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Australian politician and one time Prime Minister, John McEwen (1900-1980), was in kinship care as a child.

John McEwen was born in the gold rush town of Chiltern, Victoria, 236 km north-east of Melbourne. His father, David McEwen, had migrated from County of Armagh, Ireland in about 1889 and set up shop as a pharmacist in Chiltern.

John’s mother, Amy Porter, was David’s second wife; his first died of lung disease in 1893 and David sent his two daughters, Evelyn and Gladys, to live in a Catholic orphanage.

Evelyn never married and died when she was quite young. Gladys married a man named Richards and went with him to Bendigo where she lived until she was ninety-two. Her neighbours became used to seeing McEwen’s big black ministerial car pull up at her door whenever he was in the area. (Golding p. 36)

John’s mother, Amy McEwen also died of a lung disease, in 1901. David then cared for his two youngest children, John and his sister Amy, in rented rooms behind his pharmacy.

Three years later, David McEwen married for a 3rd time, and had another son, George, born in 1906. The following year David died of meningitis and heart failure.

John McEwen was seven when his father died. He and Amy were sent to live with their maternal grandmother, Ellen Porter, while George went with his mother to live in Melbourne.

Ellen Porter ran a boarding house in Wangaratta, 38 km south-west of Chiltern and was a significant influence on John.

…he remembered [Nellie] with great affection as a woman of outstanding character…His recollection was that ‘she influenced the way I thought and some of my attitudes in later life.’ She ‘did not attempt to shape my career but she did continually emphasise to me that whatever I finished up doing I should endeavour to be at the top’.

 McEwen said after his retirement: ‘Her words are still in my mind, “If you go into the church, become an archbishop. If you go into the army, become a general. If you go into politics, become a prime minister’. I have no doubt that this, said to me at the age of eleven or twelve or thirteen, in [my] very formative years, help to mould my outlook on life (Golding p. 38).

Nellie gave up her boarding house in 1912 and moved to Dandenong, only 35 km from Melbourne, to live with her sisters. That same year, John finished school and at the age of thirteen he went out to work, paying his grandmother board.

Despite a long day travelling at 6.30am from Dandenong to Melbourne (where he worked for a wholesale drug company) and getting back home after 7.00pm, John began to study at night so he could improve his education and move into the public service.

In 1915 John became a junior clerk in the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor’s office. Instead of studying for the law—which he was encouraged to do by Gough Whitlam’s father—he qualified for Duntroon, an officer training college in Canberra. However, he joined the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) rather than go to Duntroon, but never served overseas.

By the time he’d gotten through his training, nineteen-year-old McEwen had decided he didn’t want to work for a ‘boss’. He therefore took up the opportunity to obtain a ‘soldier settlement’, a block of nearly thirty-five hectares in Stanhope, 198 km north of Melbourne. Working his block alone during the day and reading history at night, John McEwen gradually became interested in politics.

McEwen took his interest in politics and first advocated for improved arrangements for settler farmers. He then became a member of the Country Party and attempted in 1932 to win a seat in the federal parliament but failed. Two years later McEwen successfully ran for the seat of Echuca.

McEwen’s maiden speech in November ranged over issues which were to preoccupy him in his parliamentary career: primary industry, commerce, trade, banking, employment and defence. It was the task of government, he said, to ‘discover the basic facts upon which our national economy is founded, and search there for the root causes [of problems]’. (Lloyd)

John McEwen went on to serve for almost thirty-seven years in the federal parliament. He was Minister for Commerce and Trade for twenty years and was deputy Prime Minister for twelve years between 1958 and 1971. During that time he often served as acting Prime Minister.

John McEwen was Prime Minister for only a short period—from 19 December 1967 to January 1968—after the disappearance of Harold Holt.

In 1968 McEwan was appointed Deputy Prime Minister to John Gorton, McEwan was the first appointee to officially carry the title.


Golding, Peter. Black Jack McEwen. Political Gladiator. Melbourne University Press, 1996.

Lloyd, C.J. “McEwen, Sir John (1900-1980).” Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 15, (2000).

“John McEwen.” Australia’s Prime Ministers. National Archives of Australia.

“The Victorian Soldier Settlement Scheme 1917-1935.” Public Record Office Victoria.

Image available here.