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McClure Smith, Hugh Alexander (1902–1961)

by Jenny Newell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

Hugh Alexander McClure Smith (1902-1961), newspaper editor and diplomat, was born on 14 April 1902 at Malvern, Melbourne, second child of William Andrew McClure Smith, Australian-born general manager of the Australian Estates & Mortgage Co. Ltd, and his wife Helen Louise Turnbull, née Walker, who came from Scotland. On leaving Melbourne Church of England Grammar School in 1919, Hugh went abroad to study French and history at the University of Geneva, and to read history at Balliol College, Oxford. At Oxford he shared lodgings—and an interest in foreign affairs and politics—with Cecil Whitehall and (Sir) Warwick Fairfax. McClure Smith was unable to sit his final examinations due to influenza that was to damage his heart. He spent three years confined to bed, passing the time by reading law, and was called (1929) to the Bar at the Inner Temple, London.

In 1928 McClure Smith had joined Price, Waterhouse & Co., accountants. He contributed occasional articles on economic, business and imperial affairs to newspapers, including the Sydney Morning Herald which he represented at the 1932 Imperial Economic Conference in Ottawa. Assistant-correspondent (1933-35) in New York and Washington for The Times, he joined its staff in London as principal economic leader-writer early in 1936. At St Mary Abbots parish church, Kensington, on 25 January that year he married Margaret Vincent Buddy, a 27-year-old American who was to accompany him to Sydney.

Associate-editor of the S.M.H. in 1937, McClure Smith was appointed editor on 1 January 1938. He began controversially by criticizing Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement. His unflinching stand on many issues did not necessarily please the newspaper's proprietors or his political friends, among them (Sir) Robert Menzies. McClure Smith had a clear and confident writing style, often quite lyrical, based on wide-ranging knowledge and strong convictions. As editor he was responsible for the leader, for some feature articles and for selecting the letters to the editor. He served as president (1939-44) of the New South Wales Institute of Journalists and belonged to the Australian Institute of International Affairs. Trying to reconcile the conflicting demands of government censorship and the right of the public to be informed made World War II a fraught time for him, as did battles over paper rationing. In 1943 he visited Britain and the United States of America to report on the war effort, and in 1945 represented the Herald at the United Nations Conference on International Organization, held at San Francisco.

Hugh and Margaret were avid ballet- and theatre-goers who enjoyed entertaining, particularly over late-night suppers at their Bellevue Hill home. Among their friends were theatre people—the Oliviers (with whom they stayed in England), (Sir) Noël Coward, Danny Kaye and Svetlana Beriosova—and Australian painters—Roland Wakelin, (Sir) William Dobell, (Sir) Russell Drysdale, (Sir) Sidney Nolan, Justin O'Brien and Sali Herman—whose works they collected. Hugh once said, 'I am never happier than going back to the office in my dinner jacket after a rewarding dinner'. He had, however, a tendency for 'buttonholing', to the extent that Fairfax reprimanded him for it. McClure Smith's successor, John Douglas Pringle, described him as 'a rather Anglicised Australian', a 'charming, cultured, intelligent man'. He had a polished, well-groomed appearance, and a slight stutter. In Sydney he belonged to the Union Club, in London to the Athenaeum and the Junior Carlton clubs. Later friends included (Sir) Anthony Eden (Earl of Avon), Lady Diana Cooper, Robert Morley and (Sir) Peter Ustinov.

Advised to work shorter hours to safeguard his health, McClure Smith planned to retire from the S.M.H. on 31 December 1952. Fairfax and Rupert Henderson disagreed with him over the newspaper's stand on the Federal government's proposed banking legislation and in November he was asked to leave early. According to Gavin Souter, he had been the Herald's best editor in the twentieth century. The reasons behind his retirement, and the issue of his fitness for work, were questioned in the House of Representatives in February 1953 after he was named Australian minister in Cairo. Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey, minister for external affairs, maintained that McClure Smith was not ill (as the press had reported), and defended the appointment of an outsider on the grounds of a shortage of trained departmental staff. McClure Smith's long-standing interest in international affairs stood him in good stead. In April 1953 he embarked for Egypt. By the time he arrived, King Farouk had abdicated. It was a complex period politically. General Mohammed Naguib's Republic of Egypt was established in 1953 and fell in 1954. In Cairo McClure Smith often worked from home, calling the legation staff to him and keeping them working late into the night. He helped to arrange the departure of British troops from Suez following the fighting over the canal.

In 1955 McClure Smith was appointed ambassador to the Netherlands. He also led the Australian delegation at the tenth session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York later that year. While in The Hague he travelled extensively, learning as much as possible about the Dutch. Queen Elizabeth II appointed him C.V.O. on her royal tour of Holland in 1958. He reported on Indonesian-Dutch relations, the 1956 election, the crisis over Queen Juliana and her court allegedly falling under the influence of a faith-healer, and a new Netherlands-Australian migration agreement (1956). In February 1959 he was appointed ambassador to Italy. The 1960 Olympic Games were held in Rome, focusing international attention on that city, and he found himself busier with his representative duties than in his previous posts.

In September 1961 McClure Smith announced that he would retire at the end of November. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died of a heart attack on 8 October that year at Florence and was buried with full military honours in the Protestant cemetery, Rome, not far from the grave of John Keats. His estate was sworn for probate at £160,971. In 1963 Margaret McClure Smith presented a painting by Drysdale to the Art Gallery of New South Wales in her husband's memory. A bronze bust of McClure Smith by an Italian sculptor is held by the family.

Select Bibliography

  • J. D. Pringle, Have Pen (Lond, 1973)
  • D. McNicoll, Luck's a Fortune (Syd, 1979)
  • G. Souter, Company of Heralds (Melb, 1981)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Aug 1939, 25, 26 Feb 1953, 20 June 1960, supplement, 30 Sept, 10, 11 Oct 1961, 1 Feb 1963, 14 Apr 1981, supplement
  • Times (London), 10 Oct 1961
  • A1838/1 1500/2/2/7, A1838/265 1500/2/15/3 and 20/4 (National Archives of Australia)
  • bibliography of McClure Smith's articles (held on ADB file)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jenny Newell, 'McClure Smith, Hugh Alexander (1902–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mcclure-smith-hugh-alexander-10914/text19387, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 17 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

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