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John Brooke Howse (1913–2002)

by John Farquharson

What sustained John Howse’s solid, if not spectacular 14-year career in Federal politics, was his strong sense of duty and service. This was the core of his quiet effectiveness as a politician and businessman, and it earned him the respect of constituents and colleagues alike.

Youngest son of Sir Neville Howse, Australia’s first VC winner, John was one of the first of that group described by Ian Hancock, John Gorton’s biographer, as ‘the desirable, new type of Liberals, young and distinguished ex-servicemen with flair, presence and ability’ to gain election to Federal Parliament in the immediate post-war years.

Though politics’ glittering prizes eluded him, John Howse had an enviable record at the polls, remaining undefeated after some six elections, when he decided to quit Parliament to pursue a business career. Speculation at the time suggested Howse’s motivation was frustration over not having been tapped on the shoulder for the Ministry. Apparently much more mundane considerations prompted his move. The business world offered a scale of remuneration that would enable him to provide more comfortably for the education of his three sons. Moreover, by that time he had given politics his best shot, including 10 years during which he worked diligently as Parliamentary Secretary of Territories in close association with Sir Percy Spender and Sir Paul Hasluck. He was also secretary of the Defence Committee.

Life after politics saw him opening a Canberra office for the stockbroking firm of Ian Potter and the P & O Company. He went on to become resident director of P & O (Aust), as well as chairman of the boards of Macdonald Hamilton and the Perpetual Trustee Co. and as an adviser to the British firm of Swires.

Howse, who has died in Canberra, aged 88, after succumbing to cancer, was born at Orange NSW on October 10, 1913. He was educated at Geelong Grammar School before working during the 1930s for Imperial Chemical Industries. As war loomed in 1938 he joined the Royal Australian Volunteer Reserve (RANVR). After working on ciphers at Navy Office, he did anti-submarine detection training and several other courses before being posted to the Bathurst Class corvette HMAS Whyalla on coastal escort duty. He was in Sydney Harbour on 31 May 1942, the night of the Japanese midget-submarine attack and took part in the unsuccessful hunt for the mother submarine in terrible weather off the NSW coast.

Later, on loan to the Royal Navy with 200 other RAN officers, he was sent to Scotland as an anti-submarine warfare instructor. His next posting took him to the minesweeper HMS Welcome on a hazardous mission in which several ships were blown up and lives lost. While the minesweeping force waited in Salonika for reinforcements, Howse did Red Cross work in northern Greece. When the war in Europe ended, still serving in minesweepers, he was sent to Singapore, returning from there to Australia after the Japanese surrender. Promotion had come during his varied service and he finished the war as a Lieutenant-Commander.

While still in the Navy, Howse’s thoughts had turned to politics. Some discussion took place with various people urging him to stand for Calare, the central-western NSW Orange-based seat held by his father from 1922 to1929. During that time his father had held several portfolios, including Defence and Home Affairs, which had responsibility for the development of Canberra. Officials of the then fledgling Liberal Party undoubtedly had in mind that the Howse name still held magic in the Orange region, where Sir Neville had a notable record of service in medicine and local government, apart from being a military hero and director of medical services with the 1st AIF.

And in 1946, with enthusiastic support flowing from his father’s reputation John Howse won Calare with a good majority in a three-cornered contest. The Country (now National) Party never opposed him again. Building support in his own right, he increased his majority and held the seat until 1960 – twice as long as his father had done. The drive and ruthlessness that takes people to the top in politics was not in John Howse’s make-up. Along with tenacity, he brought to political life a personal warmth, and understanding of people and affairs. Going back to his school days contemporaries recall him having a genuine interest in others and making friends easily. From those days, too, is the story of the school’s Corio parliament, with Howse and John Gorton as members. When it met for the first time in June 1930, Howse played the part of a Labor backbencher.

Upon leaving politics, Howse moved his family from Orange to Canberra. While pursuing his business career, he also found time for community service. He served on the Council of the Australian War Memorial, organised the Sea Cadets in Canberra and was president of the Navy League of Australia. Another interest was the St John’s Ambulance. He served on the council and became a Knight of Grace of the Order of St John of Jerusalem. Earlier, he had been awarded the Volunteer Reserve Decoration. Turning his hand to farming, he took up a property, ‘Clear Range’, just outside Canberra, near Williamsdale. There, with the help of his three sons, he built a substantial log cabin and ran sheep. 

An aficionado of the long lunch, John Howse believed good food and wine were essential to life’s enjoyment. One of his last requests to his family was that his friends should be able to take a glass in remembrance after his memorial service. A caring and affectionate husband and father, he was regraded by those who knew him, in the words of Peter Andren, sitting Member for Calare, as a ‘great mate and a wonderful Australian’. His life has added to the legacy that he received of leadership and service to family and the nation.

His wife, Valerie, daughter of Major-General Rupert Downes, a director of Army Medical Services, whom he married in 1939, and three sons, Rob, Jonathan and Charles and their families, survive him.

John Brooke Howse, born October 10, 1913; died July 17, 2002.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Howse, John Brooke (1913–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 June 2024.

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