By Greg Blood
JOSEPH ALOYSIUS LYONS CH – AUSTRALIAN LABOR PARTY / UNITED AUSTRALIA PARTY
10th Prime Minister: 1932-1939
Joseph ‘Joe’ Lyons was prime minister during a significant period of the Great Depression where sport played a role in distracting the Australian community from the day-to-day cost of living pressures and high levels of unemployment. The sporting feats of Don Bradman and Phar Lap were important in distracting the community during this period.. He became involved in cricket’s ‘bodyline’ crisis as it had the potential to derail Australian’s important economic relationship with Britain. Lyons had a great interest in sport from a participant and spectator prior to and during his period as prime minister. Whilst living in Canberra as prime minister, Lyons sought relief from managing significant economic and social issues by regularly playing golf and lawn bowls.
Birth: 15 September 1879, Stanley, TAS – Death: 7 April 1939, Sydney, NSW
Major Political Appointments
- Tasmanian House of Assembly Member for Wilmot: 30 April 1909 – 13 September 1929
- Premier of Tasmania: 25 October 1923 -15 June 1928
- Federal Member for Wilmot: 12 October 1929 – 7 April 1939
- Ministries: Postmaster-General 22 October 1929 – 4 February 1931, Minister for Works and Railways 22 October 1929 – 4 February 1931, Treasurer 6 January 1932 – 3 October 1935, Minister for Commerce 3 October 1932 – 7 April 1939, Minister for Health 8 November 1935 – 26 February 1936, Minister for Repatriation 8 November 1935 – 6 February 1936, Minister for Defence 20 November 1937 – 30 November 1937
- Cabinet: 22 October 1929 – 4 February 1931, 6 January 1932 – 7 April 1939
- Prime Minister: 6 January 1932 – 7 April 1939
Lyons was born in Stanley, Tasmania and was the fifth of eight children born on 18 September 1879 to Ellen (née Carroll) and Michael Henry Lyons, both of Irish descent. He was the first Australian prime Minister to have an Australian born parent – as his father was born in Tasmania. He attended Ulverstone State School and transferred to St Joseph’s Catholic School in 1887. 
In various biographical articles on Lyons, his youth was described as enthusiastic sportsman particularly playing cricket and Australian football. In reflecting on his early sporting career, Lyons said he would cycle from Conara on Saturday mornings to play cricket with the Evandale team. In 1900, Lyons competed in the Burnie Gift in the 100-yard sprint and 130-yard Sheffield Handicap and winning the 100-yard handicap sprint. In 1933 speech at the Melbourne Rowing Club, he stated had always taken a keen interest in rowing, which he regarded as the healthiest and cleanest of all sports. As a boy he had commenced as a coxswain, unfortunately the pin came out of the rudder and the crew decided that he knew little about steering a boat and consequently was not invited again.[4 In 1906, Lyons entered a woodchopping competition in Pioneer, a small town north east of Launceston. At the time, he was the head teacher of Pioneer State School but the next year moved to for Hobart Philip Smith Training College for Teachers. At his farewell from Pioneer he was thanked “for his good work on behalf of football, cricket and cycling”.
In 1895, he commenced working a pupil-teacher in Stanley, beginning his teaching career that would see him teach in all corners of the state before being elected to Tasmanian House of Assembly, representing the northern division of Wilmot, at the 1909 election. He was a member of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).
Lyons was Treasurer of Tasmania (1912–1914) and was elected ALP leader in 1916. He was appointed premier in 1923 at the head of a minority government but his government lost office at the 1928 state election. In 1926, a car accident in Tasmania left Lyons with an injured leg and led him to use a walking stick. In 1929, he resigned from the Tasmanian Parliament and was elected the member for Wilmot at the 1929 federal election won by the ALP led by James Scullin. He held the portfolios of Postmaster-General and Minister for Works and Railways in the Scullin Government. Lyons resigned from the ALP after he disagreed with Treasurer Ted Theodores inflationary, pro Keynesian policies during the Great Depression.
In 1931, he became the leader of the newly formed United Australia Party (UAP), a combination of the Nationalist Party and the Australian Party members. He became prime minister in 1931 when the Scullin ALP Government was soundly defeated in the federal election.
Interest in Sport during Political Career
Throughout Lyons political career in the Tasmanian and Federal parliaments, there are frequent newspaper accounts of Lyons attending sporting events and meeting with prominent sportsmen like sculler Bobby Pearce, cyclists Huber Opperman, cricketers Don Bradman and Tasmanian Joe Darling. Like the nation, Lyons was saddened with the death on Phar Lap in 1932. He said “ What is the use of winning a High Court decision and losing Phar Lap? The death of this wonderful horse is a great sporting tragedy”. At the time, Lyons government was fighting a several cases in the High Court to overturn its legislation.
In 1913, as the Tasmanian Minister for Education in presenting a schools soccer trophy in Hobart started “It is hoped the masters and others interested in the boys’ sport will make an effort to be present to see how suitable soccer football is for our boys”. Lyons grew up playing traditional Australian sports but understood the role soccer could play.
Lyons interest in sport was furthered highlighted by him regularly reading the sporting sections of newspapers. In August 1926, Lyons said: “Although I read every line of the sporting sections – I suppose there has not been another Prime Minister with such a wide interest in sporting news, I have often regretted that more space is not given in Australian newspapers to politics, but they, are far ahead of most countries in this as in all other respects.”
Lyons played Australian football in his youth. In his late twenties, he was a member of the Philip Smith Training College for Teachers Football Club that won the 1907 Hobart Suburban Association competition.  Following on from his 1907 season in Hobart, he played an active role in the formation of the Launceston schools Australian football competition in 1908. Lyons was an active president of the North Western Football Union prior to WWI and attended numerous matches across Tasmania during his time as premier. There are numerous reports of Lyons attending Victorian Football League (VFL) games in Melbourne, most likely on the way to and from his home state.
In June 1932, before a crowd of over 8000, he bounced the ball to start the match between New South Wales and Victoria at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Lyons remarked that he hoped the New South Wales would win as it would show that the national game was progressing in the state and that would mean Australian football would become dominant in more than four states – Victoria, Tasmania. South Australia and Western Australia. Victoria went on to win by 31 points.
In August 1933, Lyons with Governor-General Sir Isaac Isaacs attended the opening of the National Football Carnival at the Sydney Cricket Ground. Lyons talked about Tasmania football and said “I should say that Ivor Warne Smith was about the best player I have seen. Charlie Eady and other players were giant of the game, too. We do not seem to be producing the champions as used to, but the lapse may only be temporary”. Warne-Smith played for Latrobe from 1920 to 1924 but went on to win two Brownlow Medals in 1926 and 1928 whilst playing for Melbourne Football Club in the VFL. It was reported that whilst Lyons had a busy life, he was aware of the star Victorian players such as Hayden Bunton and Bob Pratt. 
Interestingly the Adelaide’s The Advertiser reported in 1938:
The Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) is catholic in his sporting tastes. It was announced last night that he had accepted the position of patron of the Captain’s Flat (N.S.W.) Australian Rules Football Club. Supporters of the national game are hailing the announcement as a set off against the recent instruction by a teacher banning Australian rules from the Canberra High School in favour of Rugby Union. Captain’s Flat is a mining centre, and the majority of the club’s players will be workmen.
Lyons appears to be the first prime minister with an active interest in Australian football, previous Victorian Prime Ministers Deakin and Bruce do not appear to have had an active interest even though Bruce played it at school.
Lyons like prime minister Stanley Bruce played at Royal Canberra Golf Course and it was noted that “He is a keen golfer, and during the few spare hours which he enjoys he likes nothing better than to play indifferently on the Canberra links.” In 1932, Daily Telegraph remarked that “Lyons is developing a fine drive, and though he still finds difficulty in the rough, he can putt accurately”.  The Royal Canberra Golf Club was still in its development phase in the 1930’s and the rough might have been difficult to play out of.
In April 1934, Lyons indicated that he would play golf more seriously when awarding prizes at Royal Canberra Golf Club’s Easter Tournament. Lyons said:
He said he had made spasmodic attempts at golf. It was only a few years ago that they began to see men looking like lunatics seeking for something on the ground (Laughter.) He was glad to know that these lunatics had multiplied into large numbers, for golf was one of the few games which did not have numbers of spectators. Apart from the sport, the game was most healthful. Golf played a great part in the lives of the people, and even those who did not play knew some golf stories. (Laughter).
Lyons regular playing partners in 1936 at Royal Canberra Golf Club were his private secretary, Tiny’ Douglas, and his assistant private secretary, Jack Swanson. He also played with former prime minister Billy Hughes.
Several published newspaper articles highlight his participation in golf and taking on the role of President of Royal Canberra Golf Club. In fact, Cabinet had to be adjourned so that Lyons could attend the annual general meeting to be elected president. The Argus reported:
The Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) is soon to appear in a new role to the people of Canberra. The committee of the Royal Canberra Golf Club has asked him to accept the presidency of the club on the retirement of Sir Harry Sheehan, who will take up his new duties as governor of the Commonwealth Bank early next month. Mr. Lyons has indicated his willingness to accept the appointment. In the last three years he has become a keen golfer, and he is a frequent player at Canberra. A few years ago he was persuaded to play at Canberra by his private secretary (Mr. R. I. Douglas)’ when Mr. Lyons complained that his official duties prevented him from getting adequate exercise. In three years he has become a formidable player. One of his chief duties in his new role will be to supervise the big Easter championships at Canberra. On several previous occasions Mr. Lyons’s part in these has been merely to hand out the trophies.
When presenting the prizes at the conclusion of the meeting, the Prime Minister, Mr. Lyons, said the Royal Canberra Golf Club was an asset to the Federal Government as well as a social and sporting rendezvous. Golf developed the virtues of patience and persistency, and was undoubtedly of value in promoting comradeship and better social understanding.
These articles highlight that Lyons took up golf more regularly after becoming prime minister. This might have been due to golf being an important form of exercise and mental relaxation in Canberra, the fledgling capital city. These statements are similar to the value of golf espoused by Stanley Bruce.
Lyons was elected President of Royal Canberra Golf Club in February 1938 succeeding Sir Harry Sheehan who took up the position of Commonwealth Bank Governor. Interestingly his private secretary at the time Franz Scheidrer was Club’s secretary. Robert Menzies in his address at the Lake Burley Griffin’s inauguration in 1964 suggested that the delay in the Lake’s construction might have been due to Lyons not wanting to have its construction impacting on Royal Canberra Golf Club. Menzies said:
The creation of this lake is the result of a pretty long struggle. I remember being very much in favour of it in the late thirties, but I was a humble, miserable out-voted Attorney-General at that time and there were powerful forces arrayed against me because there was a golf course (Laughter) and all the Heads of all the Departments belonged to it, and they took a fine pride in making the then Prime Minister the President of the Club (Laughter) and I fought an uphill battle for a long time.
It was only decided to move the golf course to its current location in Westbourne Woods due to severe droughts in the 1940’s. Another likely reason for the delay in the construction of the Lake was the financial austerity of the federal government due to the Great Depression and World War II.
Lyons died 10 days after playing ten holes at Royal Canberra Golf Club. [23} A day after his death, during Royal Canberra Golf Club’s Easter Tournament stopped 10.40 am where there “was a blast from a whistle stopped all players, who stood reverently to attention and observed a minute’s silence.” 
Lawn Bowls and Tennis
In 1936, Lyons is reported to have his first game of lawn bowls and it was widely reported in the press:
Bowls has now won a keen devotee in the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons), who, on the Parliamentary green to-day, tried his hand for the first time at this ancient sport.
Although he found getting the correct delivery of the bowl puzzling, he soon showed considerable proficiency, and intends playing the game as regularly as opportunity permits. Until now, Mr. Lyons has sought relaxation from Prime Ministerial cares on the golf links, but in future he hopes to be able to slip out from his office at Parliament House for an occasional half hour’s exercise at bowls. He thinks bowls is a game for men of any age, and that it provides real exercise. “It has an advantage over golf in that a player cannot lose the balls,” ‘he said. “Like golf, it also provides grounds for temporary annoyance, particularly when a bowl lying near the kitty is knocked off the green.
Playing low impact sports golf, lawns bowls and tennis were important to many parliamentarians living in Canberra in the 1930’s due to the difficulties of travel to their home states led to them residing in Canberra for longer periods. In March 1936, Lyons was reported to have strained a tendon on left leg when playing a ‘high shot’ in a game of tennis at the Parliament House and resulted in him hobbling around his office with aid of two sticks.
Cricket’s Bodyline Crisis
The test cricket rivalry between Australia and England is known as the “Battle for the Ashes” and has from its beginnings generated great interest in Australia and England. During the 1932-33 Ashes series in Australia, English captain Douglas Jardine used fast leg theory bowling, referred to as ‘bodyline’, to combat Don Bradman’s run scoring feats. This led to intense criticism in Australia regarding this legal tactic. The ‘bodyline’ controversy peaked during the third test at Adelaide Oval from 13 to 19 January 1933. Australian captain and opening batsman Bill Woodfull was struck above the heart by Harold Larwood on day two. This led to Australian Board of Control for International Cricket sending he following telegram to Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) on 18 January 1933:
Bodyline bowling assumed such proportions as to menace best interests of game, making protection of body by batsmen the main consideration. Causing intensely bitter feeling between players, as well as injury. In our opinion is unsportsmanlike. Unless stopped at once likely to upset friendly relations between Australia and England.
The MCC replied on 23 January 1933:
We, Marylebone Cricket Club, deplore your cable. We deprecate your opinion that there has been unsportsmanlike play. We have fullest confidence in captain, team and managers, and are convinced they would do nothing to infringe either the Laws of Cricket or the spirit of the game. We have no evidence that our confidence is misplaced. Much as we regret accidents to Woodfull and Oldfield, we understand that in neither case was the bowler to blame. If the Australian Board of Control wish to propose a new law or rule it shall receive our careful consideration in due course. We hope the situation is not now as serious as your cable would seem to indicate, but if it is such as to jeopardise the good relations between English and Australian cricketers, and you would consider it desirable to cancel remainder of programme, we would consent with great reluctance. 
Lyons involvement in Bodyline first appears Canberra Times report on 26 January:
The report is current in Cabinet circles that Mr.Bruce, in a telephone conversation from London, informed the Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) that there was considerable resentment in England over the Attitude of the Australian Board of Control in its cabled protest against ‘the ‘leg theory. Questioned on the matter to-day, Mr. Lyons’ said that he did not propose to say anything which would de-part from the strict rule of secrecy in communications between members of the Cabinet.
Stoddart’s research unearthed the Lyons involvement in endeavouring to defuse the controversy through Ernest Crutchley, the representative in the Commonwealth of Australia of HM Government in the United Kingdom. Crutchley was drawn into the dispute on 1 February 1933 due to Australian Board of Control’s charge of ‘unsportsmanship’. English captain Jardine demanded the accusation unsportsmanship to be retracted. Crutchley in his diaries now available through National Library of Australia stated:
I phoned the PM at Melbourne. He said to start with, “It looks as though we [are] leading two opposing armies”. I told him exactly what had happened and he agreed that the cancellation of the tour would be a very grave thing, for Australia especially, just when feeling was so good. He promised to get hold of Dr Roberson, chairman of the Board of Control, and see what could be done.
Crutchley further highlighted his interactions with Lyons in a letter to English tour manager Plum Warner stating that Lyons has already ‘tried his hand at peace making’ in the dispute. A telegram Dr Robertson sent to W.H. Jeanes, MCC Secretary said:
Prime Minister interviewed me today. Stated that British Representative had seen him and asked him to get us withdraw word objected to. If not likelihood of England pulling right out. If we do withdraw has no doubt attack will be modified. Government afraid successful conversions endangered.
Derriman in his book Bodyline suggests that ‘conversions’ referred to in Robertson’s telegram related to “conversion loans’ that Australia obtained from Britain. These loans were old loans that were renegotiated to allow easier payments – a critical necessity of the Lyons government in managing the Great Depression. The conversion loans issue raised is apparent in the regular conversations that Lyons had with former prime minister Stanley Bruce, who was special minister for negotiations in London. Bruce told Lyons that ‘bodyline’ issue was frequently raised with him in England and he was concerned that it might derail the negotiations he was undertaking on conversion loans.
The threat of the tour abandonment was adverted by Board of Control’s cable to the MCC on 8 February, two days before fourth test in Brisbane. It stated:
We do not regard the sportsmanship of your team being in question. Our position was fully considered at the recent Sydney meeting, and it as indicated in our cable of 30 January. It is a particular class of bowling referred to therein which we consider not to be in the interests of cricket, an in this view we understand we are supported by many eminent cricketers? We join heartly with you in hoping the remaining Tess will be played with the traditional good feelings.
Derriman states it is difficult to determine if Lyons intervention was due to issues related to British loans or acting in the interest of cricket which was important to Australians in 1933, a period of economic and social hardship but where sport was an important relief and distraction. Interestingly two other prime ministers were also involved in ‘bodyline’ crisis – former prime minister Stanley Bruce in his role in Britain and later prime minister Robert Menzies. Sisson and Stoddart suggest Menzies who at the time was Attorney-General of Victoria might have been involved in drafting the second and third Board of Control cables to MCC. This was due to his relationships with Victorian Board of Control members and friendship with Plum Warner. Cricket loving Menzies witnessed the Australian ‘bodyline’ injuries at the third test in Adelaide.
Several articles highlight Lyons great interest in the Australian men’s cricket team. 1934 Courier Mail article:
Even Cabinet Ministers, unrelentingly pursued by the cares of office, find time to discuss the selection of the Test cricket team. To-day’s sitting of the Federal Cabinet was temporarily adjourned when a messenger entered the conference room with the news of the new team. When asked later his opinion the Prime Minister (Mr. J.A. Lyons) said: “I think it is a great team. I think it will earn a splendid reputation both on and off the field. I am particularly pleased to know that Bradman has been chosen vice-captain. I wish the team success.
1938 The West Australian article–
The Prime Minister (Mr. Lyons) would not have minded if the House of Representatives had sat all night tonight He will not be in bed anyway. He intends to sit up to listen to the broadcast of the Test match. Mr. Lyons is an ardent cricket fan. He knows the game well and follows closely all the news about the activities of the Australians in England. He has a radio set in a room adjoining his office and to day listened in frequently in the hope of obtaining information about conditions on the eve of the game. Mr. Lyons was able to give a number of members who have cricketing affiliations the latest news about the state of the wicket and the weather prospects.
Olympic & British Empire Games
Scullin and Lyons government’s did not provide funding for the Australian team to the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles due to expenditure restraints due to early stages of the Great Depression. However, in May 1932, Mrs Enid Lyons christened sculler Bobby Pearce’s boat ‘ Mirrabooka’ (aboriginal for Southern Cross) to be used for the 1932 Olympic Games. Lyons noted he was interested in the performances of the Australian team and particularly Tasmanian runner Ernest ‘Bill” Barwick. Lyons further stated he took an interest in rowing and witnessed Pearce winning his first Australian Championship on the Derwent River in 1927.  Pearce won the singles sculls at 1928 and 1932 Games.
In opening the Victorian Athletics Championships in November 1933, Lyons announced 500 pounds would be allocated to help pay for Australian team expenses for the 1934 British Empire Games in London.
Lyons Government granted 2000 pounds for the Australian team to the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin. Lyons went to Melbourne to farewell the Australian team that travelled by passenger-and-cargo ocean liner Mongolia to the 1936 Olympic Games. On 17 May 1936, Lyons presented Olympic blazers to Victorian team members – Doris Carter, Alf Watson, Gerard Backhouse, Fred Woodhouse, Ron Masters, Chris Wheeler, Tasman Johnson, Leslie Harley, Harry Cooper, Dick Garrard, James O’Hara and team masseur Neil Morrison. In his speeches Lyons said:
With the spirit of cheerfulness and concord which it will take to Berlin, the Australian Olympic team should be able to do that which the statesman of the world are finding most difficult. The team should do much to foster the peace and friendship of which this old world is sadly in need… In amateur athletics I see real spirit of sport. Success brings no reward other than the knowledge that you have done your best. When the Olympic torch is finally extinguished at the great stadium in Berlin, the Australian team will have lighted another torch which will burn brightly – the torch of peace and mutual friendship.
You go to carry the spirit of good friendship to the Games, and you will do something to create a fine spirit between the countries of the world. I hope that some of you will be successful, but that is not what matters, because I know you will uphold the reputation of Australia. I am rather inclined to be envious of you fellows. I went on a trip abroad recently, but I did not get half as good a send-off. Perhaps the people of this country felt that they could not spare its politicians, but could spare its athletes.
In August 1936, Adelaide’s The Mail reported that the Australian team had become weary to sustaining the Nazi salute and greetings to the increasing number of soldiers in Berlin. One of the team members went from ‘Heil, Hitler’ to a ‘Heil, Joe Lyons.’
Lyons was a believer in the amateur ideal of the Olympic Games and its possible role in world peace. It appears that there were no moves by the Lyons government to stop the Australian team from attending the Games. It was a period where many world leaders were concerned with Hitler and Nazism but were hoping that appeasement would avoid conflict.
Lyons government did not have a major role in funding and organising the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney which was mainly a New South Wales government event to coincide with Sydney’s sesqui-centenary. Records held by the National Archives reveal that Lyons Government actively supported Sydney’s bid and it provided funding for the outfitting of the Australian team. Lyons was honorary President of Australian British Empire and Commonwealth Games Association and was present at the opening ceremony. The position of President is now called the Patron and it is symbolic rather than administrative.
National Fitness Act 1941
In the years preceding World War II, there was concern about the fitness of potential military recruits. Future prime minister Harold Holt, the Federal Member for Fawkner, regularly canvassed this issue in the press and parliament. The Lyons government convened two meetings of the National Co-ordinating Council for Physical Fitness (NCCPF) Melbourne on 5-6 January 1939 and again on 2 May 1939 chaired by health minister Harry Foll. Eventually the Menzies Government passed the National Fitness Act in 1941.
Australian Broadcasting Commission
The Lyons government established the Australian Broadcasting Commission on 1 July 1932 by an act of federal parliament. It replaced the Australian Broadcasting Company Pty Ltd that had a federal government contract to supply radio programmes for broadcast on the “A-class” transmitters. When it was launched by Lyons on 1 July 1932, it had eight city and four regional radio stations. It was established just in time for broadcasting the ‘bodyline’ series. The ABC’s first annual report in 1933 stated that that the “keen national interest in sport” had inspired daily broadcasts of the “bodyline” Ashes cricket series to a national network of 12 stations. Indeed, the ABC helped build a national audience for sports such as cricket and tennis, first on radio, and then on television. 
Lyons died on 7 April 1939 of a heart attack in Sydney. Sporting Globe obituary titled was ‘Sportsmen Mourn Mr Lyons’ reads:
Mr Lyons was always interested in sport, and in his younger days was an excellent athlete, playing football and other games with ability and zest. Even his heavy public duties did not cause him to lose his interest, and he delighted to spend what little time he could among sporting people.
Whilst Lyons had a great interest in sport, his government provided limited support as was the case with previous federal governments. The ‘bodyline’ crisis did require his government to intervene in decisions made by a sporting organisation due to the ramifications for Australia’s finances during the Great Depression.
- Team photo including Lyons Philip Smith Training College for Teachers Football Club
- Photo of Lyons and Royal Canberra Golf Committee – 1939
Thanks to Paul Hunt for comments and additional references.
 Prime Minister in Premiership Football Team 28 Years Ago, The Mercury (Hobart, Tas), 30 May 1935, p. 16.
 Mr Lyons Tees Up. Daily Telegraph, 25 May 1932
Derriman, Phillip, Bodyline, Melbourne, Collins, 1984. P.109
 Sissons, Ric and Stoddart, Brian, Cricket and the Empire, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 1984, p. 106
 Sisson and Stoddart, p.108
 Writer, Larry. Dangerous games : Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics, Sydney, Allen & Unwin, 2015, p. 78
 Australian Broadcasting Commission. Annual report and financial statements of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, Sydney, The Commission, 1933.