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Frederick Joseph Thwaites (1908–1979)

by Ron Blaber

This article was published:

Frederick Joseph Thwaites (1908-1979), novelist, was born on 23 May 1908 at Balmain, Sydney, fifth child of Walter William Alfred Thwaites, compositor, and his wife Emily Victoria, née Savage, both native-born. Frederick was a great-grandson of Francis Jenkins of Buckingbong station, Narrandera, where he spent holidays. Leaving school at 13 to support the family, he worked as a cutter and next as a clothing designer, and studied at night at a technical college.

Claiming to have written his first novel, The Broken Melody, at the age of 17, he published it himself in 1930; he acted as his own commercial traveller and began to sell it in the Riverina. His sales boomed after his Hell's Doorway (London, 1932) was read on 2UE radio. In June 1934 the Melbourne Herald set out in two columns the passages from his latest novel, Flames of Convention (1933), which it claimed bore 'a remarkable resemblance' to D. G. Phillips's Susan Lenox (New York, 1922). Smith's Weekly alleged in 1936 that Thwaites had incorporated 'slices of a story' from the American crime magazine, the Master Detective, in his latest book, The Defender (1936).

Following the success in Australia of his first novels, he visited England and the United States of America in 1934. When The Mad Doctor appeared in 1935 Thwaites took to wearing a sola topi like the figure on the dust-jacket. In 1936 he formed the F. J. Thwaites Publishing Co. and later set up another company to make radio transcriptions of his books. He drove a racing car and in 1938 competed in the South Australian Grand Prix in a Ford V8.

On 28 February that year at St John's Anglican Church, Toorak, Melbourne, Thwaites married Jessica Edna Harcourt, a mannequin and cosmetician who had played Sarah Purfoy in the film version of For the Term of his Natural Life (1927). Later in 1938 Ken Hall made a film of The Broken Melody with music composed by Alfred Hill. Settling in Sydney, during World War II Thwaites worked in the Department of Information, but retained his business interests which by 1950 included four dress shops. That year he moved to Bowral, naming his house Buckingbong.

Small, with dark, wavy hair and a pencil-thin moustache, Thwaites was an old-fashioned, professional writer who penned 2500 words a day. Although seen by critics as romantic and sentimental, his thirty-one adventure novels—characterized by themes of struggle and redemption—were immensely popular, particularly with lending libraries, and sold more than four million copies. Written in 'tempestuous prose', they were crammed with incident and swung between Australian and exotic settings. Whispers in Tahiti (1940) was translated into French and They Lived that Spring (1946) into Spanish.

Roaming widely in search of authentic settings, Thwaites embarked on a series of journeys from London to Sydney in 1955 and through Europe and the Americas in 1958-59 which he recalled in three travel books, Husky be my Guide (1956), Press on Regardless (1960) and Destination Spain (1962). Survived by his wife and two sons, he died of cancer on 13 August 1979 at Manly and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Spearritt and D. Walker (eds), Australian Popular Culture (Syd, 1979)
  • People (Sydney), 29 Mar 1950
  • Herald (Melbourne), 28 Feb, 4 Mar 1933, 21 June 1934, 11 July 1955
  • Smith's Weekly, 31 Oct 1936
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 Apr 1933, 22 July 1955, 15 Aug 1979
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 8 Jan 1956, 4 Jan 1959
  • Canberra Times, 19 Aug 1979.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ron Blaber, 'Thwaites, Frederick Joseph (1908–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 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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