Joe Lyons’ pocket watch – Tasmania’s Prime Minister

No. 71

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Joe Lyons was the Premier of Tasmania before becoming the only Tasmanian to serve as Prime Minister of Australia. He was one of our longest serving Prime Ministers and co-founded the United Australia Party, which held government from 1931 through to 1941. This Swiss-made Longines pocket watch was presented to Lyons in 1936 by his friend, the former Canadian Prime Minister, Richard Bedford Bennet.

Lyons was born in Stanley in 1879 and qualified as a teacher in 1901. He was elected as a Labor member to the state Legislative Assembly seat of Wilmot in 1909. Lyons promoted a series of progressive reforms, including free medical treatment and education for children, a state medical scheme, and campaigned strongly against conscription during the First World War.

Lyons was Premier of Tasmania between 1923 and 1928, and then entered federal politics in 1929, serving under Labor Prime Minister James Scullin. As the Depression bit, Lyons disagreed with many of his Labor colleagues on how best to fight the economic crisis. He advocated balancing budgets but Caucus rejected this in favour of more radical inflationary measures. Lyons subsequently resigned from the party in 1931 and was taken up by conservative forces. He helped found the United Australia Party – the forerunner to today’s Liberal Party – and was elected leader.

The party won government in December 1931, at a time of great social and economic turmoil. Lyons became Australia’s ‘Depression Prime Minister’ and managed to unite the nation. With a homely and modest demeanour, and large family, he was exceptionally popular with the voting public, but remained unforgiven in Labor circles for decades.

Lyons died in 1939, while still in office. His wife, Enid, entered federal politics, being the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and the first female member of a federal ministry. The Lyons’ home in Devonport – Home Hill – is owned by the National Trust and is open to the public.

Comments on this object

  • Joseph Lyons believed strongly in forging personal relationships with other leaders. As Premier and Prime Minister, he often invited the Leader of the Opposition for a drink after a parliamentary session. He was a great friend of Britain's Neville Chamberlain and in trying to contain Nazi Germany, they regularly used a relatively new invention called the telephone. Richard Bennett, the only Canadian Prime Minister to buried outside Canada (he is interred in Surrey, England) was the mentor of Lord Beaverbrook, the legendary newspaperman and politician. Bennett thought highly enough of Joe Lyons to buy him the watch as a personal gift. It is because I believe that the watch belongs to the people of Tasmania that I donated it to the Museum. Peter Lyons
  • Joseph Lyons was one of Australia's longest serving prime ministers and held Australia united during the unsettling years of the Great Depression and looming war in Europe and the Pacific in the late 1930s. He was also Australia's first "flying" prime minister in an age of rapid industrialisation around aircraft and other cutting edge technology of the era. Joseph Lyons clocked up record numbers of miles on the election campaign trails in 1934 and 1937 - chiefly because of the availability of reliable aircraft. This was the age of pioneer aviators such as Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm in Australia and others overseas like Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Charles Ulm became Joseph Lyons' personal pilot in the 1934 election campaign. Such pilots were also reliant on the technology of companies such as Longines who designed and manufactured the finest of timepieces for these aviators. The advent of commercial air travel in the 1930s greatly advantaged global politics, as well as Australia's contact with North America and Europe. Joseph Lyons was a leader who happily embraced the new technology of his day - from radio to air travel and telegraph communications. While still using a long sea voyage to travel to Europe in 1935 and 1937, and the USA in 1935, Joseph Lyons made use of air travel while in Europe. The Swiss-made Longines pocket watch given to Lyons in 1936 by the former Canadian Prime Minister, Richard Bedford Bennett, is an extremely appropriate memento of not only that era but also of the many technological and industrial advances these two prime ministers enjoyed during their terms of office. - Anne Henderson Anne Henderson
  • The Canadian origins of the watch are an appropriate piece of Lyons memorabilia given the significant role that this prime minister played in the evolution of what he consistently called the 'British Commonwealth of Nations', preferring this term to that of 'Empire', which he considered outdated. Prime Minister Lyons was foremost in championing the concept that the Dominions, including Australia, were equal partners in the imperial project and should accordingly play a significant part in the external relations of the British Commonwealth. Consequently, he sought to play an important part in international affairs, particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. His proposal in London in 1937 of a Pacific Pact marks a significant step in the evolution of Australian nationhood. That his watch is now open to the appreciation of the Tasmanian public is also fitting, given his abiding affection for his home state, where he found respite during the troubled years of his time as Tasmania's only federal prime minister. David Bird