Lt Colonel Howard Tolley DSO

Ernest Mühlstein (Milston)
Portrait by Ernest Milston of Lt Colonel H G Tolley DSO. Courtesy Ian and Noelle Tolley, Renmark

Lt Colonel Tolley was a key figure in the location and construction of Australia’s largest internment camp at Loveday.[1] His background in both irrigation and the military enabled him to make decisions at key points in the establishment of the group of camps.

Howard Tolley was born on 22 November 1887 at Prospect in Adelaide. He grew up in Mildura where his father, George Tolley, was involved with the Chaffey settlement. He attended Melbourne University where he qualified as a civil engineer and surveyor. He worked for the Victorian Lands Department in the Rodney and Tatura districts, in 1909 on the Murrumbidgee Canal in the Riverina District of NSW and from 1912 studied and worked in North America, Europe and North Africa. During the Great War he enlisted in the Engineers and served with the AIF in Egypt, France and Belgium rising to the rank of Major and receiving the DSO for conspicuous gallantry. He was Mentioned in Despatches four times. Following the war, he used his time in England to study the latest technologies in pumping machinery. He returned to NSW where he investigated irrigation along the Lachlan and Macquarie Rivers before being seconded to work on the Locks and Weir construction along the Murray. In 1923 he applied for and was appointed to the role of Chief Engineer for the Renmark Irrigation Trust. While in that role he was appointed to the South Australian Irrigation Royal Commission.[2]

In 1926 Howard Tolley resigned from the Renmark Irrigation Trust when he was appointed Irrigation Commissioner for South Australia. He was replaced as engineer at the Trust by his brother, John Tolley. As Irrigation Commissioner he was responsible for the oversight of all government irrigation areas within the state through the Department of Lands.

Upon the outbreak of World War 2 Major Tolley re-enlisted in 1939 at the age of 51. He was prevented by age from serving overseas but was promoted to Lt Colonel (Temporary) in charge of the 4MD Engineers based at Keswick.[3] His role in 1939-40 included the construction of training camps for the new recruits to the AIF. On 12 July 1940 Southern Command (Melbourne) forwarded instructions to 4MD, Keswick, Adelaide, to complete the construction of two internment camps to be known as Camps 9 and 10. They were to be ready for occupation by 20 August 1940. On the 17 July 1940 Lt Colonel Tolley selected two sites at Loveday that were approved by the Commandant of the 4MD, Brigadier Bundock. The local newspaper reported that £100,000 was to be spent in the area[4]. In the event the arrival of the first internees was delayed and they did not appear until 11 June 1941.

Loveday provided an ideal location as it was inland but connected by highway and rail to the major centres. It had plentiful water and existing pipeline infrastructure. It had access to electricity from Renmark and offered potential horticultural production as the plan was for internees to eventually grow their own food. It also had access to a large supply of firewood. Tenders were called for construction materials and supply of food for two camps by civilian contractors each designed to hold 1,000 internees[5]. After Japan entered the war the internment complex was expanded by the construction of Camp 14 and an administrative Headquarters with accommodation for garrison personnel, transport, signals, stores, services, and a camp hospital.[6] Three wood cutting camps were also established. The expanded camp facilities were occupied through the first six months of 1942.

After July 1942, as the threat of a Japanese invasion emerged, Lt Colonel Tolley applied to join the AIF from the Militia. While initially rejected he found a way by the 10th November of that year and then transferred to Western Australia early in 1943.


Author: Geoff Bull



[1] Dean, Lt Col E.T., 28 Feb 1946, History of Loveday 1940-1946, Location, p3.

[2] Observer, Adelaide SA 1905-1931, 28 Aug 1926, Irrigation Commissioner, p46.

[3] NAA, B833, SX26541, War Record of Howard George Tolley.

[4] Murray Pioneer and Australian River Record, 1 Aug 1940, Camps for Internees at Loveday, p1.

[5] Ibid

[6] NAA, D844, 73A/1/6 [F], 484829, Military History internment in South Australia 1939-1945 Loveday groups.