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Stuart, Donald Robert (1913–1983)

by Sally Clarke

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Donald Robert Stuart (1913-1983), author, was born on 13 September 1913 at Cottesloe, Perth, fifth of six surviving children of New South Wales-born John (Julian) Alexander Salmon Stuart, journalist, and his English-born wife Rhoda Florence, née Collings.  J. S. Collings was his uncle.  The family became impoverished after his father was severely disabled in a logging accident in 1923.  Donald was educated at James Street, Gosnells and Mount Hawthorn primary schools and Perth Modern School, which he left after less than two years.  Aged 14, he went 'on the track'.  For more than a decade he adopted an itinerant outback life, developing an enduring love of the North-West and an abiding interest in Aboriginal issues.  He emerged from this period as the outspoken, outrageous 'Scorp' Stuart, a persona that would endear him to some and antagonise others.

On 21 May 1940 Stuart enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and on 16 December he married Joan Laurance Bertelsmeier at the office of the principal registrar, Adelaide.  Sailing for the Middle East in April 1941 with the 2/3rd Machine Gun Battalion, he saw action in the Syrian campaign (June-July).  The unit was sent to Java in February 1942 and was part of the Allied force that surrendered to the Japanese the following month.  He survived three and a half years as a prisoner of war, including time working on the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway.

Stuart returned to Perth in October 1945; during his convalescence Joan declined to revive their marriage.  He was discharged from the AIF in April 1946.  Encouraged by his sister, Lyndall Hadow, a journalist and author, he began writing.  In 1946 he entered manuscripts of a novel and some short stories in a Sydney Morning Herald literary competition.  His novel was commended as 'distinctive and genuinely forceful' but failed to find a publisher.

In the late 1940s Stuart worked in Melbourne at a variety of labouring jobs.  He met Dulcie ('Dessie') Eunice Singh, a Fijian-Indian, and determined to marry her so that she could remain in Australia.  Having divorced his first wife, on 16 February 1949 in the office of the government statist, Melbourne, he married Dessie, a qualified nurse.  They moved to Perth, where he worked as a labourer, and, in 1952, to Yandeyarra station, an Aboriginal pastoral and mining co-operative in the Pilbara region.  Becoming disillusioned with its management and personnel and estranged from his second wife, in January 1954 Stuart returned to his small farm at Roleystone, south-east of Perth.  Dessie refused to follow, moved to Darwin and subsequently to England.  In 1956-57 he worked as a native welfare officer at Port Hedland, Marble Bar and Nullagine.  Back in Perth, he worked on wharf construction at the Fremantle docks and wrote in his spare time.

Divorced from Dessie, on 3 April 1958 at the district registrar’s office, Perth, Stuart married 21-year-old Kathleen Anderson, a schoolteacher.  In 1958-61 he was a full-time writer, supported by his wife’s casual teaching and a £500 Commonwealth Literary Fund award (1961).  Over the next few years he wrote little, having reverted to an itinerant life in the North-West and Central Australia.  Stuart and Kathleen divorced in December 1967 and she married Theodor Strehlow in 1972.  From 1971 he again wrote full time, funded by literary fellowships.

His eleven social realist novels reflected Stuart’s life experience.  Yandy (1959), Yaralie (1962), Ilbarana (1971), Prince Of My Country (1974), Walk, Trot, Canter and Die (1975) and Malloonkai (1976) examined Western Australia’s Indigenous people.  The Driven (1961) and his collection of short stories, Morning Star, Evening Star (1973), were also set in the outback.  His last four novels, Drought Foal (1977), Wedgetail View (1978), Crank Back on Roller (1979) and I Think I’ll Live (1981) were semi-autobiographical.  Harry Heseltine’s prediction in 1976 that Stuart’s first five books may 'come to be regarded as one of the most impressive groups of novels published by a single writer during the period' has not eventuated; his books are out of print and are rarely noticed by a later generation of literary critics.

Stuart gave many talks on Australian Broadcasting Commission radio, which also broadcast his short plays.  A long-time member of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Western Australian section, he served (1974-75) as State and federal president.  On 9 August 1976 at the district registrar’s office, Perth, he married Dawn Crabb, née Egerton-Warburton, a farmer.  He died of coronary artery disease on 25 August 1983 at Broome and was cremated.  On the night he died he attended the launch of Roger Garwood’s photographic essay Broome: Landscapes and People, for which he had written the text.  His wife and the son and daughter of his third marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dutton (ed), The Literature of Australia (1976)
  • S. Clarke, In The Space Behind His Eyes (2006)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 9 May 1981, p 4
  • Artlook, October 1983, p 3
  • West Australian, 13 Sept 1983, p 54
  • West Australian, 21 August 1993, 'Big Weekend', p 15
  • H. de Berg, interview with D. Stuart (ts, 1974, National Library of Australia)
  • B883, item WX2995 (National Archives of Australia)
  • A6119, item 3126 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Sally Clarke, 'Stuart, Donald Robert (1913–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/stuart-donald-robert-15784/text26976, accessed 26 September 2017.

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