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Sir Alfred John White (1902–1987)

by R. P. Davis

This article was published:

Sir Alfred John White (1902-1987), jeweller, politician and agent-general, was born on 2 February 1902 at Brunswick, Melbourne, only son of Victorian-born parents Alfred John White, driver, and his wife Annie Elizabeth, née Walton. In 1904 young Alf moved with his mother to Hobart where, short of money, she opened a boarding-house at the corner of Brisbane and Argyle streets. He was irregular in his attendance at St Michael’s and Elizabeth Street Practising schools. Describing himself later as ‘a dirty-nosed kid from North Hobart’, he was apprenticed at 15 to a watchmaker and jeweller and joined the local branch of the Australian Labor Party. At 16 he lost his job for returning a blow to the boss’s son. He then worked for six years with another jeweller, J. W. Quarmby. The position brought him into contact with people, such as the mathematician Alexander McAulay, who helped to broaden his horizons. He undertook compulsory military training with the 36th Fortress Company in 1920.

In the 1934 State election he campaigned with Premier Albert Ogilvie’s successful team but White lost his deposit contesting Denison. That year he was appointed a justice of the peace. Elected a party delegate to the Australian Labor Party federal conference in 1934, 1936 and 1937, he again failed to secure a House of Assembly seat, in 1937. On 10 April 1939 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Kerang, Victoria, he married Veronica Louisa Punch, a book-keeper. In 1941, under the leadership of (Sir) Robert Cosgrove, White finally won a Denison seat. He became a junior minister and party whip in 1944 and was promoted in March 1946 to minister for health, adding the chief secretaryship in December of the same year. He was again elected a party delegate to the federal conference in 1949, but did not hold high office in the organisational wing of the ALP after that date. In charge of the health portfolio until 1948, and briefly in 1958, White retained the chief secretaryship until his resignation from parliament in 1959. Other responsibilities included police and shipping. His proudest achievements were the launching of a roll-on, roll-off ferry, the Princess of Tasmania, in 1958, the implementation of compulsory X-rays to eradicate tuberculosis and the establishment (1955) of the Narryna Heritage Museum at Battery Point.

A leading member of the Federated Clerks’ Union of Australia, White had presided over the Hobart Trades Hall Council in 1949-52. He was a delegate to the Australian Council of Trade Unions and to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions. Twice he attended International Labour Organization meetings in Geneva as an Australian representative from his London base.

In 1959-71 White was agent-general for Tasmania in London. He encouraged Tasmanian producers of commodities, such as apples, to adhere to European packaging standards. Insisting on better London premises where he could show films and display local goods, he worked to increase immigration and sought industries for location in Tasmania, believing that the new vehicular ferry would reduce Tasmania’s isolation. He resigned after being hit by a car when walking in London. In 1971 he was knighted.

White resigned from the ALP in 1971 and unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Council seat of Queenborough as an Independent. In 1972, disgusted with the Labor leader Eric Reece’s intention to flood Lake Pedder, White joined the new United Tasmania Group and stood again for Denison in the general election of 1972. The UTG did not poll well and Labor regained office in a landslide.

White served on a wide range of public and community organisations: the Civil Service Appeal Board (1936-38), the Price Fixing Committee, the Apple and Pear Acquisition Committee, the Battery Point Progress Association and the committee of inquiry into the control and management of the Ashley Boys’ Home, Deloraine (1950-53). He was chairman of the Harvesting Advisory Committee and the Anti-Tuberculosis Association and was a trustee of the Tasmanian Museum, Art Gallery and Botanical Gardens.

Retiring to his house at Battery Point, Sir Alfred rejoined the ALP. Survived by his wife and their two sons and two daughters, he died on 31 August 1987 in Hobart and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. His son John—who followed him into the Tasmanian parliament as an ALP member for Denison (1986-98), then Newdegate (1998-99)—was also a minister in a Labor government.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Davis, Eighty Years’ Labor (1983)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 17 Apr 1971, p 2, 21 Aug 1984, p 8, 1 Sept 1987, p 4
  • private information and personal knowledge.

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Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'White, Sir Alfred John (1902–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 June 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

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