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Ernest Turnbull (1892–1974)

by Ina Bertrand

This article was published:

Ernest Turnbull (1892-1974), film exhibitor and distributor, was born on 7 February 1892 at Port Melbourne, son of David Walter Turnbull, furniture-dealer, and his wife Mary Ann, née McGrath, both Melbourne born. He attended the local state school.

In World War I Turnbull served with the 5th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, from 1914. After his return in 1917, he worked for the Department of Repatriation. Actively involved in the newly formed Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia, he was Victorian president (1921-24, 1926-28) during a period in which numerous district branches were established, pensions were secured for veterans, Anzac Day was declared a holiday in Victoria and the soldier-settlement scheme was stabilized. While acting as federal president of the league, Turnbull largely negotiated acceptance of the principle of giving preference in employment to returned servicemen. In 1929 he represented Australia at the British Empire Service League Convention in London where he spoke at the Albert Hall before thousands of returned servicemen. He later became a patron and life member (1937) of the R.S. & S.I.L.A. and showed a continuing interest in the work of Legacy.

In 1930 Turnbull was one of the founders of the Australian Citizens' League, formed to raise money for the Conversion Loan. Its object achieved, the group re-formed as the Victorian branch of the All for Australia League under Turnbull's presidency. Once J. A. Lyons's United Australia Party government was secured, the league disbanded. Turnbull resisted repeated invitations to enter politics.

His career in the film industry had begun in 1923 with his appointment as assistant publicity officer to the government's cinema and photographic branch where he was responsible for the Know Your Own Country series. On 26 November 1925 at Christ Church, South Yarra, he married with Anglican rites Joyce Illma, daughter of Charles Herschell, a leading film producer in Melbourne who specialized in documentaries. As managing director from 1928 of British Dominion Film Ltd, Turnbull established Australian distribution outlets for British films and in 1932 introduced an 'all-British' policy at selected cinemas throughout Australasia, commencing with the Athenaeum Theatre, Melbourne. By this time British films had captured 25 per cent of a market where, four years previously, they had barely a toe-hold. In the late 1930s the company was named Gaumont British Dominions Film Distributors Pty Ltd. It supplied British films to the Hoyts circuit through Fox Film Corporation (A'sia) Pty Ltd, of which Turnbull was appointed general manager in 1936.

With his wife, Turnbull was involved in many charities. During World War II he initiated the collection at Hoyts cinemas of contributions to the 'Bundles for Britain' campaign, and was president of the Merchant Navy Club committee. Throughout the war Fox Movietone News (together with its only major competitor, Australasian News) contributed to the dissemination of information about the conflict and to the building of morale on the home front. When the Federal government set up a National Films Council (1940) to co-ordinate film activities for the war effort, Turnbull was appointed to the committee.

In December 1941 he succeeded C. E. Munro as managing director of Hoyts Theatres Ltd in which the Fox Film Corporation (A'sia) Pty Ltd held a controlling interest; Turnbull was also chairman (1953-63) of Fox. A period of expansion saw the introduction of wide-screen processes, such as Cinemascope and Cinerama, in which he took a personal interest, and the opening in 1954 of Australia's first drive-in theatre at Burwood, Melbourne; the period of decline began with the challenge of television. After a brief retirement, Turnbull returned in 1966 as chairman of Hoyts Theatres Ltd and Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation (Aust) Ltd.

A chevalier of the Légion d'honneur for his fund-raising efforts for French widows and orphans of Indo-China (Vietnam), Turnbull was appointed C.B.E. in 1960. He died on 24 July 1974 at Rose Bay, Sydney, and was cremated. His wife, son and daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Everyone's, 7 Sept 1932
  • Showman, 15, no 1, 15 May 1963
  • Australasian Exhibitor, 1 Aug 1963
  • Table Talk, 9 Apr 1931
  • Turnbull papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ina Bertrand, 'Turnbull, Ernest (1892–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 24 May 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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