WARDLAW, Robert (1888–1964)
Senator for Tasmania, 1953–62 (Liberal Party of Australia)

Robert Wardlaw, primary producer, storeowner and businessman, was born on 4 August 1888, the son of James Bennett Wardlaw and Dora Dove, née Miller, at Avoca, near the Tasmanian goldmining town of Mathinna. As Robert’s nephew, Jim, has commented, the mine ‘was the town, that was it!’ James Wardlaw, a sheep farmer, had moved there to mine, although it is difficult to determine the accuracy of the claim in the Launceston Examiner that he ‘was prominent in the development of the West Coast’. His seven children, three boys and four girls, helped him to run a butcher’s shop in the town. When he died, Dora moved the family to Scottsdale, where the three brothers, Alan, Thomas and Robert, supported their mother in establishing another butcher’s shop. When all three young men ‘went down with typhoid fever’ their mother struggled on, keeping the business going with the help of one apprentice.

The Wardlaws were determined individuals—‘they were part of the community, they did everything’. With little formal education, and guided by their mother, the ‘wonderful Grandma Wardlaw’, the youngest daughter became an accomplished pianist. Two of the three brothers, Alan and Robert, served with the Light Horse in World War I and later entered politics. Alan lost a leg in the war but went on to become ‘a respected and popular figure in the public life of the State’. He served as a member of the Legislative Council and as Honorary Minister in the McPhee and Lee governments. It was Alan’s death in 1938 that prompted Robert to stand for his brother’s former seat of South Esk. He came second in the 1939 poll. The third brother, Thomas, remained a successful butcher, businessman and farmer.[1]

Robert had spent a short time in a draper’s shop in Sydney before enlisting in the AIF on 18 December 1916, giving his occupation as ‘traveller’. He embarked in Sydney on 9 May 1917 for Suez and was discharged on 23 January 1920, after serving in the Middle East with the 2nd and 7th Light Horse. His soldiering was marred by recurring bouts of malaria, from which he had first suffered in Queensland. Robert spent some time in London recuperating from his illness and on unpaid leave. When discharged, military authorities assessed that he had suffered as the result of his war service a one-fifth decline from full working capacity.

Returning to Tasmania, to Ringarooma, Wardlaw joined his brother, Thomas, in running a general store. Soon they acquired another store, at Branxholm. Wardlaw Bros Pty Ltd then employed between fifty and sixty people and advertised themselves as general merchants: butchers, bakers, grocers, drapers, ironmongers, proprietors of Ringarooma Garage, land and estate agents, buyers of all classes of stock and produce, agents for London insurance, life insurance, auctioneers and dealers in Ford cars. As Jim Wardlaw has explained, ‘a country business is different from a city business, you have to have a bit of everything’. On 16 January 1923 Robert married, at St James Church, Sydney, Jessica Maude Greatrex of Rose Bay, the daughter of Charles Arthur Greatrex, an accountant, and his wife, Mary Agnes, née Johnson.

At the time of his unsuccessful bid for the Legislative Council in 1939, Wardlaw had already revealed something of the role he defined for a politician when he asserted that the ‘most that can honestly be promised is that a man will endeavour to bring to bear on every problem as it arises the best of his intelligence, and be prepared to vote fairly and fearlessly on each issue on its merits’. He perceived the Legislative Council as a house of review, governed by fairness and objectivity, and ‘untrammelled by party associations, or any outside influences’.

It was around this time that the Ringarooma store was destroyed by a fire that also threatened to destroy the whole main street because of the absence of local fire brigades, engaged elsewhere in their annual festival. With the subsequent dissolving of the partnership with his brother, Wardlaw became a dairy farmer and one of Tasmania’s biggest pig producers.[2]

Wardlaw was not tipped to win a Senate seat in May 1953 but his support came from a wide base, perhaps proving that his decision to campaign beyond his own local area had been of benefit. He was president of the Tasmanian Farmers’ Federation (1949–51), a member of the north-east Tasmanian War Agricultural Committee (1939–45), chairman of the Tasmanian Rural Industries Board (1951–53), a member of the Federal Rural Committee, a founding director of the Farmers’ and Graziers’ Co-operative Society and ‘actively associated’ with the Royal Commonwealth Society. He was president of the Returned Services League at Ringarooma. As sixth elected senator for Tasmania, he was chosen, under existing electoral legislation, to fill the remainder of the casual vacancy caused by the death of Senator Chamberlain, whose term was to expire in 1956. Wardlaw faced the polls again in 1955 and was re-elected.[3] During the 1953 campaign Wardlaw had called for ‘balance’ in parliamentary representation, claiming that this was as important as balance in the economy. The thrust of Wardlaw’s argument was that both city and country complemented each other’s needs and there would be a national strength in the recognition of this interdependency by both. Despite the rhetoric, Wardlaw’s prime commitment in the Senate was to the rural sector, especially Tasmanian farmers and orchardists. He lamented the ‘dangerous drift from the country to the cities’.

The success of Wardlaw’s business enterprises may have strengthened his belief that work and initiative would overcome all obstacles. His general support of the working man’s right for higher wages was offered with a specific qualification; wage increases should depend on increased productivity and profits.[4]

Wardlaw applauded Prime Minister Menzies for making clear the differences between Australia’s friends and enemies. Though not prone to personal abuse in debate, he was capable of stinging invective. In 1955, dismissing the Leader of the Opposition’s unwillingness to send Australian soldiers to Malaya, Wardlaw declared that Dr Evatt’s utterances were those of a ‘little Australian’. Wardlaw’s adherence to forward defence and his anti-communist sentiments, expressed in attacks on Moscow and the Australian Labor Party, had a prophetic character. Australian security was best fought, he declared, ‘as far from our shores as can be done efficiently and effectively’, adding that there was no longer any such thing as a declaration of war. Wardlaw asserted that ‘the difference between socialism and communism is the same as the difference between drowning in 12 feet of water and drowning in 20 feet of water’.[5]

While little official information remains on Wardlaw’s visit to London in 1961 as a member of a parliamentary delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference, family folklore records that Jessica claimed the event to be ‘absolutely fabulous’. The delegation was entertained by the Lord Mayor of London at a ‘magnificent dinner where the gold service’ was laid on all the tables. Wardlaw himself seemed to have been more impressed with his visit to the International Wool Secretariat. In 1961 he was also a member of the Council of the Inter‑Parliamentary Union. But his parliamentary career was drawing to a close; he did not contest the federal election in December 1961.

Wardlaw died on 28 June 1964 at his home at 6 Ainslie Avenue, Launceston, to which he had moved in 1953. Jessica survived him. There were no children. Like Alan, Wardlaw was a keen gardener, and as Alan had left a legacy of tree‑lined streets, so Robert left a ‘most beautiful hedge’ on the approach to Ringarooma that remains today a visible reminder of his publicly expressed love for Jessica. Obituaries offered by senators on the death of Wardlaw convey the worth placed on his gentlemanly nature, the key to his character. ‘I always found him to be a man of great integrity, kindness and sympathy’, asserted Senator O’Bryne. But perhaps the final comment belongs to Jim, who brings to his assessment of his uncle the totality of Wardlaw’s achievements within the family and public context:

He was the type that once he got away from running the big country business you’d almost expect to go into Parliament. He was that type of joker. He was a good speaker—he didn’t push himself very much like a lot of politicians do, but he was an active member of so many different things and he had the ability to listen to people.[6]

Trish Payne

[1] Mercury (Hob.), 29 June 1964, p. 2; Examiner (Launc.), 29 June 1964, p. 3; Author interview with Jim Wardlaw (nephew), 27 Aug. 1999; Examiner (Launc.), 27 Dec. 1938, p. 6, 16 Mar. 1934, p. 9, 15 Feb. 1939, p. 10; The author is indebted to Mr Michael Wardlaw Game, and Tracy Carley, Attorney-General’s Department, SA, for information.

[2] Wardlaw, R.―War Service Record, B2455, NAA; CPD, 11 Aug. 1964, pp. 28–9; Interview with Jim Wardlaw; Examiner (Launc.), 15 Feb. 1939, p. 10, 13 Feb. 1939, p. 6.

[3] Examiner (Hob.), 29 June 1964, p. 3; Mercury (Hob.), 29 June 1964, p. 2, 12 Dec. 1955, p. 1.

[4] Mercury (Hob.), 6 May 1953, p. 20; CPD, 11 May 1955, pp. 320–1, 18 Oct. 1956, pp. 709–10.

[5] CPD, 5 May 1955, pp. 239–41.

[6] CPD, 3 May 1962, pp. 1149–51, 11 Aug. 1964, pp. 28–30; Interview with Jim Wardlaw.

This biography was first published in The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate, vol. 2, 1929-1962, Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic., 2004, pp. 231-234.

WARDLAW, Robert (1888–1964)

National Library of Australia

Commonwealth Parliament

Senator, Tas., 1953–62


Senate Committee Service

House Committee, 1959–62