Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Armstrong, Robert Edward (Bob) (1911–1988)

by Robert S. Swift

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Robert Edward (Bob) Armstrong (1911-1988), public servant, was born on 24 July 1911 at Erskineville, Sydney, fourth son of Sydney-born parents William Armstrong, grocer, and his wife Miriam Eleanor, née Baines. He was orphaned in 1919 when both parents were victims of the influenza epidemic. Educated at Erskineville Public and Petersham Boys’ Intermediate High schools, he passed the Intermediate certificate in 1925. He worked briefly for the Mercantile Mutual Insurance Co. Ltd before joining the New South Wales Public Service in 1926 as a junior clerk in the Police Department. At the Methodist Church, West Maitland, on 28 March 1936 he married Gwen Isabel Jobson, a shop assistant.

On 3 June 1940 Armstrong enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Posted to 7th Division headquarters as a clerk, he served in Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Java, and was mentioned in despatches. He reached the rank of warrant officer, class two, and was discharged on 4 September 1942 to a reserved occupation at the request of the director-general of security, William MacKay. For the remainder of the war he was engaged in assessing the cases of aliens who had been interned and who had applied for release.

In 1945 Armstrong became private secretary to the newly appointed Federal minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell. He travelled to Europe with Calwell in 1947 on a mission which, according to Armstrong, `led to Australia for the first time in history accepting significant numbers of people other than British’. In 1949 he was appointed an assistant-secretary in the Department of Immigration. His responsibilities included the development of post-arrival services, which involved not only programs to assist migrants to adapt to their new circumstances but also measures--such as the establishment of Good Neighbour councils and the holding of citizenship conventions--to encourage the Australian community to welcome and support the newcomers.

Armstrong served as chief migration officer in London in 1954-57, heading an extensive operation which processed a great stream of applications for assisted passage. He led the Australian delegation to meetings of the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration in Geneva (1959-61) and Washington (1959-64). In 1963 he was promoted to first assistant secretary in charge of the entry and citizenship division and later the planning and operations division of the department. By this time the emphasis was beginning to shift from an assumption that mass immigration was beneficial to the nation to a questioning of the scale of resources required by the program, the effects on employment and the issue of what was to be the optimum population for the country over the long term. In 1967 he was appointed OBE.

Accepting a second posting to London as CMO in 1969, Armstrong hoped that this would see him through to retirement. However, when the secretary of the department Sir Peter Heydon suddenly died in 1971, he was recalled to Canberra to become permanent head. In 1974, after his department was merged with the Department of Labour, he retired. He was a council member (1975-77) of the Canberra College of Advanced Education and vice-president of the Young Men’s Christian Association, Canberra.

Of middle height and stocky build, with brown hair and a ruddy complexion, Bob Armstrong was mild mannered and unpretentious, but strong in his convictions. He was described as a dedicated man with particularly strong powers of concentration, one who was `wedded to his job’ and who passionately believed in the contribution the immigration program could make to the development of Australia. Remembered as being `warm and helpful’ and `intensively family oriented’, he died on 19 February 1988 in Canberra and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife and their three daughters and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • A. A. Calwell, Immigration (1949)
  • A. A. Calwell, Be Just and Fear Not (1972)
  • L. F. Crisp (ed), Peter Richard Heydon 1913-1971 (1972)
  • C. Kiernan, Calwell (1978)
  • Canberra Times, 26 May 1971, p 1, 22 Feb 1988, p 8
  • Armstrong papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert S. Swift, 'Armstrong, Robert Edward (Bob) (1911–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/armstrong-robert-edward-bob-12148/text21767, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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