Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Plimsoll, Sir James (1917–1987)

by Jeremy Hearder

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Sir James Plimsoll (1917-1987), public servant, diplomat and governor, was born on 25 April 1917 at Paddington, Sydney, elder son of James Ernest Plimsoll, an English-born accountant, and his wife Jessie, née Arthur, who was born in Scotland. He was a descendant of Sir Samuel Plimsoll of the ‘Plimsoll line’ in shipping. Educated at Sydney Boys’ High School and the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1938; BA, 1941), Jim was the only evening student to be elected president of the university union. In 1938 he joined the economics department of the Bank of New South Wales.

Mobilised as a captain, Citizen Military Forces, in April 1942 and transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 16 November, Plimsoll worked in the research section (later Directorate of Research and Civil Affairs) at Allied Forces Land Headquarters, Melbourne, headed by Alf Conlon, a fellow student leader. In 1945 he attended the United States Army’s School of Military Government, Charlottesville, Virginia, and finished second out of 350 officers. Promoted to major in June, he was posted to the Australian Military Mission in Washington, DC. In September 1946 he became an Australian representative on the Far Eastern Commission, newly set up to co-ordinate postwar Allied policy towards Japan. He returned to Australia in November 1947 and on 1 December transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

Plimsoll’s ability and dedication had impressed the minister for external affairs, H. V. Evatt, who persuaded him to join his department, which he did in 1948. Working closely with Evatt on policy matters in Canberra, Plimsoll later provided ‘orderly, imperturbable and inexhaustible support and pellucid drafting’ for Evatt at United Nations conferences in New York. He substantially ghosted Evatt’s book The Task of Nations (1949), and negotiated its American publication. In 1950, during the Korean War, (Sir) Percy Spender sent him to Korea with ambassadorial rank as Australia’s representative on the UN commission for unification and rehabilitation. Only 33, he exercised some influence over the despotic South Korean president Syngman Rhee, impressing the Americans. He was recalled to Canberra in late 1951 but instead returned to Korea for several more months at the request of the United States government.

In 1953 Plimsoll was appointed assistant-secretary, geographical regions division, Department of External Affairs. His work centred on Asia and regional security, themes that were central to the book Friends and Neighbours, which he ghosted for R. G. (Baron) Casey. Working long hours, he lived at the Hotel Canberra where he was accessible to government ministers, prominent visitors and journalists. He was appointed CBE in 1957.

Plimsoll was made permanent representative (1959-63) to the UN in New York—a sensitive diplomatic assignment at a time when pressure for immediate independence for colonies had serious implications for Australia, especially in relation to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Establishing a considerable reputation, he was courageous in adopting public positions on behalf of Australia, not always waiting to check with Canberra but confident that he knew Prime Minister Menzies’ mind. Knighted in 1962, next year he was cross-posted as high commissioner to India. He formed a close connection with Indian culture and was permitted to delay his return to Canberra in order to complete a two-year posting. During his stay he contributed to a book of essays dedicated to the memory of Jawaharlal Nehru.

Appointed secretary of the department in 1965 because of his brilliance as a policy adviser, Sir James lacked interest in, and the full range of skills for, management. There was limited scope for initiative in policy; the period was overshadowed by South-East Asian problems—the Vietnam War, the withdrawal of British forces from east of Suez, and Indonesia—but the minister (Sir) Paul Hasluck did not welcome policy advice from officials. After Menzies retired in 1966, Plimsoll also had difficulty adapting to succeeding prime ministers. He found Harold Holt weak and incompetent and (Sir) John Gorton erratic, although he was friendly with both, especially Gorton, despite disagreements. In August 1969 the new minister, (Sir) Gordon Freeth, on Plimsoll’s advice, urged Australians not to panic about the Soviet navy’s presence in the Indian Ocean. His words were widely blamed for Freeth’s losing his Western Australian seat of Forrest at the Federal election in October. When (Sir) William McMahon became minister, Plimsoll (who considered McMahon mediocre and untrustworthy) decided to step down; in 1970 he and Sir Keith Waller, the ambassador in Washington, swapped jobs.

Plimsoll served (1970-74) in his post as Australia’s second career ambassador in Washington in turbulent and demanding times: in Canberra there were three prime ministers and four foreign ministers in three years, as well as a change of government; and Washington politics were dominated by the continuing Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal. Despite the difficulties he successfully promoted Australia’s relationship with the USA and became one of the most highly regarded ambassadors in Washington. Ambassador in Moscow (1974-77), he was asked by Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to seize the opportunity provided by détente to develop Australia’s relations with the Soviet Union. He partially succeeded, although Whitlam’s decision to recognise the incorporation of the former Baltic states into the Soviet Union, symbolised by Plimsoll’s visit to Estonia, created a political storm at home. An invitation to lecture to students in English literature at Moscow State University reflected his intellectual standing and his personal rapport with the Soviets, despite the Cold War.

Three postings during the next five years provided a mixture of frustration, triumph and disappointment. Long interested in Papua New Guinea, Plimsoll sought Port Moresby but was given Brussels. His arrival in Belgium in 1977 coincided with attempts to improve Australian trade access to the European Communities. Unhappily for Plimsoll, his advice was ignored. Appointed AC in 1978, he became the first career high commissioner (1980-81) in London. Within a year, however, following Federal elections, he had to make way for the former politician Sir Victor Garland. In what was seen as a compensatory move by the government, he was made ambassador (1981-82) in Tokyo.

Plimsoll had dreaded the prospect of retirement and was delighted to accept the unexpected invitation in 1982 to become governor of Tasmania. He was a popular governor, who instantly identified with Tasmanians. Energetically applying his knowledge and experience to the role, he paid some of his official expenses from his own pocket. The universities of Sydney (1984) and Tasmania (1987) conferred honorary doctorates on him.

Affectionately known as ‘Jim Plim’, he had a facility for lucid expression and could speak publicly on complex subjects with hardly a note. He had a photographic memory and easily recalled faces and names. A bachelor, he was upright, private and self-contained. With no intimate friends, he nevertheless enjoyed company and earned the respect and liking of people throughout the world. High-ranking foreign officials often consulted him about their countries’ problems.

Plimsoll, totally absorbed in his work, had a disciplined, frugal, sometimes unworldly approach to life. He was uninterested in money and possessions, turned down opportunities for better financial rewards (including offers of senior positions at the UN) and did not own his own house or a car. Tall and thin, he took little interest in clothes and usually wore ‘the same old suit’. Yet he had wide interests, especially art, literature, ballet, opera and cricket. He was a member (1968-70) of the interim council of the National Gallery of Australia.

After suffering a serious heart attack in 1985, Sir James carried on at his usual pace. His term as governor was extended for a further three years in 1986, but he died from a second heart attack on 8 May 1987 while at work in Government House. After a state memorial service at St David’s Cathedral, Hobart, and a funeral service at St Matthew’s Church, Bondi, he was buried in the Northern Suburbs general cemetery, North Ryde. A memorial service was later held at St John the Baptist Anglican Church, Canberra.

Plimsoll bequeathed much of his large private collection of Asian and Australian art to the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (with a legacy of $550 000), the National Gallery of Victoria and the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He left his books to the State Library of Tasmania and the National Library of Australia. The University of Tasmania’s annual Sir James Plimsoll memorial lecture on international affairs, the Plimsoll Gallery in the university’s Centre for the Arts, the Plimsoll Room, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra, Lake Plimsoll in western Tasmania and Plimsoll Drive, Casey, ACT, commemorate him.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Foreign Affairs Record, vol 58, no 5, 1987, p 235
  • Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol 56, no 3, 2002, p 473
  • Age (Melbourne), 9 May 1987, p 4
  • Mercury (Hobart), 9 May 1987, pp 1, 3, 13 May 1987, p 15, 14 May 1987, pp 1, 14, 15
  • Plimsoll papers (National Library of Australia)
  • B883, item NX 137303, CP 452, M2203 (National Archives of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Jeremy Hearder, 'Plimsoll, Sir James (1917–1987)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/plimsoll-sir-james-15471/text26685, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 29 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014