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Thwaites, John Barrass (1902–1986)

by B. W. Davis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

John Barrass Thwaites (1902-1986), public servant, bushwalker and conservationist, was born on 24 June 1902 at Kendal, England, second of four children of William Wilberforce Thwaites, master baker, and his Scottish-born wife Catherine Barrass, née Dick. In May 1913 Jack arrived at Hobart with his mother, brother and two younger sisters, reuniting with his father who had migrated the previous year. The Thwaites family were Quakers. Jack completed school at the Friends’ High School, and developed a lifelong love of bushwalking and the outdoors. In 1919 he joined the Government Printer’s Department as an apprentice compositor. After qualifying, he was promoted to costs officer in August 1928.

A foundation member (1929) with E. T. Emmett of the Hobart Walking Club, Thwaites served as secretary-treasurer (1929-38), four terms as president between 1939 and 1950 and as an editor or member of the editorial committee of Tasmanian Tramp for most years in 1933-83. With others he pioneered several major walking routes, including the Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair overland track and the Linda track to the west coast. He made early ascents of Frenchmans Cap, visited Port Davey and attempted to reach the summit of Federation Peak. On 6 April 1935 he married Cecilie Marion Cripps, a book-keeper, daughter of George Cripps of the prominent Hobart bakery family, at St George’s Church of England, Hobart.

In 1946-58 Thwaites was the administrative officer of the film and photographic section, Department of Lands and Surveys. Promoted to inspector of Scenic Reserves (1958-61), from 1953 he had served as a representative of the Hobart Walking Club on the Scenery Preservation, Mount Field National Park and Cradle Mountain-Lake St Clair National Park boards.

Succeeding Michael Sharland as superintendent of Scenic Reserves and as secretary of the Scenery Preservation Board in 1961, Thwaites was responsible for the management of Tasmania’s national parks, reserves and cave sites, as well as of significant colonial heritage precincts. He worked in an environment of limited funds and staff, with an unsympathetic department head, the surveyor-general Frank Miles, who was also chairman of the Scenery Preservation Board. Despite the difficulties caused by political tensions between the proponents of economic development and conservationists, he achieved increased professionalism in the national parks system. He chose to avoid confrontation; the board did not oppose the Hydro-electric Commission’s plans in 1967 to flood Lake Pedder. He retired that year, having arranged for the formation of several new parks and reserves, which came to fruition with the National Parks Act of 1970.

Thwaites had joined the Royal Society of Tasmania in 1931 and was a member (1941-60) of the Tasmanian Field Naturalists’ Club. He was a member (1942-75) of the National Fitness Council of Tasmania, serving as treasurer (1944-60). Involved in setting up the Youth Hostels Association of Tasmania in 1950, he served as vice-president (1950-78) and president (1978-81), and as president of the national body in 1948-49 and 1953-54. With Max Moore and Peter Allnutt, he established a chain of hostels along the Tasmanian east coast. He became a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London, in 1956.

An active bushwalker all his life, Thwaites acted as camp commandant when the conquerors of Mount Everest, Sir Edmund Hillary (1960), George Lowe (1961) and Tenzing Norgay (1963), conducted field camps for young people at Mount Field National Park. A member of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association from 1951, he was increasingly concerned about the preservation of the historic town of Richmond and he became a foundation member (1965) of the Richmond Preservation and Development Trust.

Retirement did not slow Thwaites and he joined several expeditions to Aboriginal sites in Tasmania. In 1969 he travelled to Central Australia with a South Australian Museum party. He helped to locate abandoned mining areas and timber tramways in remote parts of Tasmania. In 1971-72 he was involved in teaching an Adult Education Board course on Tasmanian Aborigines. Finally in February 1977, at the age of 74, he reached the elusive summit of Federation Peak. He was awarded the OAM in June that year.

Thwaites’s principal contribution was his promotion of healthy outdoor recreation through bushwalking and youth activities. He helped to foster tourism and was an ardent advocate of conservation of Tasmania’s built and natural environment. An excellent photographer, he produced numerous articles about Tasmanian places and personalities, and wrote three entries on conservationists for the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He was an accomplished public speaker and an entertaining raconteur. Gentle, courteous and patient, he became known as ‘Gentleman Jack’. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 3 May 1986 in Hobart and was cremated. His ashes were scattered at Steppes homestead, the historic property in the central highlands that he had helped to conserve. The Hobart Walking Club erected a memorial plaque to him there on 27 November 1988. Thwaites Plateau in the Arthur Ranges was named after him. The Archives Office of Tasmania holds his trip records and log books (1936-86) and a collection of his photographs.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Kleinig, Jack Thwaites (2008)
  • Mercury (Hobart), 10 May 1969, p 6, 2 Mar 1977, p 7, 16 Nov 1978, p 7, 6 May 1986, p 3
  • Tasmanian Tramp, no 23, 1979, p 50, no 26, 1986-87, p 57
  • Walk (Melbourne), vol 31, 1980, p 6
  • Sunday Tasmanian, 11 May 1986, p 33, 1 Nov 1987, p 30, 20 Nov 1988, p 27
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

B. W. Davis, 'Thwaites, John Barrass (1902–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/thwaites-john-barrass-15662/text26858, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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