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Gairdner, Sir Charles Henry (1898–1983)

by Peter Boyce

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

Sir Charles Henry Gairdner (1898-1983), governor, was born on 20 March 1898 in Batavia, Netherlands East Indies (Jakarta, Indonesia), son of Charles Arthur Gairdner, an Anglo-Irish merchant, and his wife Johanna Theodora, née Bergsma. Brought up in County Galway, Ireland, Charles junior received his secondary education at Repton, Derbyshire, England, where he was once thrashed by the headmaster and future archbishop of Canterbury William Temple for submitting a poem by Henry Longfellow as his own composition. Graduating from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in World War I, he was commissioned in the artillery in May 1916 and sent to the Western Front. He sustained a serious wound to his right leg that was to cause him pain through most of his life and necessitate twenty-seven operations.

After the war Gairdner transferred to the cavalry. A versatile sportsman, he played tennis, hockey, polo and golf. On 19 May 1925 at the parish church, Wimbledon, Surrey, he married the Honourable Evelyn Constance Handcock, daughter of the 5th Baron Castlemaine. He attended the Staff College, Camberley, and by 1937 was a lieutenant colonel, commanding the 10th Royal Hussars. In World War II he won rapid promotion in a succession of staff posts and two brief commands of armoured divisions in the Middle East, North Africa and India. Appointed chief of staff of Force 141 in Algiers in 1943, he was, in the opinion of the historian Carlo D’Este, `woefully ill-equipped’ for the role and sought release from it within a few months. His next employment, as director of armoured fighting vehicles in India, was safer but less glamorous.

In March 1945 Gairdner was promoted to acting (later substantive) lieutenant general and sent to the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur as Prime Minister (Sir) Winston Churchill’s personal representative. Following the Japanese surrender he was Prime Minister Clement (Earl) Attlee’s representative in Tokyo, in which role he clashed with the commander of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, (Sir) Horace Robertson, over their personal status and the relative priorities of British and broader Commonwealth interests. Recalled in 1948, Gairdner retired from the army next year. He had been appointed CBE (1941), CB (1946) and KCMG (1948), awarded the American Medal of Freedom and mentioned in despatches. He purchased a property in County Westmeath, Ireland, not far from the Castlemaine seat Moydrum Castle, where he hunted two days a week.

On 6 November 1951 Gairdner succeeded Sir James Mitchell as governor of Western Australia. He brought with him some ten servants whom he had personally recruited in London for Government House. Very popular with the Western Australian public, he had a lightness of touch in engaging with `the people’, a sound memory for names and faces, a love of sport, and an eagerness to visit the most remote parts of the State. Resolving early in his term that there would be no `Government House set’ in Perth, he invited a range of improbable guests to vice-regal functions. Nevertheless he was capable of aloofness, and his administrative style was regarded as `austere’ by some observers. Not an inspired public speaker, he confessed in retirement that speech-making had been `absolute purgatory’. His imperialist outlook was quite acceptable to most Western Australians of that era.

The eleven years of Gairdner’s tenure were relatively free of political or constitutional crisis although, when the Bunbury by-election of October 1955 deprived Albert Hawke’s Labor government of its parliamentary majority, the possibility was raised that the governor might have to exercise his reserve powers. In the event the parliament went into recess and Labor won the ensuing 1956 election. Gairdner was appointed KCVO (1954) and KBE (1960). In 1956 the University of Western Australia conferred on him an honorary D.Litt. The Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital was named in his honour in May 1963. He stepped down from his post on 26 June.

On 23 September Gairdner, having lobbied vigorously for the position, replaced Lord Rowallan as governor of Tasmania. His five-year term was devoid of drama, but he did not receive the same public acclaim as in Western Australia. He was awarded (1967) an honorary LL D by the University of Tasmania. In January 1969 he was appointed GBE, and in February the Gairdners returned to Perth and settled at Peppermint Grove. Still an active sportsman, he sailed his dragon class yacht Barbara on the Swan River. He enjoyed knitting, a pastime he had first taken up while in hospital in World War I. In 1976 his bad leg was amputated. Survived by his wife, Sir Charles died on 22 February 1983 at Nedlands and was cremated after a state funeral. Sir Ivor Hele’s portrait of him hangs in Parliament House, Perth.

Select Bibliography

  • C. D’Este, Bitter Victory (1988)
  • J. Grey, Australian Brass (1992)
  • West Australian, 26 June 1963, p 7, 27 June 1963, p 2, 23 Feb 1983, pp 1, 54, 24 Feb 1983, p 27
  • Sunday Times (Perth), 16 June 1963, p 30
  • Western Australian State files, items 1351 and 1392 (State Records Western Australia)
  • item GO79/1/61 (Tasmania State Archives)
  • C. Gairdner, The Other Side of the Coin (transcript, State Library of Western Australia).

Citation details

Peter Boyce, 'Gairdner, Sir Charles Henry (1898–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/gairdner-sir-charles-henry-12522/text22533, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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