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Hall, Francis Barrington (Barry) (1921–2013)

by Michael Fogarty

Barry Hall was the last of the first. He was the remaining surviving member of the inaugural class of diplomatic staff cadets recruited in 1943, when 1500 eligible men and women applied to join the Department of External Affairs.

The 12 entrants comprised nine men – all former servicemen – and three women. Three of the men had attended Geelong Grammar School before their wartime enlistment, as had Hall.

In Australian diplomatic history, they were among the best and the brightest of their generation. Not all the men would stay in the corps, and several of the women were obliged to resign on marriage.

In 2010, when the department marked its 75th anniversary, Hall was singled out for recognition by then foreign affairs minister Kevin Rudd.

Francis Barrington Hall was born in Panton Hill, Victoria, on February 12, 1921, the eldest of four children of Basil Hall and his wife Ellen (nee Nicolls), who made several moves during their children's schooling.

Basil had a soldier settler's block and became shire president. Barry matriculated in 1939, having learned French and German. Common to his generation, he abandoned his law studies at university to join the army on July 1, 1940, noting his mother as next of kin and lying about his age.

Bombardier Hall served with the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment of the 7th Division, Australian Imperial Force. He served for three years, fighting in the Middle East from October 1940 to March 1942. He conceded that the Foreign Legion soldiers of the Vichy French in Syria were tough enemies. From October 1942 to June 1943, Hall served in New Guinea.

Still, he found time to apply for the new foreign service cadet scheme, and his commanding officer supported his bid, wryly assessing that he would make a better diplomatic cadet than a soldier.

On his discharge, he was appointed to External Affairs on June 24, 1943. In November 1944, he was posted to the Australian legation in China as a third secretary.

On his transfer overseas, Hall was given high priority for his travel arrangements. As a junior diplomat, he was deemed an SIP, or slightly important person.

He travelled in distinguished company. Other passengers included holders of the Victoria Cross, diplomatic couriers, titled aristocrats and senior military officers.

At the time, the Catalina flying boat service across the Indian Ocean from Perth to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) was the longest non-stop aviation sector in the world, and among the bravest to fly. A six-man crew was in charge of only two or three passengers, and a flight could last more than 31 hours, spanning 5652 kilometres.

Headwinds and bad weather often forced military aircraft down to low levels. One US army courier, with a top-secret diplomatic valise manacled to his wrist, passed out from shock during a wild flight in a cyclone. When he came to, he said the roiling sea, seen through a tiny porthole, had resembled a cauldron of boiling milk.

More hazards awaited this intrepid diplomat. ''The hump'', as Allied pilots called the route over the eastern sector of the Himalayas, is still acknowledged as one of the most perilous sectors ever to have been flown. Hall flew it several times because then it was the only way into southern China from India and Burma (now Myanmar).

US Dakota cargo aircraft flew through mountainous valleys, skirting jagged peaks in treacherous weather. The route was dubbed the aluminium staircase because the jungle floor was littered with the wreckage of hundreds of transport aircraft.

Successfully crossing ''the hump'' was a war winner, and Australian diplomats contributed to that victory.

In Chungking (now Chongqing), Hall helped with chancery correspondence, property, staffing and transport needs. On occasion, he would ferry vital supplies along the Yangtze River.

Hall was keen to learn Mandarin but he was unable to spend enough time studying it and his command of the language was not good.

During the war, his heavy workload prevented him from studying for the yearly examinations to join the foreign service. He did, however, find time for walking, a passion of his until his death. In particular he enjoyed the writings of US author, naturalist and fellow flaneur Henry Thoreau.

Hall served in Chungking and Nanking (Nanjing) from late 1944 until April 1948. On his return to Canberra, he could only note the outcome of the civil war in horror.

''Panic conditions prevail in exodus of Chinese from Nanking and Shanghai,'' the Australian legation in Nanking reported in late 1948. ''Scenes at railway terminals and aboard trains are indescribable. Even roofs of trains and buffers are packed with fear-stricken Chinese. Numbers trampled to death at stations and swept off tops of trains under bridges.'' The revolution interrupted Hall's studies at Peking University. He forgot much of his Chinese and was not reposted to the country.

A short posting to Singapore in 1949 was followed by a three-year stint in Delhi (1949-52).

On his return he married Diana Medley, Sir John Medley's daughter. His first wife, Mary Jackson, died in 1949.

He alternated between service in Canberra and other overseas missions, including Wellington (1955-58), Kuala Lumpur (1958-60) and Karachi (1963-65).

Hall was Australia's first ambassador to Tehran (1968-72) when an embassy opened there in the twilight years of the Shah of Iran's reign. Hall's political reporting in 1971 was prescient: "Iraq is using all available pressure to thwart Iran's aspirations in the Gulf to be the major influence in any post-1971 adjustment of power in the area."

Hall was ambassador in Athens in 1972-74, a period in which Greece was experiencing enormous political instability. He was then appointed consul-general to Chicago (1974-76) at the fag end of Democratic mayor Richard Daley's controversial two-decade reign.

After a spell in Canberra, as chief of protocol (1977-80), managing several diplomatic scandals, Hall's last posting was to Ankara (1980-84).

He remained an active man in retirement, even into his 90s. His hearing deteriorated, as does any old gunner's. While not a bohemian, he did sport a grey beard. He was an active parishioner at St Paul's Anglican Church, Manuka.

Hall was not your foxhole Christian. He wove a metaphorical tapestry that bore witness to his faith. A gentle, softly spoken and unassuming man, he stitched others together in an embroidered life of shared pastoral faith.

He was also active in his local Curtin community.

In 2013, Diana Hall collaborated with Rachel Miller on Wife and Baggage to Follow, a book about the frequently difficult lives of Australian diplomats' wives.

Hall's love of Diana was absolute and he was a good man and a good husband. He was loyal, dutiful, honest, modest, humble, hard working, had integrity and was self-effacing.

He was happy with mystery; he knew that he knew not all.

As a long-serving senior diplomat, he made many significant achievements as an observer and participant in the broad sweep of Australian diplomacy. He served his nation well, at war and in peacetime.

Barry Hall is survived by Diana and their children Basil, Peter, Stephen and Elizabeth and 10 grandchildren.

Original publication

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 31 December 2013

Citation details

Michael Fogarty, 'Hall, Francis Barrington (Barry) (1921–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hall-francis-barrington-barry-17491/text29180, accessed 24 November 2017.

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