Enid Lyons

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Enid Lyons

Enid Lyons 1950.jpg
Lyons in 1950
Vice-President of the Executive Council
In office
19 December 1949 – 7 March 1951
Prime MinisterRobert Menzies
Preceded byWilliam Scully
Succeeded byRobert Menzies
Member of the Australian Parliament
for Darwin
In office
21 August 1943 – 19 March 1951
Preceded byGeorge Bell
Succeeded byAubrey Luck
Spouse of the Prime Minister of Australia
In office
6 January 1932 – 7 April 1939
Preceded bySarah Scullin
Succeeded byEthel Page
Personal details
Enid Muriel Burnell

(1897-07-09)9 July 1897
Smithton, Tasmania, Australia
Died2 September 1981(1981-09-02) (aged 84)
Ulverstone, Tasmania, Australia
Resting placeMersey Vale Memorial Park, Quoiba
Political partyLabor (until 1931)
UAP (1931–1945)
Liberal (after 1945)
(m. 1915⁠–⁠1939)
Children12, inc. Brendan and Kevin
Enid and Joseph Lyons during his premiership

Dame Enid Muriel Lyons AD, GBE (née Burnell; 9 July 1897 – 2 September 1981) was an Australian politician who was the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first woman to serve in federal cabinet. Prior to her own political career, she was best known as the wife of Joseph Lyons, who was Prime Minister of Australia (1932–1939) and Premier of Tasmania (1923–1928).

Lyons was born in Smithton, Tasmania. She grew up in various small towns in northern Tasmania, and trained as a schoolteacher. At the age of 17, she married politician Joseph Lyons, who was almost 18 years her senior. They would have twelve children together, all but one of whom lived to adulthood. As her husband's career progressed, Lyons began assisting him in campaigning and developed a reputation as a talented public speaker. In 1925, she became one of the first two women to stand for the Labor Party at a Tasmanian state election. She followed her husband into the new United Australia Party (UAP) following the Labor split of 1931.

After her husband became prime minister in 1932, Lyons began living at The Lodge in Canberra. She was one of the best-known prime minister's wives, writing newspaper articles, making radio broadcasts, and giving open-air speeches. Her husband's sudden death in office in 1939 came as a great shock, and she withdrew from public life for a time. At the 1943 federal election, Lyons successfully stood for the UAP in the Division of Darwin. She and Senator (Dame) Dorothy Tangney became the first two women elected to federal parliament. Lyons joined the new Liberal Party in 1945, and served as Vice-President of the Executive Council in the Menzies Government from 1949 to 1951 – the first woman in cabinet. She retired from parliament after three terms, but remained involved in public life as a board member of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (1951–1962) and as a social commentator.

Early life[edit]

Birth and family background[edit]

Lyons was born on 9 July 1897 at Leesville, a small sawmilling settlement outside Smithton, Tasmania. Her birth was registered just over one month later. She was the second of four children born to Eliza (née Taggett) and William Burnell.[1] Her father, a sawyer and talented musician, was born in Devon, England, and grew up in Cardiff, Wales, before immigrating to Australia at the age of 17.[2] Her mother was born in the Adelaide Hills of South Australia, to an English immigrant father who had drawn by the Victorian gold rush. Her forebears in England had been middle-class, but the family fell into relative poverty in Australia.[3] Lyons' parents first met at Angellala on Queensland's western railway line, where her widowed maternal grandmother Louisa Taggett (née Orchard) had won a catering contract. They married in Brisbane in 1888 and initially settled in Burringbar, New South Wales, where their first child was born. They moved to northern Tasmania in 1894 to be closer to William's parents, who farmed in Somerset.[4]

Lyons' biographer Anne Henderson has speculated that William Burnell may not have been her biological father, and that she may instead have been fathered by Aloysius Joyce Jr., the son of a prominent local businessman. However, she also notes that "nothing [William] did in rearing her would suggest she was not his own".[5] According to an account from the Joyce family, William confronted Aloysius Joyce Sr. and the two were overheard arguing, with Joyce eventually accepting Enid as a blood relation and agreeing to provide financial support to the Burnells if William raised her as his own daughter.[6] Henderson suggests this as an explanation as to how the family were later able to secure a loan to buy property with limited income and no collateral.[7]


In 1901, Lyons and her family moved to Stowport, Tasmania a rural locality south of Burnie.[8] She began her education at a one-room public school, at a distance of 3 km (1.9 mi) from her home.[9] Her mother supplemented the family's income by mending and laundering clothes and delivering meals to itinerant workers, taking a particular interest in well-educated visitors and those from overseas.[10] She intended that her daughters would enter the teaching profession, which at the time provided the only opportunity for girls to gain a state-funded secondary education.[11] In 1904, the family moved to a property at Cooee, on the coast to Burnie's west.[12] They operated a small general store from their residence, with her mother serving as the local postmistress, and later added a dancehall which was rented out for community events.[13] Lyons and her siblings attended school in Burnie.[14]

Politician's wife[edit]

Eliza Burnell introduced her 15-year-old daughter to Joseph Lyons, a rising Tasmanian Labor politician. On 28 April 1915, the two married at Wynyard, Tasmania; she was 17 and Lyons was 35. Enid had been brought up a Methodist but became, at Lyons' request, a Roman Catholic.[15][16] They would have twelve children, one of whom died in infancy.[17][18]

In 1931 Joseph Lyons left the Labor Party and joined the United Australia Party (UAP), becoming prime minister at the subsequent election.[18] Enid Lyons was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire (GBE) in the Coronation Honours of 1937.[19][20] Joseph Lyons died in April 1939, aged 59, the first Australian prime minister to die in office, and Dame Enid returned to Tasmania. She bitterly resented Joseph Lyons's successor as leader of the UAP, Robert Menzies, who had, she believed, betrayed her husband by resigning from the cabinet shortly before Joseph's death.[15]


Lyons suffered from "nervous exhaustion" in the period immediately after her husband's death.[21] She fainted or collapsed on a number of occasions and spent several weeks in hospital, initially at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, and later at Mercy Hospital for Women, Melbourne.[22] She had some requests to stand for his seat at the resulting by-election, including from Jessie Street, but declined.[23] Outside of the family home, Lyons was left only £344 from her husband's estate.[24] In the absence of any parliamentary pension, the government under caretaker prime minister Earle Page immediately drafted legislation to provide annuities for her and the couple's seven dependent children. There was some opposition from Joseph's political opponents who regarded the amount as excessive, and she was eventually awarded an annual grant of £500 with another £500 for the children's education through to the age of 16. Lyons received thousands of letters of condolence, which she answered with the help of family and her husband's former staff, but also received hate mail over the annuities issue – "filthy epithets, threats, dead rats, things even more revolting" – leading her to stop opening her own mail.[25]

In December 1939, Lyons began a series of weekly Sunday evening broadcasts for 7LA Launceston, which were syndicated on the Macquarie Broadcasting Network. She turned down other offers, including from the ABC and from Keith Murdoch's 3DB. The Macquarie broadcasts came to an end in June 1940, partially due to a lack of sponsorship.[26] In the same year she had moved to Melbourne to be closer to her children's schools, leasing a house in Malvern East.[27] Her mother died in January 1941, a few months after Lyons had become a grandmother for the first time at the age of 43.[28] She had left Melbourne after only a brief period and returned to Devonport, staying out of public life for a few years.[29]


External audio
audio icon Recording of Lyons reading her maiden speech in the House of Representatives
The original speech was not broadcast, but due to public demand she recorded it for broadcast on radio. There were a few differences in wording between the speech that was broadcast and the official Hansard transcript.[30]
Lyons with other senior figures in the newly created Liberal Party in 1946 – from left to right: Robert Menzies, Eric Harrison, Harold Holt, and Thomas White.

At the 1943 election Dame Enid Lyons narrowly won the Division of Darwin in north-western Tasmania for the UAP, becoming the first woman in the House of Representatives. Her Labor opponent, who received more primary votes than she did, was the future Tasmanian Premier Eric Reece. At the same election, Dorothy Tangney was elected as a Labor Senator for Western Australia, the nation's first woman Senator.[31] In 1945 the UAP became the Liberal Party of Australia.

On 23 August 1944, Lyons was one of four speakers in a debate on population which became the Australian Broadcasting Commission's "largest controversy during the war years"[32] Lyons devoted a chapter to this Australian Broadcasting Corporation debate in her 1972 autobiography, calling it 'one of the most disturbing experiences I was to know as a member of parliament'. Her fellow debaters were Norman Haire, Jessie Street and the economist Colin Clark.[15]

By the time she was elected to parliament in her own right, there was very little left of her Labor ties. Her speeches in parliament generally espoused traditional views on the family and other social issues. In 1949 the Liberals came to power under Menzies' leadership. The frosty personal relations between Menzies and Dame Enid thawed slightly when Menzies gave her the role of Vice-President of the Executive Council. This was a largely honorary post which gave her a seat in cabinet but no departmental duties. Nevertheless, her health declined under the strain of regular travel between Canberra and Tasmania, and she retired from parliament prior to the 1951 election.[15]

Later life and legacy[edit]

In retirement, Dame Enid's health recovered. She was a newspaper columnist (1951–54), a commissioner of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (1951–62), and remained active in public life promoting family and women's issues. She published three volumes of memoirs, which embarrassed the Liberal Party by reviving her complaints about Menzies' 1939 behaviour towards her husband.[15]

Lyons was made a Dame of the Order of Australia (AD) on Australia Day 1980,[33] the second woman to receive this honour after Alexandra Hasluck. She was the first Australian woman to receive damehoods in different orders. She died the following year and was accorded a state funeral in Devonport, Tasmania, before being buried next to her husband at Mersey Vale Memorial Park.[15]

Jo Gullett in his autobiography discussed his fellow members of parliament and concluded that, "with hindsight, perhaps the wisest and most far-sighted of them all was a woman, Dame Enid Lyons."

She had all the qualities of a successful member, for she was not only a clear, lucid and logical speaker but she also had an instinctive sympathy, and a wonderful sense of fun. She had beautiful manners and gave everyone the impression that she was happy to see them when she greeted them. Perhaps she really was glad to see them too, and that is the reason why when she rose to speak she usually made her points to a smiling and appreciative House. ... Not only was she a very good parliamentarian but she had thoughts about the role of Parliament and government far ahead of her time. I remember her saying, "I don't think we should automatically and formally differ with the government on everything they do. This attitude of confrontation is all wrong, whether in government or opposition. There are so many things in which we already do agree, and lots more on which we could both afford to modify our extreme views or attitudes. ... We shall never deal with the real problems if we continue to waste so much time arguing over minor points of difference. Remember too that all this arguing confuses people. If we, who are their political leaders, can't agree on national principles, how can we expect the people to know what is of national importance and what is not.[34]

An informal political faction of the Liberal/National opposition parties called the Lyons Forum was formed in 1992. The group's name alluded to Lyons' maiden speech to the House of Representatives. The faction was considered to be defunct in 2004.[35]


Lyons first fell pregnant a few months after her marriage, but miscarried just after her 18th birthday.[36] She suffered a second miscarriage the following year, and in her memoirs recounted having to watch on as a nurse threw the remains of the foetus into a bedside fireplace. She was told by doctors that she would never be able to have children,[37] but in fact went on to give birth to twelve – the first born when she was 19 and the last born when she was 36. Her subsequent pregnancies went relatively smoothly, with the except of a third miscarriage in 1926; she had to carry the dead foetus for three months before it could be removed.[38] All but one of her children survived to adulthood, and all those who did out-lived her. Her son Garnet, born in 1924, died from meningitis at the age of 10 months.[39] Another son, Barry, was born with achondroplasia.[40]

Enid and Joseph Lyons sitting on the lawn outside The Lodge with their surviving 11 children
  1. Gerald Desmond (1916–2000)
  2. Sheila Mary Norma (1918–2000)
  3. Enid Veronica (1919–1988) – married army officer Maurice Austin
  4. Kathleen Patricia (1920–2012)
  5. Moira Rose (1922–1991)
  6. Kevin Orchard (1923–2000)
  7. Garnet Philip Burnell (1924–1925)
  8. Brendan Aloysius (1927–2010)
  9. Barry Joseph (1928–2015)
  10. Rosemary Josephine (1929–1999)
  11. Peter Julian (b. 1931)
  12. Janice Mary (1933-2020)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 9.
  2. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 14.
  3. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 11–12.
  4. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 15–16.
  5. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 30.
  6. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 24–25.
  7. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 31–33.
  8. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 36.
  9. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 40.
  10. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 38–39.
  11. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 42.
  12. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 44.
  13. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 31.
  14. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 45.
  15. ^ a b c d e f Profile Australian Dictionary of Biography, adb.anu.edu.au; accessed 19 August 2014.
  16. ^ A. Henderson, Faith and politics - Dame Enid Lyons, Journal of the Australian Catholic Historical Society 31/2 (2010/11), 68-74.
  17. ^ Hart, P.R. (1986). "Lyons, Joseph Aloysius (1879–1939)". Australian Dictionary of Biography. Melbourne University Press. ISSN 1833-7538. Retrieved 22 January 2008 – via National Centre of Biography, Australian National University.
  18. ^ a b "Joseph Lyons, before". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Archived from the original on 30 August 2007. Retrieved 22 January 2008.
  19. ^ "Joseph Lyons, Enid Lyons". Australia's Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia. Archived from the original on 30 August 2007. Retrieved 22 January 2008.
  20. ^ "Lyons, Enid Muriel, The Order of the British Empire – Dame Grand Cross – Civil". It's an Honour. Government of Australia. Retrieved 22 January 2008. Note: site says it was granted in 1957.
  21. ^ Henderson 2008, pp. 255.
  22. ^ Henderson 2008, pp. 250–253.
  23. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 256.
  24. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 247.
  25. ^ Henderson 2008, pp. 257–260.
  26. ^ Henderson 2008, pp. 265–267.
  27. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 266.
  28. ^ Henderson 2008, pp. 268–269.
  29. ^ Henderson 2008, p. 272.
  30. ^ Dame Enid Lyons: Maiden Speech, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Retrieved 20 January 2018.
  31. ^ National Film and Sound Archive: Recording of Dame Enid Lyons' maiden speech in Parliament on australianscreen online
  32. ^ Diana Wyndham. (2012) "Norman Haire and the Study of Sex". Foreword by the Hon. Michael Kirby AC CMG. (Sydney: "Sydney University Press".), p. 343, quoting Alan Thomas (1980) Broadcast and be Damned: the ABC's First Two Decades. (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press), p. 110
  33. ^ "Lyons, Enid Muriel, Dame of the Order of Australia". It's an Honour. Government of Australia. Retrieved 22 January 2008.
  34. ^ Henry "Jo" Gullett (1992), Good company: Horseman, soldier, politician, Brisbane, University of Queensland Press, p.228-9 ISBN 0-7022-2443-X
  35. ^ Grattan, Michelle (13 November 2004). "A quiet man's revolution". The Age (Melbourne). p. 5.
  36. ^ Henderson, Anne (2011). Joseph Lyons: The People's Prime Minister. UNSW Press. p. 100. ISBN 978-1742240992.
  37. ^ Henderson (2011), p. 105.
  38. ^ Henderson (2011), p. 174.
  39. ^ Henderson (2011), p. 173.
  40. ^ Henderson (2011), p. 182.

Further reading[edit]

Autobiographical works
  • Lyons, Enid (1965). So We Take Comfort. Heinemann.
  • Lyons, Enid (1969). The Old Haggis. Heinemann. ISBN 0851794939.
  • Lyons, Enid (1972). Among the Carrion Crows. Rigby. ISBN 0851794939.

External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by
Sarah Scullin
Spouse of the Prime Minister of Australia
6 January 1932 – 7 April 1939
Succeeded by
Ethel Page
Political offices
Preceded by
William Scully
Vice-President of the Executive Council
Succeeded by
Robert Menzies
Parliament of Australia
Preceded by
George Bell
Member for Darwin
Succeeded by
Aubrey Luck