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Thomas George (Tom) D'Alton (1895–1968)

by Alan Haig

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas George De Largie D'Alton (1895-1968), boilermaker and politician, was born on 8 December 1895 at Warracknabeal, Victoria, fourth surviving and youngest child of William Duncan Vincent De Largie D'Alton (d.1905), millwright, and his second wife Ruth, née Bell, both native-born. In 1899 the family moved to Queenstown, Tasmania. Tom attended the local state school and at 13 was employed as a boilermaker's offsider. In 1911, during a strike at Mount Lyell, he moved to Sydney (where he won a boxing championship) before returning to Tasmania and working as a painter. D'Alton gave his occupation as labourer on 10 February 1915 when he married Eliza Letitia Barwick (d.1964) with Catholic rites at Queenstown. From 1917 he was a boilermaker. Sturdy, 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, and an all-round sportsman, he captained a football team and umpired major games. His dark good looks, and skills such as juggling and fire-eating, led him into local theatricals. He later claimed to have chosen politics over the stage on the toss of a coin.

Quick, personable and persuasive, D'Alton proved an excellent negotiator as president (1928) of the Queenstown branch of the Amalgamated Engineering Union. In 1929 he unsuccessfully contested the House of Representatives seat of Darwin for the Australian Labor Party. He was returned for Darwin to the Tasmanian House of Assembly in May 1931 and steadily increased his vote in successive elections. On 22 June 1934 D'Alton joined A. G. Ogilvie's Labor cabinet as minister for agriculture and for railways, but his major portfolio was that of chief secretary (which he held until December 1939) with charge of social welfare and thus of unemployment relief. His kindness to men on public works became well known.

After Ogilvie's death on 10 June 1939, E. J. C. Dwyer-Gray became premier on the understanding that he would hold the office until the end of the year. D'Alton, president (1937 and 1939-43) of the State branch of the A.L.P., was narrowly beaten by (Sir) Robert Cosgrove for the deputy-leadership of the parliamentary party. On 18 December Cosgrove formed his ministry. D'Alton received the portfolios of forestry, commerce and agriculture, and held them until 30 November 1943. At first his career continued to flourish. He enthused his public servants, though he worked closest with a tight band of confidants whose help extended to political campaigning. In 1941 he became deputy-premier, but by mid-1943 questions were being asked in parliament about bribery in the Forestry Department, his pet scheme for building wooden ships was failing and even the success of his 'Dizzy-Doo' fund-raising revue raised eyebrows.

In November 1943 D'Alton was appointed high commissioner to New Zealand. Boasting his ownership of the best diplomatic cellar in Wellington, he was proud of his social successes, but his involvement in a fist-fight at a theatre was embarrassing. When a royal commission was appointed in Tasmania in 1945 to investigate forestry administration, he refused to give evidence on the ground of cost. In May 1946 the commission dismissed two charges of corruption, but found that D'Alton had twice accepted bribes. His New Zealand post had quietly lapsed in March. Although he was acquitted by a criminal-court jury in September, his political career seemed beyond repair, and he spoke privately of taking a touring show to the mainland.

Salvation came through the death on 17 October 1947 of James McDonald, the member for Gordon, a Legislative Council seat based on Queenstown. D'Alton persuaded the heir apparent to step aside and in November was elected with 489 votes. An assiduous local member who was passionately loyal, he was re-elected unopposed in 1952, 1958 and 1964.

In the Legislative Council, where the bribery allegations had been first and most bitterly aired, D'Alton could not even muster the traditional two supporters when he took his seat. Yet he quickly became effective. From early 1948 he was leader for the government in the council; he was to become a champion of the Upper House. In person he disarmed the most unlikely members, and his famous drinking and sometimes questionable associations were regarded as mere marks of a 'lovable rogue'.

Soon, however, D'Alton was largely the cause of two successive general elections. In 1950, when Cosgrove attempted to appoint D'Alton agent-general in London, the Independent speaker W. G. Wedd forced a dissolution of the hung House. In 1955, following ill-advised tampering with Queenstown patronage by the minister for housing C. A. Bramich, a row erupted that resulted in Bramich crossing the floor and the government again going to the people. During the reshuffles surrounding Cosgrove's resignation in 1958, D'Alton was no longer able to muster party support.

Having helped to set up the Spastic Children's Treatment Fund in 1954, D'Alton was increasingly identified with its Miss Tasmania Quest. His skills as an impresario and wide contacts were central to its success. On 12 May 1967 he married a widow Nancy Rachel Denholm, née Tilyard, at St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Hobart; his religious ties never extended to regular churchgoing. Still government leader in the council, D'Alton died on 7 May 1968 at his South Hobart home; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried in Cornelian Bay cemetery. His wife survived him, as did the son and daughter of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Davis, Eighty Years' Labor (Hob, 1983)
  • W. A. Townsley, Tasmania: From Colony to Statehood, 1803-1945 (Hob, 1991)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Tasmania), (39), 1945-46, (1), 1946
  • Mercury (Hobart), 5 Sept 1946, 8, 10 May 1968, 21 Aug 1985, 8 Dec 1990
  • Examiner (Launceston), 8, 10 May 1968
  • Advocate (Burnie), 8-10 May 1968
  • W. A. Townsley, Tasmania. Microcosm of the Federation or Vassal State? 1945-1982 (manuscript, held by author)
  • private information.

Citation details

Alan Haig, 'D'Alton, Thomas George (Tom) (1895–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012