunday sport (1967). Road safety was of particular concern to him. He prepared legislation to make the wearing of seat-belts compulsory (1970) and to provide for random breath-testing of motorists (1971). The National Motor Vehicle Safety Council of the United States of America presented him with an 'Excalibur' award (1973) for his achievements.

Rylah gave whole-hearted support and loyalty to the premier, Bolte, who confidently left the administrative details of government to his deputy. 'A humane and liberal man', Rylah was a genuine social reformer. Yet, at times, he adopted a reactionary stance. His attitudes to censorship were regarded by many as repressive, and his remark in 1964 that he would not allow his 'teenage daughter' to read Mary McCarthy's novel, The Group (London, 1963), became notorious. His commitment to penal reform was compromised in 1967 when he supported the hanging of Ronald Ryan. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1965 and K.B.E. in 1968.

The last years of Rylah's political career were dogged by controversy. In 1967-68 he was criticized in parliament for joining the boards of Easywear (Australia) Pty Ltd and Avis Rent-A-Car System Pty Ltd. Although Bolte vigorously defended him, Rylah resigned from the boards. Separating from his wife in 1968, he moved to his property, Laurieton, at Mount Macedon. On 15 March 1969 Lady Rylah, a prominent member of her profession, was discovered lying in the backyard of her home at Kew. An autopsy found that she had died of subarachnoid haemorrhage. The coroner ordered that her body should be cremated without an inquest, a decision which attracted unfavourable comment in the press. On 9 October that year at the Scots Kirk, Mosman, Sydney, Rylah married Norma Alison ('Ruth') Reiner, née French, a 43-year-old secretary and a divorcee.

In the late 1960s Dr Bertram Wainer began a campaign to reform Victoria's anti-abortion laws, which he claimed promoted misery, graft and corruption. Rylah refused him an audience. Bolte and Rylah were reluctant to antagonize the Catholic-dominated Democratic Labor Party, but came under increasing pressure from the media and the Liberal Party's State council to review the matter. Finally, in January 1970, the government appointed William Kaye, Q.C., to inquire into Wainer's allegations. His report that year led to the prosecution of a number of police officers. The East Kew branch of the Liberal Party showed its dissatisfaction with Rylah's handling of the abortion controversy by challenging (unsuccessfully) his endorsement for the next election.

After announcing on 2 February 1971 that he intended to resign from parliament in the following month, Sir Arthur collapsed at his desk on 5 March and spent the next four months in hospital. He retired to Mount Macedon, pursued his interest in horse-racing, and became a director of several companies. Survived by his wife, and by the daughter and son of his first marriage, he died of a cerebral thrombosis on 20 September 1974 at St Vincent's Private Hospital, Fitzroy. He was accorded a state funeral and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Wainer, It Isn't Nice (Syd, 1972)
  • B. Muir, Bolte from Bamganie (Melb, 1973)
  • Nation (Sydney), 21 Feb 1970
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 Mar 1969, 24 Feb 1970, 21 Sept 1974
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 3 Feb 1971, 24 Sept 1974
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Mar 1971, 9 June 1972
  • Sunday Observer (Melbourne), 26 Aug 1973.

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Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Rylah, Sir Arthur Gordon (1909–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 24 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 October, 1909
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 September, 1974 (aged 64)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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