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Michael Terry (1899–1981)

by Mickey Dewar

This article was published:

Michael Terry (1899–1981), explorer and author, was born on 3 May 1899 at Gateshead, northern England, eldest of three children of Arthur Michael Terry, mechanical engineer, and his wife Katie, née Neagle. Michael attended Preston House Preparatory School, Sussex, as a boarder in 1908-13 and King Edward’s day school in Birmingham until July 1914, completing his matriculation by studying at home with the help of a ‘crammer’. He learned to drive a motorcar to assist his mother with her war effort. Having enrolled in an electrical engineering course at Durham University, he left after one term and took a variety of temporary jobs.

Joining the Royal Naval Air Service, Armoured Car Section, in 1917, Terry began active duty in Russia, four months before the October revolution. He was captured by the Bolsheviks but was soon released and repatriated. At the Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham, Kent, he was advised by staff to seek a warmer climate because he had damaged lungs. After his discharge from the RN in November 1918, he sailed for Australia in the Miltiades and arrived at Fremantle on 31 January 1919.

Terry worked first as a mechanic in Perth before moving to Sydney in 1920. There he was a car salesman and he started a transport company. In Queensland by 1922, he cut a romantic figure; a journalist later described him as ‘the answer to a modern maiden’s prayer’. From February to October 1923 he and his companion Richard Yockney drove from Winton, Queensland, to Broome, Western Australia, in a 1913 T-model Ford, for which they had paid £50. At a party in Sydney in December a staffer from the Sun newspaper heard Terry telling anecdotes of his trip: two articles were commissioned and published, and a career born.

After seeking—unsuccessfully—retrospective funding from Henry Ford during a visit to the United States of America, Terry voyaged to England. In May 1924 he lectured to the Royal Geographical Society and in 1925 won its Cuthbert Peek award, which enabled him to undertake further exploration. That year he published Across Unknown Australia. He viewed the Australian outback in the context of a British Empire opened up by motor transport.

Terry claimed to have led in 1923-35 fourteen trips in Central Australia, many of which were privately financed by mining companies undertaking exploration. He travelled north-west of Alice Springs in August 1928, only three weeks after the murder of Fred Brooks by Aborigines near Coniston station. Terry described the townsfolk of Alice Springs as ‘a poor lot of men’ and added: ‘Hence maybe the trouble with the blacks’. He published Through a Land of Promise (1927), Hidden Wealth and Hiding People (1931) and Untold Miles (1932).

Expeditions in 1932 and 1933 used camels only. Led by Terry, they were guided by the legendary bushman, Ben Nicker, with the assistance of Aboriginal cameleers; locals compared Terry unfavourably with Nicker. The journeys became the subject of Terry’s book Sand and Sun (1937). Ahead of his time in marketing himself through post-expedition publication sales, radio broadcasts and films, he attracted corporate payments in cash or equipment. While the British press praised him, some Australian journalists argued that the country he described as remote had been previously traversed.

Returning to England in 1938, on 8 May 1940 at the parish church of St George, Hanover Square, London, Terry married Ursula Joan Livingstone-Learmonth. The couple arrived in Sydney in October, but the bride’s father opposed the match and Ursula soon sailed for England; the marriage was formally dissolved in November 1944.

Rejected as medically unfit for World War II service, Terry was informally associated with British counter-intelligence. He claimed that in Australia he was misunderstood and his attempts to infiltrate Russian sympathisers in Sydney were seen as ‘going Red’. He wrote freelance and for the British government, continuing his themes of the part played by technology in overcoming distances and writing propaganda for the war effort in Britain, Australia and Canada. In 1945 he published Bulldozer, which documented the war role of the Department of Main Roads in New South Wales. Moving to Terrigal, north of Sydney, he took up farming and built a house that he named Dummer, after the Terry family’s ancestral home, Dummer House, Basingstoke, Hampshire.

In 1960 Terry sold Dummer. He returned to Central Australia and prompted speculation about possible early Chinese or Egyptian colonisation of remote Australia. Commissioned by Qantas Empire Airways Ltd in 1964, he expanded his repertoire to include articles promoting Pacific travel. A prolific writer, he estimated that he had written two million words in short stories, journal articles and in his books, which he had published mainly in Commonwealth countries. In 1974 he received the first of his two grants from the Literature Board of the Australian Council for the Arts and produced his seventh book, War of the Warramullas.

Despite ill health in his later years, Terry retained his zest for life. In 1964 he told the oral historian Hazel de Berg that he felt ‘extraordinarily fit’ and claimed that many people thought he looked ten years younger than his age. He was a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society (elected 1924) and the Royal Geographical Society of Australia. A Freemason, he was also an associate member of the RNAS Pathfinder Association of New South Wales.

Terry died on 24 September 1981 at Annandale, Sydney. He had donated his body to the University of Sydney. A memorial service was held at St Philip’s Anglican Church, Sydney. In 1987 his sister Charlotte Barnard completed and published his unfinished autobiography, The Last Explorer. An image of Terry and his camel ‘Dick’ was featured on the 1988 bicentennial commemorative $10 note. In 1957 the Terry Range, Western Australia, had been named for him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Carment et al (eds), Northern Territory Dictionary of Biography, vol 1 (1990)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 14 Feb 1935, p 15
  • Bulletin, 18 Nov 1980, p 35
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 30 Sept 1981, p 8
  • A367, item C69143 (National Archives of Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with M. Terry (typescript, 1964, National Library of Australia)
  • M. Terry papers (National Library of Australia and SA Museum Archives)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mickey Dewar, 'Terry, Michael (1899–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 22 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Michael Terry, 1932

Michael Terry, 1932

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3543793

Life Summary [details]


3 May, 1899
Gateshead, Tyne and Wear, England


24 September, 1981 (aged 82)
Annandale, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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