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Edward Harold Swain (1883–1970)

by L. T. Carron

This article was published:

Edward Harold Fulcher Swain (1883-1970), forester, was born on 6 April 1883 at Glebe, Sydney, third child of English-born Edward Plant Swain, flour merchant, and his Tasmanian wife Annie Maria, née Dodd. Educated at Parramatta South Public and Fort Street Model schools, he was appointed the first cadet forester in the forestry branch, Department of Lands, on 18 June 1900. He attended the University of Sydney in 1901, Sydney Technical College in 1902 and studied eucalypts under J. H. Maiden at the National Herbarium of New South Wales in 1904. During a series of country appointments, mainly on the north coast, he undertook pioneering forest surveys and resource assessments before becoming assistant district forester at Fernmount in 1910. Next year he published Reafforestation and the Hardwood Supply in Relation to North Coast Forests and was appointed district forester for the north-west, based at Narrabri. He visited New Zealand in 1912.

On 28 April 1915 Swain married Margaret Milroy Hewetson with Presbyterian forms at St Andrew's Church, Glen Innes. Taking long service leave, he completed a six-month forestry course at the University of Montana, United States of America, and wrote An Australian Study of American Forestry (1918). He moved to Queensland in 1916 as district forest inspector at Gympie and Nanango. Having succeeded N. W. Jolly as director of forests in 1918, he became chairman of the Provisional Forestry Board in 1924. In this post he created a professional staff training scheme and combined the national parks with the State forests under the board's supervision. Believing that silviculture—the pivot of forestry—depended on effective, economic harvesting and utilization, he established a forest products division to investigate the properties and uses of local woods; the resulting Timbers and Forest Products of Queensland (1928) became a standard reference work.

Amid conflict over the allocation of land, a royal commission was appointed in 1931 to inquire into the development of North Queensland. Mounting strong opposition to settlement of the rainforests, Swain was accused by the commission of making 'false statements on oath', but was subsequently exonerated by the auditor-general. In September 1932 the Provisional Forestry Board was abolished by the new Labor government and his services terminated.

Setting up as a private consultant, Swain conducted several inquiries, including a comprehensive survey in 1934 for the South Australian government and Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd on various aspects of a long-standing and publicly sensitive proposal to thin the State's radiata pine plantations for wood pulp. His voluminous report received close consideration by the 1935 royal commission on coniferous afforestation, although many of his findings and recommendations were disputed by other foresters.

Appointed sole commissioner for forestry in New South Wales in August 1935, Swain created a professional staff training scheme and a division of wood technology which became the commission's major centre for research. His conviction of the need for the mutual understanding and co-operation of foresters, sawmillers and timber merchants had prompted his fervent sponsorship of equitable royalty (stumpage) systems, and led him to found the Eastern States (Australian) Timber Industry Stabilisation conferences in 1943. In 1947 he attended the British Empire Forestry Conference in London. Following continual disagreements involving the government and the Public Service Board, he retired in April 1948. He was employed by the United Nations as forestry adviser to the Emperor of Ethiopia in 1950-55 and awarded the N. W. Jolly medal by the Institute of Foresters of Australia in 1963 for his contributions to Australian forestry.

Although at odds on occasions with his more academically qualified contemporaries, Swain had an extensive self-taught knowledge of forests and forestry, an enormous capacity for work and a strong rapport with the bush and its people. Confident in his abilities and judgements, he was impatient with those whose ideas differed from his own. As a writer, he was prodigious and colourful: his work ranged from tender, lyrical poetry to impassioned speeches and polemics on the value of forests and forestry. He was also a confirmed diarist. He had an interest in climatology, especially in the value of homoclimatic indexes for tree introduction, and belonged to the Royal societies of New South Wales and Queensland. Golf, landscape gardening and literature provided his recreation. In retirement he lived in the Blue Mountains until moving to Brisbane where he died at Indooroopilly on 3 July 1970. He was survived by his son and daughter.

Select Bibliography

  • E.H.F.S. [Swain papers], (NSW Forestry Commission, Syd, 1971)
  • Australian Forestry, 12, no 1, 1948, p 3, 27, no 2, 1963, p 152
  • Land Annual, 6 Nov 1968, p 25
  • Historical Records of Australian Science, 5, no 1, 1980
  • Brisbane Courier, 30 Sept 1932.

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Citation details

L. T. Carron, 'Swain, Edward Harold (1883–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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