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Edward Henry (Ted) St John (1916–1994)

by Helen Trinca

This article was published:

Edward St John, 1967

Edward St John, 1967

Edward Henry St John (1916–1994), barrister and politician, was born on 15 August 1916 at Boggabri, New South Wales, fifth of eight children of Frederick de Porte St John, Anglican priest, and his wife Hannah Phoebe Mabel, née Pyrke, both New South Wales born. His was a proud ecclesiastical family that appeared in Debrett’s Peerage & Baronetage and Burke’s Peerage. The family moved to vicarages at Uralla and then Quirindi. Ted attended Armidale High School, where he proved an excellent student, winning an exhibition to the University of Sydney (BA, 1937; LLB, 1940). There he met Gough Whitlam, a fellow law student who became a close friend. He was admitted to the New South Wales Bar in May 1940.

Volunteering for service in World War II, St John enlisted on 28 May 1940 as a gunner in the Australian Imperial Force. On 3 August 1940 at St Alban’s Church of England, Quirindi, he married Sylvette Cargher, a French Jewish émigré of Romanian background who had arrived in Sydney in 1934. He served in the Middle East, first with the 2/1st Anti-Aircraft Regiment (July 1941–January 1942) then at the AIF Base Area, where he was commissioned (September) as a lieutenant. By February 1943 he was back in Australia. As a captain, Australian Army Legal Department, from May, he was posted to successive headquarters. This employment included a period (August 1943–February 1944) with the 9th Division in Papua and New Guinea. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 30 June 1945.

Back home, St John, a brilliant lawyer, was determined to make his way in the law and at the Bar. By 1948 he had moved his young family to a new house at Castlecrag in Sydney’s north and was working in chambers in the city. In 1954 Sylvette, who had suffered from several depressive episodes, died after taking an overdose of sedatives. The following year on 25 October he married at St James’s Church of England, Sydney, Valerie Erskine Winslow, an education officer whom he had met on the way to London for a Commonwealth legal conference.

In 1956 St John took silk. From 1960 to 1962 he was Challis lecturer in legal interpretation at his alma mater, and in 1966 he was appointed an acting judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. The same year, however, he opted for politics, winning the blue-ribbon seat of Warringah for the Liberal Party of Australia at the general election. His maiden speech in 1967 brought him notoriety when he criticised Prime Minister Harold Holt for failing to hold a second inquiry into the controversial HMAS Voyager disaster. His impassioned speech severely embarrassed the prime minister and over the following years he became increasingly isolated in Canberra. Uncompromising and confident, he had few supporters in the party when in March 1969 he denounced Prime Minister John Gorton for arriving at the Embassy of the United States of America in Canberra with the nineteen-year-old journalist Geraldine Willesee after a press gallery dinner. He later expanded his attack to encompass Gorton’s style of leadership, which he perceived as overly presidential. His candour was too much for his colleagues and St John was eventually forced to resign from the party and move to the cross-benches. Undeterred, he stood unsuccessfully as an Independent at the 1969 election, publishing a book, A Time to Speak, in which he outlined his views on democracy and society and justified his stance.

Away from politics St John did not immediately return to the law and instead undertook various mining and real estate projects. He was also active in conservation causes. That activism led to Whitlam’s appointing him to the 1973 committee of inquiry into the flooding of Lake Pedder in Tasmania. In 1975 he resumed work at the Bar and over the next few years represented many important clients as well as working pro bono. He defended the company directors Alexander Barton and his son Thomas on charges relating to companies in which shareholders had lost millions of dollars. In 1983 he retired from practice.

St John promoted a mix of right-wing and left-wing causes. He opposed apartheid in South Africa, serving as president of the South Africa Defence and Aid Fund in Australia from 1963 to 1967. He worked tirelessly on peace and anti-nuclear issues, including backing the singer Peter Garrett when he stood for a New South Wales Senate seat for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984. That year he worked with the poet Les Murray on a joint composition, ‘The Universal Prayer for Peace: A Prayer for the Nuclear Age.’ Over the next decade he continued to publicise environmental issues and researched a book on nuclear war, Judgement at Hiroshima, which was released posthumously. He also supported the World Court Project. For many years he served on the International Commission of Jurists, becoming president (1961–73) of the Australian section.

Although St John served only one term in the Australian Parliament, he was one of the best-known politicians in the country in the 1960s. Some critics claimed that his public denunciation of Gorton opened the way for the shift of power from the Liberal and Country parties coalition to the Australian Labor Party under Whitlam in 1972; St John argued that he had simply followed his principles. He died on 24 October 1994 at Strathfield, and was cremated. His second wife, the two daughters of his first marriage, and the three sons of his second, survived him. At his memorial service at St Luke’s Anglican Church, Mosman, Justice Michael Kirby said that St John had ‘attracted calumny and praise in equal measure’ (Kirby 1994, 37).  A decade earlier St John had said: ‘Part of my trouble is … that I basically have always belonged in the middle of the road, I am not an extremist, I am an idealist and I certainly did have an identification with the underdog’ (St John 1983). One of his daughters, Madeleine, became a prominent novelist.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Kirby, Michael. ‘Edward Henry St John QC—Valiant for Truth.’ Bar News (NSW Bar Association), Spring/Summer 1994, 37–38
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, NX18056
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7614, Papers of Edward St. John, 1963–1978
  • St John, Edward. Interview by Veronica Keraitis, 29 September 1980. Transcript. National Library of Australia
  • St John, Edward. Interview by Vivienne Rae-Ellis, 5–7 July 1983. Transcript. Parliament’s oral history project collection. National Library of Australia
  • State Library of New South Wales. MLMSS 6660, MLOH 312, Edward St John—Papers, 1939–1997
  • Trinca, Helen. Madeleine: A Life of Madeleine St John. Melbourne: Text, 2013

Additional Resources

Citation details

Helen Trinca, 'St John, Edward Henry (Ted) (1916–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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