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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Edgar Rowland Dawes (1902–1973)

by Jan Brazier

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Edgar Rowland Dawes (1902-1973), trade unionist, politician and broadcasting commissioner, was born on 28 November 1902 at Stepney, Adelaide, son of George Dawes, carpenter, and his wife Gertrude Ellen, née Lockett, a shop-assistant. Known in his boyhood as Tom, he attended East Adelaide Public and Norwood High schools before being apprenticed to A. W. Dobbie & Co. Ltd, engineers. He gave his occupation as millwright on 28 August 1926 when he married a shop-assistant Adeline Melba Hurcombe with Congregational forms in the Stow Memorial Church, Adelaide. In 1927, while employed at the Islington railway workshops, he became secretary of the South Australian branch of the Australasian Society of Engineers (A.S.E.). He also attended classes at the Workers' Educational Association and served two years as its president.

In April 1930 the Australian Labor Party won government in South Australia and Edgar Dawes was returned for the seat of Sturt to the House of Assembly. Although seen by the visiting Sir Otto Niemeyer as 'a nervous youth, crammed with undigested economics', Dawes developed into a 'big, vigorous man' with a 'strong platform style'. After the labour movement split over the Premiers' Plan and L. L. Hill and his cabinet were expelled from the A.L.P. in August 1931, Dawes led the official parliamentary party until the 1933 election at which he lost his seat. He unsuccessfully contested the Senate in 1934 and the House of Representatives seat of Adelaide in 1940. President (1937) of the State branch of the A.L.P., he had long been active in its industrial wing as secretary of the Metal Trades Council of South Australia, president of the United Trades & Labor Council and as an industrial advocate.

In 1941 Dawes resigned as secretary of the A.S.E. to concentrate on war-work. A member (1940-45) of the South Australian board of area management, Department of Munitions, he was controller of gun ammunition and ordnance production, and chief technical officer.

In December 1944 Dawes was appointed to the post which was to be his great love: vice-chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. His pre-war association with the A.B.C. dated from 1932 when he had spoken on wireless about politics and international affairs; in addition, he had been a member of the South Australian talks advisory committee. His connexion with the A.L.P. was rewarded by the Curtin government which placed him on the commission, but he was reappointed by later Liberal-Country Party governments and spent a record twenty-two years as vice-chairman.

For sixteen of those years he was deputy to the chairman (Sir) Richard Boyer. While absorbing much of his chief's idealistic outlook, Dawes brought a practical approach to the partnership. A 'shrewd and practised negotiator' in industrial affairs, he was 'confident, down-to-earth, and painstaking . . . a good foil for Boyer'. In 1956, when Boyer was considering an appointment overseas, they discussed the chairmanship. Dawes hoped to be chairman for a short term, but knew that he was not acceptable to many of the people with whom Boyer dealt. Acting-chairman after Boyer died in 1961, Dawes was disappointed not to succeed him, though he continued happily under (Sir) James Darling. Both were removed in 1967, to their chagrin.

A board-member (1933-72) of the Royal Adelaide Hospital, Dawes was a commissioner (from 1938) of its charitable funds (chairman from 1967); he served, as well, on the board of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Woodville. He was a councillor (from 1940) of the Institute of Medical and Veterinary Science. In 1965 he joined the board of governors of the Adelaide Festival of Arts and from 1970 chaired its executive-committee. Between 1951 and 1955 he had been a council-member of the Australian National University, Canberra. In 1963 he was a delegate to the United Nations conference on the application of sciences and technology, held at Geneva, Switzerland.

Dawes had numerous business interests. From the 1950s he was managing director of the South Australian engineering firm, Charles Richardson & Sons Ltd; he was also chairman or director of various other companies. His property, Coonalpyn Downs, was managed by his son. Dawes was appointed C.M.G. in 1958.

In 1965 he suffered a heart attack. That year his wife died. On 3 March 1966 he married a 42-year-old secretary Patricia Margaret Henderson with Catholic rites in the Good Shepherd Church, Clearview, Adelaide. Survived by her, and by the son and daughter of his first marriage, Dawes died of cerebrovascular disease on 4 August 1973 at Royal Adelaide Hospital and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at $96,784. The E. R. Dawes research fellowship at R.A.H. commemorates him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. E. Hughes, A History of the Royal Adelaide Hospital (Adel, 1982)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • Historical Studies, 20, no 79, Oct 1982
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Nov 1961
  • News (Adelaide), 16 Dec 1965
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 30 June 1967, 6 Aug 1973
  • E. R. Dawes oral history transcript (ABC Radio Archives, Sydney).

Citation details

Jan Brazier, 'Dawes, Edgar Rowland (1902–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

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