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William Ruthven (1893–1970)

by Matthew Higgins

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Ruthven (1893-1970), by George Bell, 1920

William Ruthven (1893-1970), by George Bell, 1920

Australian War Memorial, ART03589

William Ruthven (1893-1970), soldier and politician, was born on 21 May 1893 at Collingwood, Melbourne, son of Peter Ruthven, carpenter, and his wife Catherine Charlotte, née Bedwell, both Victorian born. He was educated at the Vere Street State School, Collingwood, and became a mechanical engineer.

Ruthven was employed in the timber industry when he enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force on 16 April 1915. He left Australia in August with reinforcements for the 22nd Battalion which he joined in October on Gallipoli. Late in March 1916 the 22nd went to France. On 17 April, during his first tour of duty in the forward area near Fleurbaix, Ruthven was wounded. He rejoined his battalion in August on the Somme and was promoted lance corporal. On 26 January 1917 he was confirmed in the rank of sergeant.

On 19 May 1918 Ruthven took part in an attack near Ville-sur-Ancre. When his company commander was wounded, Ruthven assumed command but soon the advance was held up by heavy machine-gun fire. Unhesitating, he ran at the machine-gun post, bombed it, bayoneted one of the crew and captured the gun. Then, encountering enemy coming out of a shelter, he wounded two and captured six. Having reorganized his men and formed a post, he noticed further enemy movement in a nearby sunken road. Armed only with a revolver, he shot two men and captured thirty-two. He spent the rest of the day, under fire, supervising consolidation and encouraging his men. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

On 11 June near Méricourt Ruthven was wounded again, and on 1 July was commissioned second lieutenant. He returned to Australia in October with several other Victoria Cross winners to assist recruiting and received a hero's welcome in Melbourne. He was promoted lieutenant and on 11 December his A.I.F. appointment ended.

Ruthven resumed work as a wood machinist and on 20 December 1919 married Irene May White at St Philip's Anglican Church, Abbotsford; they had a daughter and a son. In the mid-1920s the family moved to a soldier-settlement block at Werrimull. Bad seasons and poor health forced Ruthven back to Collingwood in 1931. He became a carrier and later worked with the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission. He was elected to the Collingwood Council and became mayor in 1945.

During World War II, from December 1941 Ruthven served with the 3rd Australian Garrison Battalion and other garrison units, including those centred at Murchison, Victoria's largest prisoner-of-war camp. In August 1944 he ceased full-time duty, as major. He sat in the Victorian Legislative Assembly during 1945-55 as the Labor member for Preston, then following a redistribution represented Reservoir until his retirement in 1961.

'Rusty' Ruthven retained close links with other Victoria Cross winners and the Returned Sailors' and Soldiers' Imperial League of Australia. In 1932 he was one of the pallbearers at Albert Jacka's funeral and he attended the 1956 Victoria Cross centenary celebrations in London. He was president of the Werrimull and Collingwood R.S.S.I.L.A. sub-branches, a life member of the Preston sub-branch and a trustee of Melbourne's Shrine of Remembrance and the St Kilda Memorial Hall. Ruthven was also official timekeeper for the Collingwood Football Club and a foundation member of its social club. The war, however, had severely affected his health; illness forced his retirement from politics.

Survived by his wife and children, he died on 12 January 1970 in Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital and was cremated with military honours. The Ruthven Soldiers' Club had been opened at Broadmeadows in 1959 and in 1963 a new railway station near Reservoir was named after him. His medals and a portrait by George Bell are displayed in the Australian War Memorial's Hall of Valour.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Gorman, With the Twenty-Second (Melb, 1919)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1918 (Syd, 1942)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963) and second ed revised and condensed by J. Williams and A. Staunton (Canb, 1986)
  • Mufti, 1 July 1938
  • Australian Army, 3 Dec 1959
  • Argus (Melbourne), 12 Oct 1918, 20 Jan 1932
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Apr 1930, 21, 22 Nov 1933, 13 Sept 1969
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Nov 1932, 20 May 1936, 14 Jan 1959, 13 Jan 1970
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 13 Jan 1970
  • AIF nominal roll, 22nd Battalion (Australian War Memorial)
  • C. E. W. Bean diaries (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Matthew Higgins, 'Ruthven, William (1893–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012