Chapter 1: Malcolm Fraser
The following text is part of a short biographical essay written by journalist and author Dr Margaret Simons. Use the navigation bar or the 'Next' and 'Previous' links below to view other parts of the essay. Chapter 1 comprises the full essay.
Family and early life
Image 6: Malcolm, Neville, Una and Lorraine Fraser at Balpool-Nyang station, c. 1943.
UMA, 2007.0053, OSBA/637
Malcolm Fraser was born on 21 May 1930 during the Great Depression and raised at Balpool-Nyang, a remote property on the Edward River in the NSW Riverina. In later life he attributed his shyness, abrasiveness and social awkwardness to this solitary, although reasonably happy, early childhood.
Balpool-Nyang came into the family as part of the legacy of Fraser's paternal grandfather, Sir Simon Fraser, to whom the family owed its wealth and social position among the establishment families of the nation. A Canadian Scot, Simon Fraser arrived in Australia in 1853 at the age of 21, and made his money contracting for roads, bridges and railways. He formed the Squatting Investment Company with others, and bought properties all over the west of Queensland and down into New South Wales. Simon Fraser was deeply involved in the politics of the time, first as a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly and later as a participant in the Australasian Federal Convention of 1897–98. He ran for election to the first Senate and topped the state poll in Victoria. In 1906 he stood for re-election as an anti-socialist. He was knighted in 1918, shortly before his death as a result of bronchitis at the age of 86.2
Less well known is that Malcolm Fraser also had politics on his mother's side of the family, although this heritage played little part in his awareness. Una Fraser's father, Louis Arnold Woolf, was born in New Zealand and was at least partly Jewish – the son of a South African émigré. In Australia he married Amy Booth, a third-generation Australian whose grandparents had helped found the town of Milton on the NSW south coast. Una Woolf was raised in Perth, where her father worked as an accountant. In the elections for the first Senate in 1901 Louis Woolf ran as a candidate endorsed by the Australian Free Trade and Liberal Association, one of the many liberal organisations that was a precursor to the modern Liberal Party. He was unsuccessful.3 There is some evidence that Woolf suffered from anti-Semitism, and it seems that his daughter was sensitive to the issue.4 She suppressed the fact of her Jewish heritage, and Malcolm Fraser found out this aspect of his family history only in later life.5
Image 7: Malcolm Fraser during his time at Oxford, c. 1951.
UMA, 2007.0053, OSBA/648
Malcolm Fraser's father, John Neville (always known as Neville), was born in 1890, the youngest son of Simon Fraser's second marriage to Anna Bertha Collins, daughter of Queensland pioneer and squatter John Collins. Anna Fraser was also one of the best known and most progressive charity workers of her time. Neville Fraser was educated at Melbourne Grammar, Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, and then Magdalen College, Oxford. He fought in World War I, enlisting with the British, before returning to Australia and the life of a farmer.6
Neville Fraser was involved in local politics in the Riverina, serving on the local shire council at Wakool. Later, after moving to the Western District of Victoria in 1943, Neville Fraser was also involved in clandestine anti-communist movements that were a feature of the time. He did not involve his son in these activities, but Malcolm Fraser shared his father's deep suspicion and fear of communism.
Young Malcolm had a weak chest and nearly died of pneumonia at the age of eight, after which he was sent to Tudor House School in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales, known for its clean air. During this time, Fraser's parents sold Balpool-Nyang and bought the property at Nareen in the Western District, with which Fraser was identified throughout his prime ministership. The young Fraser was not told until after the sale that the Balpool-Nyang property was on the market. In later life, he described the day he heard about the sale as the worst of his life. He remained at Tudor House between the ages of 10 and 13, and was then educated at Melbourne Grammar before travelling to Oxford, and his father's old college of Magdalen.
It was at Oxford, Fraser was later to say, where he learned to think. He completed a PPE – a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics. His academic results were not notable, but his essays and university notebooks show that he engaged deeply with the works of the classic liberal philosophers.7 He also wrote an enthusiastic piece about the work of John Maynard Keynes, an economist he continued to admire throughout his career. It was also at Oxford that Fraser became aware of the post-war 'enlightenment' – the early years of the United Nations, World Bank and International Monetary Fund. He returned to Australia in 1952 determined to do more than succeed his father as the owner and manager of Nareen.
3 Accounts of Woolf's campaign appearances can be found in the Perth Morning Herald, 6 February 1901, p. 2; 28 February 1901, p. 3; 2 March 1901, p. 6; 4 March 1901, p. 4; 6 March 1901, p. 2; 11 March 1901, p. 6; 15 March 1901, p. 10. Unless otherwise footnoted, details of Woolf's life are drawn from Una Woolf, 'A letter to you all' (written for her grandchildren in 1980), in the possession of the Fraser family.