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William Joseph (Bill) Denny (1872–1946)

by Merrilyn Lincoln

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Joseph Denny (1872-1946), by unknown photographer, c1910

William Joseph Denny (1872-1946), by unknown photographer, c1910

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6233

William Joseph (Bill) Denny (1872-1946), solicitor, politician and soldier, was born on 6 December 1872 in Adelaide, son of Thomas Denny, publican, and his wife Annie, née Dwyer. Educated at the Christian Brothers' College, he was a clerk until 1896 when he became editor of the Catholic Southern Cross. On the Adelaide City Council from 1898, in 1899 he failed to win the West Adelaide seat in the House of Assembly. But he won it in 1900 and held it until 1933 (Adelaide from 1902).

Denny studied law from 1903 and was admitted to the Supreme Court in 1908. Before the 1905 election he had joined the United Labor Party and retained Adelaide for that party. As attorney-general and minister for the Northern Territory in the Verran government of 1910-12, he negotiated the transfer of the Territory to Commonwealth control. He secured important reforms. His 1911 Women Lawyers Act enabled women to practise law.

On 17 August 1915 Denny enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a trooper and in January 1916 was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 9th Light Horse Regiment. In Egypt he transferred to the 5th Divisional Artillery and was promoted lieutenant in June. In France he served with the 5th Divisional Ammunition Column and, from mid-1917, with the 1st Divisional Artillery. He was severely wounded at Ypres on 15 September while leading a convoy of bombs and ammunition into the forward area and was awarded the Military Cross. From January 1918 he was attached to the repatriation section at A.I.F. Administrative Headquarters, London, and was promoted captain in September. He resigned his commission in 1919 and published The Diggers.

On 15 January 1920 Denny married Winefride Mary Leahy, a pianist and singer, in Adelaide. He resumed his legal and parliamentary work: in 1924-27 he was attorney-general and minister for housing, irrigation and repatriation in the Gunn-Hill government, and carried several major legal reforms. He was attorney-general and minister for local government and railways in the Hill government of 1930-33 and in 1931, with the rest of that ministry, was expelled from the Labor Party for supporting the Premiers' Plan. The group formed the Parliamentary Labor Party but at the 1933 elections Denny lost his seat to a Lang Labor Party candidate. Despite rheumatoid arthritis, he practised law until his death, and wrote an autobiography, A Digger at Home and Abroad (1942). Survived by his wife, one son and three daughters, he died on 2 May 1946 and was buried in West Terrace cemetery after a state funeral.

Tall, with long spindly legs, Denny was a cartoonist's delight and was nicknamed 'Walking Willie'. His preferred reading was Shakespeare and the Bible and he quoted liberally from both. His integrity, versatility and wide knowledge were unquestioned, and he was proud of the democratic legislation he had sponsored.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • T. H. Smeaton, The People in Politics (Adel, 1914)
  • Universal Publicity Co., The Official Civic Record of South Australia (Adel, 1936)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1940 (74)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 4 Feb 1889
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 11 Dec 1930
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 28-31 Mar, 13 Apr 1933, 3 May 1946
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Merrilyn Lincoln, 'Denny, William Joseph (Bill) (1872–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 April 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

William Joseph Denny (1872-1946), by unknown photographer, c1910

William Joseph Denny (1872-1946), by unknown photographer, c1910

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B 6233

Life Summary [details]


6 December, 1872
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


2 May, 1946 (aged 73)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.