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Bowden, Ivor Gordon (1925–2021)

by Mike Fogarty

Ivor Bowden was born in Shanghai on 19 August, 1925 and he died in Adelaide on 23 April, 2021 aged 95. He joined the Department of External Affairs as a diplomatic staff cadet in 1951. His class mates from that year (intake IX) included: Graham Feakes, Roy Fernandez, Wally Handmer, Peter Henderson and (Sir) Nick Parkinson. The last two peers headed the department as secretary.  

His father Vivian was working as a managing director of a Shanghai company from 1921. In 1935, Bowden was made Australian government trade commissioner in China. By 1941, the Australian government closed its Shanghai office and appointed Vivian its official representative in Singapore. Vivian was executed in 1942 by the Japanese after escaping Singapore. John Quinn, pere, was spared for his youth.

Ivor was sent to Australia beforehand, where he studied at Geelong Church of England Grammar School, from 1940-1943. This dux of school approached the British Military Mission in Melbourne and then sailed to the UK to be commissioned as an officer with the 1st Battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment, from 1944-47, serving in India. It is not known if he served in the closing Burma campaign of 1945.

On demobilisation, along with many veterans, it was time to progress his education. This he did at Oxford University, from 1947 to 1950, studying at Oriel College, in the Philosophy, Politics and Economics faculty. His extra-curricular activities included rugby and cricket. He graduated BA with a fair pass at 2nd Class Honours in 1950.

What was his character? Ivor Bowden made a favourable impression at Oxford. Assessments included: “He is a man who could be trusted to maintain a steady level of work and to handle competently the normal range of problems.” “I have always found his judgment sound.” “He is not a brilliant or showy man but sensible and self-possessed.” These insights were well-founded as many knew him.

Bowden was recruited in London and was appointed to External Affairs returning to join the department in 1951. He spoke French. In 1952, he married Caroline Wills and they would have three children: Charles (1957), Michael (1959) and Katherine (1961). It was time to embark on a professional life as a career diplomat of almost 40 years.

Postings were sequenced in typical style, as the hardship posts alternated with the more furnished capitals. They can be summarised as follows: Saigon (1952-55), Paris (1957-60), Noumea (1963-65), Dublin (1965-66) and Belgrade (1966-67). Overseas postings were matched with regular promotions. From third secretary to counsellor, he was ready to be appointed a head of mission. He was well-equipped.

Three senior appointments were filled in over a decade. As with other postings, rotations back to Canberra between posts were symptomatic of condition. They can be listed as follows: Hong Kong (1972-74), Tehran (1974-78) and Islamabad (1984-87). After Pakistan, Ivor retired as a First Assistant Secretary ending a long and distinguished career.

A short obituary can not account for his contribution to Australian diplomacy. Nor can one range his span of achievements.  Bowden pursued a demanding career complete with privileges, hardships and increasing responsibilities. He was a capable manager and was competent in his political reports, some of which were overly long and detailed, replete with solemn historical facts. He met departmental expectations.

A first posting makes for an indelible impression, whether good or bad. One is entrusted to make the best of it, and return the confidence extended to be discharged in any assignment. To open a post, in a third-world country, is no less a challenge. Saigon was such a case. It was a constant struggle to operate a functional chancery and find suitable housing. From small things such big things grow. Consider Saigon.

Indo-China was at the fag end of the French colonial experience. The concomitant tragedy of Algeria (1954-1962) also segued with the fall of Dien Bien Phu, during his posting, and the subsequent French retreat from Asia. Laos and Cambodia also went their own way in time.  

Bowden flew on Air Viet Nam and Aigle Azur from Saigon to Hanoi. The French were still there. A colleague, John Rowland, had left Hanoi two days before the Viet Minh took over. Vietnam was at a pivotal point and Ivor witnessed dramatic political changes. On another occasion, he travelled by road from Saigon to Phnom Penh. It was said to be the first time that the French had allowed direct land transport.

There is no space to account for all of Bowden’s postings, from his first to the last. Some would have been exciting whereas others may have been less interesting. How was he regarded by his peers? One senior officer recalled him favourably when he was his first boss on joining the department. His character was delightful, a true gentleman and highly principled.  It was no surprise that he had a successful career. 

Another peer, at his level, worked under Ivor two decades later, and he similarly assessed his character. He was meticulous and principled yet very cautious. It was difficult to earn his trust.  Warmth and humour, if they existed were probably reserved for only close friends. The closing years of his career as a professional diplomat were not a happy time for him and he chose to settle in South Australia.    

His last two key appointments were significant as he witnessed cataclysmic history. Australia had little sway, beyond trade, in Iran or Pakistan. Bowden with his staff monitored political, economic, social, cultural and religious developments in two profoundly Islamic nations. He did not see the outcome of the Iranian revolution. The Shah fled, after Ivor left, an autocratic regime then disintegrated.  

Iran. What happened? The Shah was a dictator who had stayed too long at the fair. Iran was a traditional society and life for many went on with agriculture and farming. With abundant oil reserves, the nation was courted by Western powers. This led to a burgeoning industrial sector. It created wealth for those who enjoyed its bounty. But the rapid modernisation program created schisms as society changed.

The Shah saw himself as the reification of Iran and he did not brook any restraint of his authoritarian rule. His secret police, SAVAK, oppressed those who challenged his iron hand. Democracy has never been part of the Persian genius. A cowered opposition party offered no threat to his role. The West though supported him, as Iran became a bulwark against Soviet expansionism. He was a reliable ally.

Our Tehran Embassy reported on the impact of resurgent Islam as a political force. The mullahs turned against the Imperial Government. On Fridays, the faithful would fill the mosques, then the streets as they demonstrated. The clerics galvanised political opposition to the Shah. Their protest message was clear. They denounced the so-called pervasive threat of Western culture which was seen as un-Islamic, corrupting youth by rising secularisation.  

Ivor finished his posting before the Islamic revolution took pace. His despatches were measured as he reported the earlier indices and he had no confidence in the Shah’s tenuous hold on the country. Growing dissent engulfed the country. Violent riots led to many deaths. President Jimmy Carter urged a more liberal rule with greater political reform. It was too little too late. The rest is current history.

An ambassador is assigned to report on political developments in a host country. A head of mission is obliged to display sound representational qualities in order to cultivate and influence useful contacts. Those people included a cross-section of local society. The goal was to promote Australia’s national interests. In doing so, diplomats were expected to shape foreign policy drawn from context and perceptions.    

What role did Bowden play, and how responsive was he to the telescoping crises enveloping the Government in Tehran, when Iran lost control of its history as an exiled religious figure later determined it?  How effective was Ivor and his staff in monitoring political events within the nation as support for the Shah eroded? To answer those questions one needs to review political reporting from the post.

Some facts need to be addressed. The late Second Secretary, Jill Derbyshire, was relentless in her pursuit. She called on a senior academic in late November, 1978 and his insights were prescient. He surmised that Iran was at the stage of a revolution when society collapses. The Shah had ignored the Islamic character of Iran.  A smart fellow, the Shah had finally outsmarted itself. 

Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was troubled, and his “ungrateful” people were troubling, as their putative loyalty to him was lessening, and their hatred towards him increased. A sick man, on January 16, 1979 the Shah left Iran, never to return, his rule of 37 years and its regime had ended. Reviled, he died in exile in 1980. His Western allies were alarmed. Could a continuing supply of Iranian oil be guaranteed?   

Enter Ayatollah Khomeini in April, 1979 after the Shah’s exit. On his return, an Islamic Republic was declared and Iran became a theocracy. From London, Dr Bob Merrillees had earlier reported a prediction in September, 1978. Religious fanaticism did not lend itself to rational action or reaction, and once unleashed, was difficult to retain. The mullahs had succeeded in their revolt against Iran’s westernisation.

In an interregnum, from 1978-1984, between Iran and Pakistan, Ivor returned to work in Canberra in several senior positions. Islamabad from 1984-1987 would be his last post. Pakistan had been a military dictatorship under General Zia-ul Haq since 1977 and it would continue until his death in a plane crash in 1988. Bowden retired from the service in 1987.

Ivor had moved from Canberra to Adelaide. His third age was active providing opportunities for extensive and adventurous travel, carpentry, gardening, editing a photographic collection and writing a family history. Ivor Bowden had a long and respected career of dutiful service in war and peace. His family survive him.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Mike Fogarty, 'Bowden, Ivor Gordon (1925–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/bowden-ivor-gordon-31982/text39471, accessed 17 October 2021.

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