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Sir Walter Russell Crocker (1902–2002)

by John Farquharson

Sir Walter Crocker, who died in Adelaide on November 14, aged 100, rendered signal service to Australia for many years as a highly respected envoy, as well as serving with distinction for more than nine years as Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia.

During an exciting and adventurous life at home and abroad, he filled many other roles as a decorated military officer in World War II, scholar, colonial administrator, farmer and author.

An independent thinker, not reticent in speaking his mind, he attracted many friends and admirers during a public career spanning well over 60 years. However, he also had his critics who, at times, found him exasperating, abrasive and not a little waspish. Yet he survived in public regard despite the controversy he occasionally stirred through clumsy criticism of touchy subjects, not least religion. And in November 1991, then aged 90, he came out in support of a right-wing group protesting against Australia’s first Nazi war-crimes case, even taking part in a demonstration outside Adelaide Magistrates Court. He claimed the case was a waste of taxpayers’ money and that it was driven by revenge, not justice. Moreover the accused had committed no crimes against Australians anywhere.

Although he could be cutting when he chose, Sir Walter was fundamentally an erudite man who espoused his views intelligently and with sincerity. With an underlying commitment to traditional values, went polished manners in an English gentleman style and a beguiling charm.

Max Harris, poet, editor and publisher, once described Crocker as ‘a symbol of the compleat civilised man’, while journalist and author Stewart Cockburn called him ‘a radical with a sense of form’. Cockburn added that it was ‘a measure of the richness and complexity of his character that he had defied all efforts to stitch neat labels on him’.

Essentially, he was an urbane Anglo-Australian who took to English culture and style as to the manner born. He gloried in the twenties and thirties when it still seemed that the sun would never set on the British Empire and that era’s ordered lifestyle.

For all that, his background could not have been more grassroots Australian. He was born on March 25, 1902 in Broken Hill, New South Wales, into a pioneering farming family from South Australia’s mid-north. Raised on his father’s grazing property about 32 km from Terowie, he completed his primary education at Peterborough State school before being prepared for matriculation by a private tutor. He went on to a distinguished academic career at Adelaide, Oxford and Stanford (USA) universities.

After nine years of universities, Crocker made a visit to Japan. But he was looking for a life of action in place of study, preferably a life of action connected with Empire responsibilities. Having something of a Kiplingesque approach to duty, he joined the British colonial service and was sent to Nigeria as a political officer. However sickness, coupled with dissatisfaction with the progress in carrying out official policy, turned him in 1934 to the League of Nations’ International Labour Office in Geneva.

He stayed with the ILO, where he was assistant to the director-general, until the outbreak of World War II when he joined the British Army. He served as an intelligence officer in the West African command, rising to Lieutenant-Colonel, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre and the Belgian Ordre du Lion.

After the war, he took a brief spell back in Australia on the family farm before answering a call from R. G. Casey (later Lord Casey), then Governor of Bengal, to help with relief measures during the famine then ravaging that part of India. This led in 1946 to him being offered the post of first head of the African section in the United Nations secretariat. He remained with the UN in New York until 1949 when he took up an appointment as Professor of International Relations at the Australian National University in Canberra. During his term at the ANU he acted as vice-chancellor in 1951.

From 1952, there followed 18 years with the then Department of External Affairs as a senior diplomat and at that time one of Minister Casey’s inner advisory group. His first posting was as High Commissioner to India. Later he served as Ambassador to Indonesia (1955-56), High Commissioner to Canada (1956-58 and another stint as High Commissioner to India (1958-62). He retired in 1970 as Australian Ambassador to Italy, having, in the intervening years, also served as Ambassador to the Netherlands and Belgium (1962-65) and Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya (1965-67).

But even as a senior diplomat his independence of mind kept breaking through. In the early 1970s he was probably ahead of his time in advocating a rapprochement with China. He saw advantages to Australia in such a move and was openly critical of Australia’s ‘undue obsequiousness’ to American foreign policy, the then Government’s non-recognition of China and Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. On the domestic front, he attacked the extent to which overseas interests had been allowed to gain control of Australia’s mineral resources.

With such views, it was perhaps not surprising that during the 1972 Federal election campaign he was a signatory, along with Kenneth Myer, of the Myer department store chain, and several other leading citizens and academics, to a widely published letter calling for Labor to be given a chance in government.

It was probably these sorts of opinions which precluded him from the top job in External Affairs. But they were no barrier to him being named by the Dunstan Government as Lieutenant-Governor of South Australia in 1973. Sir Mark Oliphant, who was succeeded by Sir Douglas Nicholls, was Governor when Crocker took up his unexpected role. Then during the illness and subsequent resignation of Sir Douglas, he became acting Governor for six months or so until the appointment of the Reverend Keith Seaman in 1977. He stepped down as Lieutenant-Governor in 1982.

Sir Walter published 10 books, including two volumes of memoirs (Australian Ambassador, 1971 and Travelling Back, 1981) and a biography of veteran South Australian Premier, Sir Thomas Playford, 1982. He admired Playford as a man and politician and believed that, during his lifetime, only one other political figure could be compared to him - Robert Menzies. But, apart from Casey, who he regarded as the best minister he had served under, he was not so impressed with other politicians such as Barwick, McMahon and McEwen. He was also to acknowledge that the Whitlam Government ‘did not turn out as most of us would have wished’.

A royalist who believed there was no advantage in Australia becoming a republic, he liked to work out his own conclusions about life, people, politics and affairs of the day. He had a great love of Italy and bought a house in Tuscany, where he intended to retire. However, the tug of his native hearth was too strong and he opted to return to South Australia for which he had always had a sense of pride in belonging. He also liked the quality of life there and felt it had pioneered some great social advances.

In 1951 Crocker married Claire Ward, daughter of a headmaster of Adelaide’s Prince Alfred College, but the marriage was later dissolved. They had two sons, who survive him.

Sir Walter Russell Crocker, born March 25 1902; died November 14 2002.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

John Farquharson, 'Crocker, Sir Walter Russell (1902–2002)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 April 2024.

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