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William Fraser Dunn (1877–1951)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Fraser Dunn (1877-1951), by unknown photographer

William Fraser Dunn (1877-1951), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 01283

William Fraser Dunn (1877-1951), politician, was born on 2 February 1877 at McLachlan Creek, Gundaroo, New South Wales, twin son of Francis Dunn, Yorkshire-born farmer, and his native-born wife, Emily, née Fraser. Educated at Sutton and Queanbeyan public schools, at 15 he worked on his father's farm; later in the 1890s he acquired his own property in the district. He joined the local Labor League and in 1899, following a football accident, became a schoolteacher, later serving in several country towns.

At the State general election in 1910, Dunn was one of several professional people nominated by Labor. He won Mudgee and the party narrowly formed its first government. His background reinforced Labor's strong rural link and predisposed him to favour freehold against leasehold; when the latter seemed about to prevail, he resigned his seat in July 1911 but was reassured, and regained it at the by-election in August.

Dunn joined the Army Service Corps, Australian Imperial Force, in December 1915. In March next year he became a second lieutenant and on 28 April at St Michael's Anglican Church, Surry Hills, married Minnie Jane Elizabeth Durrington. In May he was promoted lieutenant, appointed quartermaster of the 35th Battalion and left Sydney. Attached to the British Expeditionary Force in November, he was quartermaster and honorary captain in the A.I.F. in March 1917, when he went on sick leave. He returned to Australia in July and was discharged in March 1918.

In 1916 Dunn had chaired the royal commission into rural, pastoral, agricultural and dairying interests. Resuming his parliamentary career in 1918, he became minister for agriculture in John Storey's and James Dooley's cabinets from April 1920 to April 1922. He deprecated city-country rivalry and consolidated Labor's rural support by energetic and perceptive administration of his sensitive portfolio. He was also chairman of the New South Wales Wheat Board and a member of the Australian Wheat Board; a council-member of the Royal Agricultural Society, he was chairman of the Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission. He stressed the government's role in organized marketing, encouraged rural co-operatives and in 1920 set up the Rural Bank Department (Rural Bank of New South Wales) of the Government Savings Bank.

Dunn had no power base in the Labor Party, but his repute and geniality secured him a following. Although apparently timorous and wary of 'the numbers game', he played it with skill. He was deputy leader of the party in 1922-23; in factional manoeuvrings in March-May 1923, related to the expulsion of Dooley and the appointment by the State executive of Greg McGirr in his place, Dunn was made stopgap leader by the Federal executive until the State annual conference in June. John Thomas Lang defeated him for the leadership in July.

Dunn was again minister for agriculture in Lang's cabinet from 17 June 1925 to 26 May 1927, and also assistant minister for lands and minister for forests from 25 November 1926 to 26 May 1927. In 1925 he increased the employment of various agricultural experts. After charges were made about the purchase and resale of cornsacks, he was exonerated by a royal commission. He visited Europe and the United States of America in 1926 to inquire into marketing and irrigation. Next year he joined in the caucus revolt against Lang's leadership; quitting the cabinet on 26 May he became deputy leader of the anti-Lang group. By 1930 unity was restored, and Dunn became minister for agriculture and for forests until 13 May 1932, when the premier was dismissed by Governor Sir Phillip Game. That year Dunn lost his only election but won again in 1935.

Dunn was in (Sir) William McKell and James McGirr's cabinets of 1941-47—as minister of agriculture and forests, 1941-44, of conservation, 1944-46, and lands, 1946-47. He failed to be elected to McGirr's second 1947 ministry and retired from parliament in 1950. Childless, and survived by his wife, he died at a hospital at Moore Park on 10 July 1951 and was cremated. His estate was sworn for probate at £30,094.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Syd, 1942)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Council and Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1917-18, 1, 157, 1925-26, 1, 55
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales) 1951, p 196, 2942
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Oct 1910, 12 Apr, 4 Dec 1920, 17 Feb, 11 Oct 1921, 25 Apr 1922, 27 Apr 1923, 16 Oct 1925, 6 Sept 1926, 15 Apr, 10 June 1927, 13 Mar, 18 Aug 1931, 9 Sept 1936, 28 May 1942, 12 Apr 1944, 22 Mar 1945, 22 Apr 1946, 5 Feb, 16 May 1947, 11 July 1951
  • Mudgee Guardian, 25 May 1950.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Dunn, William Fraser (1877–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

William Fraser Dunn (1877-1951), by unknown photographer

William Fraser Dunn (1877-1951), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 01283

Life Summary [details]


2 February, 1877
Gundaroo, New South Wales, Australia


10 July, 1951 (aged 74)
Moore Park, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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