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Gullett, Henry Baynton Somer (Jo) (1914–1999)

by John Farquharson

Henry Baynton Gullett, c1968

Henry Baynton Gullett, c1968

H38849/1718, State Library of Victoria

Henry Baynton Somer Gullett became known as Jo, he once complained, because "there were so many of us in the family called Henry". When he died he was known to far more people by the nickname than by those with which he had been baptised.

The son of a Cabinet minister, he was one of the most quixotic of postwar Australian politicians, an ardent nationalist and Liberal Party whip who renounced politics rather than continue battling the disfavour of the then Prime Minister, Robert Menzies.

He was born in London, where his father then was a journalist, and later was the Member for Henty, Victoria, in the Federal Parliament. But, more than most politicians, Jo's background was Canberra. He was raised largely on Hill Station, and later was sent to Geelong Grammar. He was not, he admitted, a "battler" as a youth.

At 17, he alarmed his parents with the possibility that he might become a stockman on a Queensland cattle station. Instead he was packed off to the Sorbonne, then to Oxford, where he graduated. In 1939, a journalist, as his father had been, he enlisted in the second Australian Imperial Force weeks after World War II broke out. He began as a private and ended a major with a Military Cross.

In some respects his political career paralleled that of his father. The elder Gullett — later Sir Henry — had been elected to Parliament in 1925, gaining the ministry three years later and serving, with one break, until 1937. It was generally believed that he was relegated to the back benches mainly for his criticism of the low-key defence policies of the then Prime Minister, Joseph Lyons.

Sir Henry was killed on August 13, 1940. In March 1946, when the Independent who had held Henty for the interim resigned, Jo was elected to Parliament. Four years later he was Government Whip. In 1955, at the expiry of the 21st Parliament, he retired. In part the end of his parliamentary career was brought about by his strong advocacy of powerful Australian defence forces. In part it was his outspokenness. He later confessed that he found it difficult as Whip to rally support for Government policies about which he personally felt equivocal.

He gave loyal support in the House, but frequent outspoken criticism of Government policies in the party room. He stood well with backbench members of his party. His personal relations with the Prime Minister were cordial enough, but their political relationship was chilly. Finally the Minister for Defence, Sir Philip McBride, warned him to look for a career outside Parliament: he had no hope of preferment under Menzies.

Mr Gullett was not averse to leaving. He had bought Lambrigg, a house (now 104 years old) and 160ha station off the Tharwa Road, in 1946, and he returned to it and to farming. He spent a decade farming before being appointed Ambassador to Greece in 1965.

He returned in 1967 an outspoken supporter of "the colonels", who had seized power a year before in that country — largely because they represented the peasantry and other classes previously excluded from power.

In 1969 he was appointed the NSW Graziers' Association's liaison officer with the Government. Later still he was associated with the Country (now National) Party's headquarters in Canberra.

He is survived by three daughters and a son.

Henry Baynton Somer Gullett, born December 16, 1914; died August 24, 1999.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 27 August 1999, p 11

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Gullett, Henry Baynton Somer (Jo) (1914–1999)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 October 2020.

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