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Thomas Denman GCMG KCVO PC

Duncan Max Meldrum (1875-1955), Thomas Denman (detail), Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection. View full image

3rd Baron of Denman
Governor-General, 31 July 1911 to 18 May 1914

Appointed Australia’s fifth Governor-General at age 37, Thomas Denman (1874-1954) remains the youngest person to have held the office. His youth, reputation as a sportsman, and informality ensured his popularity with the Australian public. However, his lack of administrative experience saw him struggle to balance his support of Australia’s domestic interests with those of the British Empire.1

Born in London to a family of modest means, at 19 Denman took on his great-uncle’s title and two years later entered the House of Lords.2 He was educated at the Royal Military College Sandhurst and wounded in the Second Boer War, before being promoted to major.3 In 1903, Denman married Gertrude Pearson, the daughter of business magnate Sir Weetman Pearson (later 1st Viscount Cowdray).4 They had one son and one daughter. A Liberal Peer, Denman served as one of Edward VII’s lords-in-waiting and a whip (1905-07)5 in the Campbell–Bannerman Government.6 He was subsequently appointed Chief Government Whip in the House of Lords (1907-11) and made a Privy Counsellor.7 Denman’s appointment as Australia’s Governor-General was announced in March 1911, and in June he was made a GCMG in the Coronation Honours.8

As part of their official duties the vice-regal couple travelled extensively, officiating at a wide variety of ceremonies from the opening of new golf links to turning the sod on the Transcontinental Railway.9 In March 1913, Denman laid the foundation stone for Australia’s new capital which, Lady Denman announced, would be called ‘Canberra’. Untroubled by the constitutional challenges faced by his predecessors, Denman established cordial relations with the Fisher Government. However, his term was not without controversy; in 1912 the Commonwealth and NSW governments’ agreement for the use of the state Government House ended, leaving the Governor-General without an official residence in Sydney. This situation continued until October 1914, when Admiralty House became the Governor-General’s official Sydney residence. In 1913, Denman’s comments that Australia had the right to ‘complete control of her own fleet unit’ caused consternation in the Colonial Office. In declaring Denman’s statements as ‘ill-timed and injudicious’,10 the Office viewed his position as inconsistent with a Governor-General’s role as agent of the British Government, protecting Imperial interests in Australia.11

Resigning early for ‘private reasons’, which included poor health and marital strains, Denman left Australia in May 1914. On returning to England he was commissioned in World War I as a lieutenant-colonel until his discharge the following year. He continued to be active in the House of Lords, serving as Chief Whip from 1919 to 1924. He died on 24 June 1954 at Hove, Sussex.

Duncan Max Meldrum
Artist Max Meldrum (1875-1955) was born in Edinburgh and arrived in Melbourne in 1889. He attended the National Gallery of Victoria Art School where he studied painting with Bernard Hall. In 1899, he won a travelling scholarship and studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. The following year Meldrum studied at the Académie Julian and later exhibited at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français (Paris). During this time, he became an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts (Paris). In 1912, Meldrum returned to Melbourne where he set up his studio and art school on Collins Street. Among his students were Clarice Beckett and Arnold Shore and he was a great influence on his friend, Archibald Colquhoun. Meldrum was a foundation member of the Australian Art Association in 1912 and was elected president of the Victorian Artists’ Society from 1916 to 1917. A regular exhibitor in Melbourne and Sydney, Meldrum also exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London. Regarded as the father of Australian tonalism, Meldrum’s representational style won him the Archibald Prize in 1939 and 1940.12

Thomas Denman
by Duncan Max Meldrum
Oil on canvas
306.5 x 185.5 cm
Historic Memorials Collection, Parliament House Art Collection

1. Information in this biography has been taken from: C Cunneen, King’s Men: Australia’s Governors-General from Hopetoun to Isaacs, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983; B Carroll, Australia’s Governors-General: From Hopetoun to Jeffery, Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd, Kenthurst, NSW, 2004; C Cunneen, ‘Thomas Denman’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed 25 August 2021.
2. W Carr and HCG Matthew, ‘Denman, Thomas Aitchison, second Baron Denman’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 2 November 2021.
3. The London Gazette, Issue 27429, 29 April 1902, p. 2866, accessed 18 May 2021.
4. G Jones, ‘Pearson, Weetman Dickinson, first Viscount Cowdray’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, accessed 2 November 2021.
5. ‘The New Governor-General’, The Queensland Times, 5 August 1911, p. 11, accessed 18 May 2021.
6. ‘‘History of the UK Government: Past Prime Ministers: Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman’, Gov.uk, accessed 18 May 2021.
7. The London Gazette, Issue 28050, 13 August 1907, p. 5523, accessed 18 May 2021.
8. The London Gazette, Issue 28505, 16 Jun 1911, p. 4593, accessed 18 May 2021.
9. ‘New golf links’, The Argus, 21 April 1913, p. 4; ‘Transcontinental railway’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 13 September 1912, p. 8. Websites accessed 24 May 2021.
10. Cunneen, King’s Men, op. cit., p. 97.
11. The role of Governors-General in the early years of Federation was more delicate and complex than that of their modern counterparts. This was the result of Australia’s status as a self-governing colony within the British Empire. Appointments to the office were made by the Crown on the advice of its ministers in the UK. The office of the Governor-General was the sole channel for official communication between the governments of Australia and Great Britain. And, in addition to their local vice-regal role, the Governors-General acted as the representative or agent of the British Government, protecting Imperial interests in Australia. This situation continued until the 1926 Imperial Conference. The ‘Balfour Declaration’ adopted at that conference declared that the UK and its Dominions were equal in status in all matters of internal and external affairs. These principles were subsequently embodied in the Statute of Westminster Act 1931 (UK) and the Statute of Westminster Adoption Act 1942 (Cth). See J Quick & RR Garran, The annotated Constitution of the Australian Commonwealth, Angus & Robertson, Sydney, 1901, p. 388, and LF Crisp, Australian national government, 4th edn, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1978, p. 398.
12. Information in this biography has been taken from: J McGrath and B Smith, ‘Meldrum, Duncan Max (1875–1955)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed 15 April 2021; ‘Meldrum, Duncan Max’, A McCulloch, S McCulloch and E McCulloch Childs, eds, The New McCulloch’s Encyclopedia of Australian Art, Aus Art Editions in association with The Miegunyah Press, 2006, pp. 674–75.

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