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MENZIES, Sir Robert Gordon

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menzies, sir robert gordon

FAMED AUSTRALIANS #2

UNITED AUSTRALIA/LIBERAL PARTY

The peoples prime minister

Kooyong District 1934 – 1966

Menzies held office from 1939 to 1941 and again from 1949 – 1966. Collectively, you could say he was in office for a period of 18 years and 160 days. and with figures like this, its no wonder he still holds the title of Australia’s longest ever, serving Prime Minister. Some would regard Menzies’ as our best ever political leader.

Coming in second place, is John Howard (Liberal) with 11 years and 267 days, followed by Bob Hawke (labor) 8 years 284 days and Malcolm Fraser (Liberal) 7 years and 120 days.

Growing Up

Sir Robert was born 20 December 1894 at Jeparit, a tiny township in the Wimmera, in northwestern Victoria and was the fourth out of five children to parents Kate and James. Menzies parents ran a struggling general store in the town, and the family lived in rooms built at the back of the store. With his sister and three brothers, Menzies enjoyed the normal pursuits of childhood in a small country town. They played football and hockey, hunted yabbies’, and fished and swam in the Wimmera River or nearby Lake Hindmarsh. For their parents, every day was a great struggle for economic survival.

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Menzies father was involved in local politics and community affairs. James Menzies a long serving member of Dimboola Shire Council also held the office of shire president on two occasions. He represented the local electorate of Lowan in the Victorian Legislative Assembly between 1911 and 1920.

Lacking from a formal education themselves, Kate and James were not going to deny there children the best education they could afford.

Education

All the children began there formal education at Jeparit Primary School. They were then sent to live with their grandmother Elizabeth Menzies, who lived in Ballarat, whilst attending Humffray Street State School. The school itself had a statewide reputation for excellence.

menzies, sir robert gordon

At the Humffray Street school, Menzies’ academic ability came to the fore. He completed his final two years of primary school education and, at the end of 1907, topped the state in the scholarship examination. With publicly funded secondary schools yet to be established in Victoria, winning one of the 40 scholarships on offer to state school students was the only way pupils of limited means could hope to attend one of Victoria’s private secondary schools.

He then went on to Grenville College in Ballarat. At the end of his second year, Menzies performed poorly in the public examination for the “leaving Certificate”. Although disappointed, his parents had other concerns to worry about, as his father was expected to be elected to the Victorian Parliament, which meant the family had to pack and relocate to Melbourne.

In 1910, instead of enrolling at Scotch College as his father instructed, Menzies joined friends enrolling at Wesley College, Melbourne. His academic performance during his first two years was not outstanding. However, during his third and final year, he gained top marks in English and History, and won one of the 25 scholarships awarded by the state for university study. Menzies felt he owed his success to his two teachers Harold Stewart and Frank Shann. His own self discipline and determination were also strong factors contributing to his success.

Law Student (1913 – 1918)

In 1913, Menzies enrolled in first-year law at the University of Melbourne, where he continued to shine. He won university prizes and awards in history, jurisprudence and law, and the coveted Bowen Prize for an English essay. He also took a leading role in student affairs, serving as president of the Students’ Christian Union, editor of the Melbourne University Magazine and president of the Students’ Representative Council.

In 1916 Menzies graduated with first-class honours in his Bachelor of Laws degree. He was awarded the Master of Laws in 1918.

Menzies’ university years coincided with World War I. As a prominent undergraduate, he had declared himself a patriotic supporter of the war and an advocate of conscription for overseas service. He had also undertaken compulsory military training, serving four years with a part-time military unit, the Melbourne University Rifles (1915–19). He appears to have enjoyed his taste of military life and was commissioned a lieutenant in the Rifles.

menzies, sir robert gordon

Unlike many of his male contemporaries, Menzies did not enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for overseas service. He never explained the reasons for not enlisting, although in later life it hurt him politically. His two elder brothers, Les and Frank, had enlisted in the AIF. The family might have thought that sending two of the three eligible Menzies brothers to the front was an adequate contribution.

Barrister and Member of Parliament

Menzies studied law and was admitted to the Bar on 13 May 1918. He quickly built up a good general practice, specialising in constitutional law. He chose this type of law as he was able to study it under one of his favourite university teachers Sir Harrison Moore.

In 1920, as an advocate for the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, he won in the High Court of Australia a case which proved to be a landmark decision. The court verdict gave Menzies instant fame. More important to him though, as a man of 25 years, it gave him the freedom to marry. His fiancée at the time was (Dame) Pattie Maie, daughter of John William Leckie, a politician and manufacturer.

They married in September 1920 at the Presbyterian Church, Kew. Their four children were born during the 1920s, the third dying at birth. After establishing himself as one of Australia’s leading constitutional lawyers, he then entered the Victorian Parliament in 1928.

In 1929, Menzies stood for the seat of Nunawading and successfully won in the Legislative Assembly. Together with Kent Hughs, he formed a new ginger group, the “Young Nationalist Organisation”. Under the control of friend Sir Wilfrid Kent Hughes, Menzies joined and became an active member of the National Party, Victorian Branch. In 1928 he entered the Legislative council, having won a by-election for the province of East Yarra. He was a minister without portfolio for a period of eight months in Sir William McPherson’s government.

In 1932, Menzies became attorney general and minister for railways, the first “Young National” to receive full cabinet rank, within the government of Sir Stanley Arglye.

In 1934, he won a seat in the federal parliament and served as Attorney-General and Minister for Industry in the United Australia Party government of Joseph Lyons and won leadership after Lyons death in 1939.

Prime Minister Of Australia

In 1939, Menzies was Prince Minister when World War II began and moved his family into the Lodge in Canberra however in 1941, he lost the confidence of members of Cabinet and his party and was forced to resign. As an Opposition backbencher during the “War Years”, Menzies helped create the Liberal Party and became leader of the Opposition in 1946.

When it came time to vote at the 1949 federal election, he defeated Ben Chifley’s Labour Party and again held the title of Australia’s Prime Minister.

Pattie Menzies enjoyed life at “The Lodge” in Menzies’ first period of office. The Prime Minister came home for lunch, and after lunch and in the evenings the two relaxed by playing snooker in the The Lodge’s well appointed billiards room. She would regularly go to Parliament House to listen to Prime Minister’s question time, and took a keen interest in political matters. She was a good judge of character and had a nose for honesty and deception. She warned Menzies, when he was planning to leave for London in January 1941 that, if he went, internal party intrigue would cost him the prime ministership. She was proved correct. Though she always rejected suggestions that she exercised any political influence over the Prime Minister, Pattie Menzies was his closest political confidant.

When Menzies resigned in August 1941, Pattie Menzies was unhappy to leave “The Lodge”. From 1941 – 1949, Pattie was a member of the board of management for the Woman’s Hospital. She also followed Pattie Deakin’s footsteps and became involved in the Free Kindergarten movement. She also served as president for a number of Woman’s Hospital Auxiliaries. It was with this undertaking of charity work, that Pattie lost her fear of public speaking.

In December 1949, Robert Menzies again became Prime Minister following the Liberal Party’s success in the federal election. Pattie couldn’t make the move back to “The Lodge” quick enough. The couple sold their Melbourne house and “The Lodge” became their family home for the next 16 years.

Menzies second period as Prime Minister laid the foundation for 22 consecutive years in office for the Liberal-Country Party Coalition.

Menzies was often characterised as an extreme monarchist and loyal to his roots, but as Prime Minister he maintained Australia’s strong defence alliance with the United States. During his second period in office, the ANZUS and SEATO treaties were signed, our Australian troops were sent to support the US led forces in Korea, and Australia made its first commitment of combat forces to Vietnam.

During Menzies section term as Prime Minister, Pattie accompanied him on almost all domestic and overseas tours. She undertook many public engagements and most referred to her as Menzies’ secret weapon.

In recognition of her public work, Queen Elizabeth conferred on her the honour Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire, during the 1954 Royal visit.

Menzies was Knighted in 1963, and he was further honoured in 1965 by being appointed Constable of Dover Castle and Warden of the Cinque Ports.

After Office

Menzies resigned as Prime Minister and from parliament in 1966. The couple retired to a new home in Melbourne bought for them by wealthy friends and supporters in recognition of their contribution to the nation. They spent part of each year in Britain, staying at Walmer Castle in Kent, which Menzies was entitled to use as Warden of the Cinque Ports.

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Whilst in London in September 1968, Menzies suffered a mild stroke and in November 1971 a more severe stroke left him completely paralysed on one side. Despite extensive physiotherapy and treatment, he never regained full mobility and became reliant on a wheelchair outside of his home.

Menzies often indulged in his life long passion for watching sport. His fondness for cricket was well known, but what was not so well known was his enthusiasm for Aussie Rules Football and his support for the Carlton Football Club. Even after his stroke, he continued to attend football games. The Carlton Football Club made special arrangements, first so his car could be driven close to the goalposts at the northern end of the ground and later they provided a special wheelchair so their eminent fan could be carried up into the stand.

In March 1977 at the centenary cricket test in Melbourne, Menzies received his last honour from the Queen. In the Long Room at the Melbourne Cricket Ground he was invested into the Knight Division of the Order of Australia (AK) awarded the previous year when the new Division was instituted by the Liberal Government of Malcolm Fraser.

menzies, sir robert gordon
Sir Robert Menzies escorts Queen Elizabeth II at the State banquet at Parliament House in Canberra, 1954 with his wife Pattie Menzies and the Duke of Edinburgh following.

On 15 may, while reading in his study, Menzies suffered a heart attack and died. A state funeral was held on 19 May 1978. Australia’s leading politicians, representatives of overseas governments and Prince Charles, representing the Queen, attended the service at Scots Church in Melbourne. Over 100,000 people lined the route from Melbourne to Springvale crematorium. There, in a service attended only by the Menzies family, his body was committed for cremation. A 19 gun salute was fired at the end of the ceremony. In July 1978, Britain paid homage to Menzies with a memorial service in Westminister Abbey.

After Menzies death in 1979, Pattie Menzies continued to support a range of organisations and causes. She was regularly called on for Liberal Party events, including election campaigns and the party’s 50th anniversary in 1994.

In 1992, Pattie Menzies moved back to Canberra to live with her daughter. Pattie Menzies died in Canberra on 30 August 1995.

On a Personal Note

I have been an avid supporter of the Australian Liberal Party since I can remember. Perhaps having Don Haywood Liberal MP who lived just doors away from us in South Yarra might have had a lot to do with it. I also knew Andrew Peacock quite well back in the 80’s as he attended many functions and clubs I catered for.

In the 90’s I worked as an Executive/Personal Assistant in the Treasury Building under the Liberal Government whilst Jeff Kennett was in office.

In addition, every election I would attend South Yarra Primary School to hand out Liberal how to vote cards, and wait eagerly for Malcolm Fraser (Prime Minister at the time) and his mother to come down and vote as Malcolm’s mother lived just at the top of Domain Road. He would always acknowledge the great work we were doing, taking time to stop and chat with us in some detail.

Many Liberal politicians also were members at the Atheneaum Club, the exclusive gentlemen’s club I was later to become Catering Supervisor for.

I always knew that Pattie Menzies had most of her ball gowns hand made by a lady who lived at the top of our street. That very same lady affectionately known as “Lizzy” was also my and my brothers nanny. Often Pattie would be escorted by parliamentary car to the house for fittings, unbeknown to those living in the street.

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