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Hyland, Sir Herbert John Thornhill (Bert) (1884–1970)

by B. J. Costar

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Herbert John Thornhill Hyland (1884-1970), by unknown photographer

Herbert John Thornhill Hyland (1884-1970), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/2069

Sir Herbert John Thornhill (Bert) Hyland (1884-1970), storekeeper, investor and politician, was born on 15 March 1884 at Prahran, Melbourne, second son of George Hyland, a Victorian-born painter, and his wife Mary, née Thornhill, from Ireland. Bert attended Caulfield State School until the early deaths of his parents forced him to leave at the age of 12 to take a job in a grocery store at Glenhuntly. After recovering from typhoid fever, he worked in another grocery at Mitcham, then moved to South Gippsland. There he was successively employed in a general store at Welshpool, in a grocery at Beulah and at the Kongwak Butter Factory before establishing his own general store and mixed grocery business at Leongatha. On 8 May 1912 at her parents' home at Galaquil he married with Methodist forms 18-year-old Amelia Mary Barratt (d.1968); their son and daughter were to predecease him, to his deep distress.

As Hyland's business flourished, he diversified into dairy farming and became a major landowner in the region. He was ruled unfit for war service, but proved a staunch advocate of soldier settlers. Elected in 1923 to the Woorayl Shire Council (president 1928-29), he took an increasingly active role in community affairs, joined the Country Party and served as president of its Central Gippsland district council. His commercial ventures proved so profitable that he was able to retire in the late 1920s and devote himself to community and philanthropic causes.

In 1927 Hyland unsuccessfully contested the newly created seat of Wonthaggi in the Legislative Assembly. Next year he managed Tom Paterson's successful campaign to retain the House of Representatives seat of Gippsland; he was an ardent supporter of Paterson's controversial dairy-assistance scheme. With the aid of preferences from the Australian Labor Party, in 1929 Hyland defeated the sitting Nationalist for the seat of Gippsland South and entered State parliament. Although he courted electoral disapproval by moving permanently to St Kilda, he became legendary for his services to his constituents: he was an inveterate lobbyist and letter-writer in their interests, and he visited his electorate weekly.

Appointed minister without portfolio in the minority Country Party government of (Sir) Albert Dunstan in June 1936, Hyland was promoted to various ministries, both in minority Country Party and in coalition cabinets, until the election of the Cain government in 1952 brought a temporary halt to the chronic instability of Victorian politics. Hyland's portfolios included transport (1938-43), chief secretary (1943-45), State development (1947-48 and 1950-52), labour (1947-48), decentralization (1948) and transport and prices (1950-52). The internal tensions in the coalition ministries were illustrated when a reluctant Hyland, as chief secretary, was required to introduce a bill in 1944 which brought about a modest reform of Victoria's highly malapportioned electoral system.

When the Hollway-McDonald coalition collapsed in division in 1948, Hollway blamed Dunstan's scheming for the government's demise. Hyland agreed. To the annoyance of his Country Party colleagues, he helped to keep Hollway in office in 1948-50 by abstaining on crucial parliamentary votes. Allegations of political patronage attended Hollway's appointment of Hyland to chair the La Trobe Valley Development Advisory Committee in 1949. In January that year Hyland had declared himself in favour of an amalgamation of the Liberal Party and the Country Party; he later gave serious consideration to leaving the Country Party and joining the Liberals who had controversially renamed themselves the Liberal and Country Party in an attempt to absorb the Country Party. The central council of the Country Party made moves to expel Hyland, but the crisis abated and he again became a senior minister in McDonald's Country Party government in 1950.

Knighted in 1952, Hyland was elected leader of the parliamentary Country Party in 1955—just in time to contest the elections caused by the A.L.P. split. His leadership was characterized by robust parliamentary and electoral competition with the Liberal Party. In the early years of (Sir) Henry Bolte's Liberal government, Hyland took advantage of the premier's relative inexperience to extract concessions, especially in relation to freight charges. Yet he never managed to adapt his political strategies to the changed environment of majority governments. He railed against Bolte for his alleged Melbourne bias and his lack of effective policies for decentralization. Too often Hyland was given to extravagant and even vituperative language. In a debate in parliament in 1958 he called Bolte 'a mongrel' and referred to another minister as 'a stupid looking goof'; he was suspended from parliament in 1960 for describing the Speaker as being 'as silly as a billy goat'. His regular addresses to Country Party conferences were laced with 'vitriolic' denunciations of the Liberal Party. Despite these outbursts, Hyland was well liked by most of his parliamentary colleagues.

Following the 1964 elections, he was unexpectedly replaced as parliamentary leader of the Country Party by his deputy George Moss. Hyland's advancing years told against him among the younger Country Party politicians and he failed to be elected deputy-leader. He continued in parliament, served on the Public Works Committee (1964-67) and took a particular interest in the improvement of the facilities at Parliament House.

Bert Hyland retained Gippsland South at fifteen consecutive elections—five of them unopposed. His personal popularity can be gauged by his last election (1967) when he secured the largest majority of any member of the Legislative Assembly. Having decided, at the age of 86, not to contest the 1970 election, he surprised the supervisor of the parliamentary dining-room Elsie Joan Mendoza, née Atkins, a 48-year-old divorcee, by asking her to be his wife. They were married with Methodist forms on 2 January 1970 at his East St Kilda home. Shrewd investments had made Sir Herbert a wealthy man and he continued to support the Helping Hand Association for Mentally Retarded Children. Survived by his wife, he died on 18 March 1970 at Prahran; he was accorded a state funeral and was cremated with Anglican rites. His estate was sworn for probate at $278,653.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Wright, A People's Counsel (Melb, 1992)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 20 Mar 1970
  • Countryman (Melbourne), 26 July 1929, 30 Jan 1958, 17 June 1964, 29 Jan, 2 Apr 1970
  • Age (Melbourne), 12 Apr 1961, 21 Mar 1970
  • Bulletin, 4 Aug 1962.

Citation details

B. J. Costar, 'Hyland, Sir Herbert John Thornhill (Bert) (1884–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/hyland-sir-herbert-john-thornhill-bert-10584/text18801, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 May 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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