Lyall Howard

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Lyall Falconer Howard (1896 – 30 November 1955) was a World War I veteran, engineer and business owner, and the father of the former Australian prime minister, John Howard.[1] He was born and raised near Maclean in the Clarence River region of northern New South Wales.[2] His hand-written war diary penned on the battlefields of the Western Front in 1916 is used by historians to retrace the experiences of Australian soldiers in World War I.

World War I[edit]

The diggers of the 3rd Pioneer Battalion prepare to board HMAT Wandilla at Port Melbourne, bound for the Western Front. 6 June 1916

During World War I, Lyall Howard was known as a proud patriot.[3] On 16 January 1916, at age 19, he signed up to the Australian Imperial Force. As regimental number 802, he was assigned to the 3rd Pioneer Battalion, earning a wage of eight shillings per day.[1] Records show he had attempted to sign up on a previous occasion, but was rejected because his height of 157 cm was deemed too short.[1] Private Lyall Howard left Port Melbourne aboard the HMAT Wandilla on 6 June 1916, and was shipped to the Western Front.[1] He was assigned to work on the roads and bridges leading into the village of Cléry, France.[4]

In the book, The Great War, author Les Carlyon details the experiences of Lyall Howard on the front line, captured by the handwritten notes in Lyall's war diary.[4] The entries were always brief: "Shoved in old barn", "Inoculated again", "First day in trenches".[5] One laconic entry underscored the horrors the soldiers faced: "Will wounded and dies". Will was Lyall's best friend.[4][5]

Meanwhile, Lyall's father, Walter Howard, enlisted as a private in the 55th Battalion of the 5th Division and was also transferred to the battlefields of Europe.[6] Walter's battalion was moving in for an attack on Péronne.[4] In an extraordinary situation of chance during the mass movement of troops near Cléry, the father and son's paths crossed. Against the odds, Lyall and Walter met on the eve of the Battle of Mont St. Quentin in what has been described as a one-in-a-million handshake in the battle zone.[7]

An entry in Lyall Howard's diary, dated 30 August 1918, simply reads: "Met dad at Cléry."[7]

Lyall's son, the 25th Prime Minister of Australia, John Howard recounts: "There's just this pithy or laconic entry in the diary. It's just so Australian - 'Met dad at Clery'. They didn't verbalise their experience in the way men do now. It's one of the big changes in Aussie blokes. I think it's a good thing. They don't bottle it all up, but they did in those days."[7]

In battle, Lyall Howard was wounded by a mustard gas attack in Passchendaele and spent 10 weeks in hospital.[1][8] The gassing caused chronic bronchitis and skin rashes which would continue to plague him after the war.[4]

When World War I ended, Lyall returned to the Clarence River region in Northern New South Wales and worked as a fitter and turner for the Colonial Sugar Refining Company (CSR). The onset of the Great Depression brought hard economic times, and Lyall was retrenched.[9]

In 1925, he married an office worker, Mona Kell.[8] Lyall and Mona Howard moved into a comfortable Californian-style bungalow at 25 William Street, Earlwood, a working class suburb of Sydney.[10] Their first son, Walter (junior), was born in 1926, followed by Stanley (1929), Robert (Bob) (1936), and the youngest, John Howard in 1939.[10]

The copra trade[edit]

In 1926, Australian Prime Minister Billy Hughes declared that he would make "New Guinea for the returned serviceman". He offered Australian ex-servicemen land parcels in New Guinea at very generous prices.[8] Like many other ex-servicemen, Lyall Howard took up the offer and acquired two copra plantations on Karkar Island in New Guinea valued at the time at more than £100,000 (over A$4 million in today's currency) where 200 native labourers worked.[8]

Two Australian companies, Burns Philp and the trading house W. R. Carpenter and Co Ltd managed many of the plantations on behalf of the ex-servicemen. The companies found that it was cheaper to pay the ex-servicemen a yearly rent to lease the land rather than purchase it themselves. The controversial but legal scheme became known as "dummying", and was common at the time.[8]

The Howard land holdings raised the attention of the Australian Administrator of New Guinea. In 1929, the Administrator sent a cable to the Investigation Branch (now known as ASIO) in Canberra:

"Walter and Lyall Falconer Howard apply consent purchase property valued at £25,000 and £100,000 respectively. Strongly suspect dummies for Carpenter and Coy. Could Investigation Branch enquire into status and financial circumstances these men and report the result urgently?"[8]

In 1928, Commonwealth Auditor General, Sir John Latham, commissioned a report into the 'dummying' affair. Sir Latham concluded that, in the Howard's case, there is "no doubt whatever that dummying exists", but said "the offence is not so open and the pretence is better maintained" compared to other cases. With the assistance of Treasurer Ted Theodore, the Administrator pursued the Howard case for many more months, but eventually declared he was "satisfied with the bona fides of the Howards".[8]

Sir John Middleton, a former PNG MP and son of returned Australian serviceman planter Max Middleton said:

"It's nothing against Howard's father because everyone was doing it", "There was no disgrace in it. Dozens of people did it".

Even a one-armed lift operator at Burns Philps' office in Sydney was a big plantation owner on paper.[11]

Later life[edit]

Lyall Howard's garage at Dulwich Hill, where Prime Minister John Howard worked as a boy

Lyall with his father Walter Howard owned two petrol stations where in later years John Howard worked as a boy. The first was located on the corner of Ewart Street and Wardell Road in Dulwich Hill.[8] In 1938 they purchased a second, which they named Prince Edward Service Station, across the Cooks River on the corner of Permanent Avenue and Wardell Road in Earlwood.[9][10][12]

By the end of World War II, Lyall was strongly against appeasement, and an admirer of Winston Churchill.[13] The turmoil of the 1949 Australian coal strike and subsequent petrol rationing caused difficulties for the two Howard family petrol businesses, a dispute which ended when the army was sent in to defeat the unions.[14] Both Lyall and Mona Howard became enthusiastic supporters of the newly created Liberal Party of Australia, and celebrated the election night of 1949 which brought Prime Minister Robert Menzies to power, defeating the Labor government of Ben Chifley. When the election results were declared, Lyall built a bonfire in the backyard to burn his petrol rationing card.[3][14] He later became a paid-up member of the Liberal Party.[10]

According to a Sydney Morning Herald report published on 7 January 1989, there were some suspicions in the Howard family that Lyall was a member of the New Guard, an unofficial paramilitary organisation active in the 1930s which stood for "unswerving loyalty to the Throne; all for the British Empire; sane and honourable government throughout Australia; suppression of any disloyal and immoral elements in government, industrial and social circles; abolition of machine politics, and maintenance of the full liberty of the individual." Lyall's son Walter Howard disputes the claim.[3][14] However, when interviewed by author Peter van Onselen about his father's involvement in the New Guard, another son, Bob, an academic and a member of the Australian Labor Party recalls Lyall defending New Guard activities, and said his father probably was a member of the New Guard.[9]

Lyall never recovered from the gassing on the battlefields of World War I.[4] He died of chronic bronchitis in 1955, at the age of 59.[1][8] John Howard, who was age 16 at the time, remembers: "You never think at that age that your father was going to die. I'd always hoped that my father would be proud of me ... My mother lived to see me become treasurer and go into politics, came to my first Budget, had dinner at The Lodge. My dad, my dad didn't, unfortunately."[10]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "A foreign field that still touches Australia". The Age. 1 July 2006. Retrieved 2007-08-22. 
  2. ^ "Military Record 12079842". National Archives of Australia. 27 January 1916. Archived from the original on 2006-04-25. Retrieved 2007-08-27. 
  3. ^ a b c "By the people, for the powerful". The Sydney Morning Herald. 26 November 2005. Retrieved 2007-08-23. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f Carlyon, Les (1 November 2006). The Great War (Hard back). Australia: Pan Macmillan. p. 880. ISBN 978-1-4050-3761-7. 
  5. ^ a b "PM's father sums up inspiration for author's epic endeavour". The Canberra Times. 31 October 2006. Retrieved 2008-07-15. 
  6. ^ Sibley, David (22 September 2005). "Blood ties to World War I". Air Force News. 47 (17). Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
  7. ^ a b c "One-in-a-million handshake on the front line". The Sydney Morning Herald. 24 April 2004. Retrieved 2007-08-30. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i "The secret Howard plantations". The Sydney Morning Herald. 10 June 2006. Retrieved 2007-08-22. 
  9. ^ a b c van Onselen, Peter; Errington, Wayne (July 2007) [2007]. John Winston Howard : The definitive biography (Hardcover). Melbourne University Press. pp. 7–9. ISBN 978-0-522-85334-6. 
  10. ^ a b c d e "The boy who would be PM". The Age. 21 July 2007. Retrieved 2007-08-23. 
  11. ^ PNG coconut scam nets Howard's dad The Gold Coast Bulletin, Business weekend section 14 July 2007.
  12. ^ "Tin soldered for the King in Howard's home". The Sydney Morning Herald. 19 June 2006. Retrieved 2007-08-29. 
  13. ^ Garran, Robert (2004). True Believer: John Howard, George Bush and the American Alliance. Allen & Unwin. pp. Page 10. ISBN 1-74114-418-3. 
  14. ^ a b c Cockburn, Milton (7 January 1989). "What makes Johnny Run?". The Sydney Morning Herald. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Birnbauer, Bill, "Rise Of A Common Man", The Age, 4 March 1996
  • Cockburn, Milton, "What Makes Johnny Run", Sydney Morning Herald, 7 January 1989
  • Grattan, Michelle, "PM Retraces His Family's War Footsteps", Sydney Morning Herald, 29 April 2000
  • Hamilton, John, "Howard relives family legend", Sunday Herald Sun, 30 April 2000
  • Henderson, Gerard, "The Lasting Legacy Of Anzac", Sydney Morning Herald, 23 April 1996
  • Stevens, Melissa (14 February 2007). "John Howard's secret criminal past (or why convict heritage is cool)". Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 2008-04-18. 

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