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Herring, Sir Edmund Francis (Ned) (1892–1982)

by Geoff Browne

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

Sir Edmund Francis (Ned) Herring (1892-1982), chief justice and soldier, was born on 2 September 1892 at Maryborough, Victoria, third child of New Zealand-born Edmund Selwyn Herring, solicitor, and his Irish-born wife Gertrude Stella, née Fetherstonhaugh. Educated at Maryborough High School, Ned won scholarships to Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, where he excelled in classics and was dux of the school, and then to Trinity College, University of Melbourne. An outstanding schoolboy batsman, he represented the university in cricket and also in tennis. In 1912, selected as Victoria’s Rhodes scholar, he proceeded to New College, Oxford.

The outbreak of World War I interrupted Herring’s studies. Having enlisted in the King Edward’s Horse in 1913, he transferred to the Royal Field Artillery in December 1914 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He was posted to the 99th Brigade, serving in France and then in Macedonia, where he captained a battery and won the Military Cross in 1917 for gallantry on the Doiran front. Energetic, eager and capable, by the end of the war he was commanding officer of the brigade as a temporary major. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1919 and mentioned in despatches.

Intending to practise law, Herring returned to Oxford (BA, 1919; MA, BCL, 1920) and was called to the Bar at the Inner Temple. He returned to Melbourne in November 1920 and, on a motion by Sir Edward Mitchell, was admitted to practise as a barrister and solicitor on 1 March 1921. On 6 April 1922 at Toorak Presbyterian Church, Herring married (Dame) Mary Ranken Lyle.

Clarity of mind, attention to detail and capacity for hard work brought Herring rapid success as an Equity barrister; he also lectured in Equity at the University of Melbourne (1927-30). Appointed KC in 1936, he sat on a committee inquiring into the crash of the Kyeema on Mount Dandenong, Victoria, in October 1938, which claimed eighteen lives. The committee’s report made many recommendations for reform of national civil aviation standards.

Herring’s flourishing legal career did not deter him from numerous outside interests. For more than a decade he was active in conservative politics. A founding member (1925) of the Constitutional Club, he joined the Young Nationalists in 1932 and, in the same year—having unsuccessfully sought preselection for the United Australia Party—assisted in its State election campaign. In 1935 he stood as an unendorsed UAP candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Brighton against the sitting UAP member, Ian Macfarlan; after a rugged campaign he lost by only five hundred votes.

Troubled by the rise of communism and international disorder, Herring believed that the regular army should be supported by citizen forces capable of mounting resistance in case of an invasion. In 1922 he accepted a commission as legal staff officer with the 3rd Cavalry Division, Militia. Within a year he was offered command of the 44th Battery, 22nd Brigade, Australian Field Artillery. From 1929 he was to command a succession of field artillery brigades as a lieutenant colonel. His superiors regarded him as `the best type of officer and one who should be employed to the utmost’.

The police strike of 1923, during which Herring worked as a special constable, saw the formation of the White Guard, a secret organisation consisting of former soldiers ready to act swiftly and suddenly against communist subversion. `Vigilance’ was a watchword for the White Guard, and always remained so for Herring. Organised in small cells, and with a strong presence in Militia units, the White Guard was most active during the early years of the Depression, and was largely effective in preserving its secrecy. Herring served as a regional commander, with responsibility for the Mornington Peninsula. (Sir) Thomas Blamey was a central figure in the organisation and, despite their very different temperaments, he and Herring maintained a strong mutual regard.

At the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Herring accepted Blamey’s invitation to join the AIF as a temporary brigadier and commander of the 6th Division’s artillery. In North Africa in January 1941 Herring’s gunners played a significant part in the decisive victories over the Italians at Bardia and Tobruk; for his leadership he was appointed CBE (1941). Three months later, during the ill-fated Greek campaign, his highly effective use of artillery was vital in delaying advancing German forces and enabling orderly retreats. He was awarded the Greek Military Cross (1942). In August 1941, as a temporary major general (substantive February 1944) he assumed command of the 6th Division, reforming in Palestine, after its heavy casualties in Greece and Crete. From October the 6th became part of the occupying force in Syria until ordered to return to Australia to face the impending Japanese threat. Herring anticipated that his troops would have to fight `a damn sight harder than we have been asked to fight yet’.

Appointed commander of forces in the Northern Territory in March 1942, one month after the devastating air raid on Darwin, Herring was ruthless in dismissing officers of the former command or replacing them with experienced AIF officers. During the next five months he worked ceaselessly to improve and reorganise the Territory’s defences. After briefly commanding II Corps at Esk, Queensland, he succeeded (Sir) Sydney Rowell in command of New Guinea Force and I Corps in October 1942, with the rank of temporary lieutenant general. Blamey wanted a `commander of cheerful temperament’ who was `prepared to co-operate to the limit’. The close professional partnership of Herring and Blamey has been described by Herring’s biographer, Stuart Sayers, as `rare, perhaps unique at such a level of command in the Second AIF’. Some wondered if `co-operation’ disguised the reality that Blamey, operating through Herring, was effective commander in Papua and New Guinea. Herring claimed that Blamey never interfered, expecting him `to get on with the job, and really command one’s show’. He held the New Guinea command until August 1943, continuing as I Corps commander until February 1944.

Herring regarded his principal task as ensuring a good working relationship between the Australians and their American allies in the battle for the Papuan beachheads of Buna, Gona and Sanananda between September 1942 and January 1943. At the higher command level, the nature of the campaign in difficult terrain did not allow for sweeping military initiatives, and was a severe test of administrative capacity. In January 1943 Herring was awarded the American Distinguished Service Cross and in May he was appointed KBE for his service in Papua.

Over the next six months the Allied forces conducted successful assaults in New Guinea on Lae, Salamaua and Finschhafen. The Finschhafen campaign, in September, was probably the most difficult month of the war for Herring. Unable to secure adequate transport support from the United States Navy, he was further frustrated by initial indifference from the New Guinea Force Headquarters, under the newly appointed New Guinea Force commander, Sir Iven Mackay. The military historian David Horner considers that Herring failed to approach `the problem as tactfully as he might’, but endorses Herring’s claim that `we damn nearly lost Finschhafen’. On 28 September Herring’s aeroplane crashed when taking off for Milne Bay: he was uninjured, although a close friend and colleague, Brigadier R. K. Sutherland, died in the seat next to him.

One of Herring’s duties was to confirm the death sentences of twenty-two Papuans, hanged publicly in September 1943, after being found guilty of various charges of murder and treason. In 1978, when his role in the executions was made public, he said that the men had been fairly tried and that his conscience was clear.

Described by the official war historian Dudley McCarthy as a `small and quiet’ man with great depth of character, Herring possessed a natural capacity to get on with people and look for the best in them. While courteous, he was also—according to Sayers—`implacably competitive’, and capable, with his `blueglacier stare’, of delivering `paralysing rebukes without lifting his voice’. He was not flamboyant, earned no nicknames and did not court popularity, but gained respect from most who served with him. His chief staff officer saw in his method of command—working `carefully round any problem, discussing factors and courses’—the habits of a barrister: he took his time, but was thorough.

Sir Edmund’s active service ended with his swearing in as chief justice of Victoria on 10 February 1944; he soon made a particular mark on the court through his administrative ability. By August he had established a Law Reform Committee, which he chaired until 1957, and which ranged across all areas of Victorian statute law. Aware that antiquated accommodation and greatly increased litigation were threatening the effectiveness of the court, he worked to strengthen the bench and to increase space for both Supreme and County courts. Herring attached considerable importance to the symbolism and dignity surrounding the judicial arm of government, initiating the formal opening of the legal year and replacing the informal swearing-in of justices of the peace with a Full Court ceremony. He revived the practice of judges reporting annually to the government on the state of the courts. When in 1954 the premier, John Cain, ignored a resolution in which judges protested at the inadequacy of their new salary scales, Herring publicly criticised the government’s violation of a vital constitutional principle—the judges’ right to be heard.

From 1945 to 1972 Herring also held the post of lieutenant-governor. He was appointed KCMG in 1949. Given his high judicial and executive offices, he was unusually outspoken on public issues. His frequent public utterances reflected his commitment to the British Empire and the American alliance, and his deep concern that the nation was in danger both from the external threat of communism and from internal subversion. Widespread selfishness, apathy and a lack of community spirit were equally deplored. His views could be—and sometimes were—too easily criticised as nothing more than unreflecting, rigid conservatism. The basis of his beliefs was a firm Christianity, and a conviction that problems of economics and politics could only be solved `where attention was paid to ethical values as well’. In 1950-51, during the Korean War, his fears over the inadequacy of Australia’s defences led him to step aside temporarily from the chief justiceship and serve as director-general of recruiting.

Herring’s most notable attempt to arouse public spirit was the `Call to the People of Australia’; he was the driving force behind its promotion. The Call was broadcast across the nation on the evening of Remembrance Day, 11 November 1951. Signed by Herring and four of his fellow chief justices, and by religious leaders—Catholic, Protestant and Jewish—the Call told Australians that they were `in danger’. Threatened by external forces and `moral and intellectual apathy’, citizens had `a duty’ to `defend the community against evil designs’ and take an `active concern in public affairs’. Ending with `Fear God, Honour the King’, the Call evoked vehement reactions of praise and censure; while campaigns in its name continued until 1957, its initial impact did not endure.

Among his many public activities, Herring served as chancellor of the Church of England Diocese of Melbourne (1941-80) and as State (1945-68) and national (1958-77) president of the Australian Boy Scout Association (from 1958 the Scouts Association of Australia). President of Toc H Australia (1947-82), he was chairman of the trustees of the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance (1945-79) and the Australian War Memorial (1959-74), and a member of the councils of Trinity College (1919-79), Melbourne Grammar (1939-40, 1941-82), the University of Melbourne (1945-57), and the Victorian Rhodes scholarship selection committee (1923-32). From 1961 a vice-president of the British and Foreign Bible Society, Herring was also chairman of the advisory board of the Council of Christian Education in Schools (1952-82). In 1953 he had led the Australian contingent to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

In supporting his application for a Rhodes scholarship, Dr Alexander Leeper had described Herring as `strong, alert and efficient alike in mind and body’, `straightforward, resolute and self-controlled and of the firmest moral principles’. Those qualities remained in evidence throughout his life. An honorary fellow of New College, Oxford (1949), he was awarded honorary degrees by the University of Oxford (DCL, 1953) and Monash University (LL D, 1973). Predeceased by his wife and survived by his three daughters, Sir Edmund Herring died at Camberwell, Melbourne, on 5 January 1982. He was cremated after a state funeral at St Paul’s Cathedral. Portraits by Sir William Dargie are held by the Australian War Memorial and the Supreme Court of Victoria Library; the Australian War Memorial also holds a portrait by Sir Ivor Hele. Herring Island, in the River Yarra at South Yarra, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • D. McCarthy, South-West Pacific Area—First Year (1959)
  • S. Sayers, Ned Herring (1980)
  • D. M. Horner, High Command (1982)
  • D. M. Horner, (ed), The Commanders (1984)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 Aug 1944, p 6
  • Bulletin, 22 May 1978, p 17
  • Age (Melbourne), 6 Jan 1982, p 5
  • Ned Herring papers (State Library of Victoria).

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Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Herring, Sir Edmund Francis (Ned) (1892–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/herring-sir-edmund-francis-ned-12626/text22747, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 28 June 2017.

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

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