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Stirling, Alfred Thorp (1902–1981)

by Jeremy Hearder

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

Alfred Thorp Stirling (1902-1981), diplomat, was born on 8 September 1902 in Melbourne, eldest of three children of Victorian-born Robert Andrew Stirling, surgeon, and his English-born second wife Isabella Jessie Matilda Oades-Thorp, a nurse.  Lorna Stirling was his cousin.  Educated at Scotch College (dux, 1918), Alfred gained first-class honours in English, French and Latin.  He graduated from the University of Melbourne (BA, 1922; MA, LL.B, 1924) with first-class honours in French, winning a W. T. Mollison scholarship, and entered University College, Oxford (BA, 1927).  Returning to Melbourne, he signed the Victorian Bar roll on 3 November 1927 and for a time worked as a junior to (Sir) Robert Menzies.

Honorary secretary (1930-35) of the Victorian branch of the Australian Institute for International Affairs, in 1933 Stirling was a delegate to the British Commonwealth Relations and International Public Relations conferences in Canada.  Next year he was the co-author, with John Oldham of Victorian: A Visitors Book.  When Menzies became attorney-general, he appointed Stirling as his private secretary (1934-36); they became lifelong friends.  Joining the newly formed Department of External Affairs, Canberra, Stirling worked briefly in the London liaison office, and then for a year in Canberra as head of the department’s political section under W. R. Hodgson.

In 1937 Stirling returned to the external affairs post in London, where he remained throughout World War II.  Working in the British Cabinet Office and with other agencies, notably the Foreign Office, Stirling acted as the eyes and ears for the department on all major international developments at a time when Australia had few other overseas posts.  At first he had little contact with the Australian high commissioner, S. M. (Viscount) Bruce.  The 'gathering storm' and then the war led, however, to a close working relationship, with considerable mutual regard.

Appointed OBE (1941), in 1945 Stirling began a succession of unfulfilling short-term appointments.  He became high commissioner (1945-47) in Ottawa, the first Australian appointee to be equally comfortable in the Canadian French-speaking, as well as the English-speaking, community.  Moved to make way for Frank Forde, the former deputy prime minister, he was for fifteen months during 1947-48 the minister in Washington, DC, under another former Labor parliamentarian, Norman Makin.  In 1948 Stirling was designated high commissioner to South Africa.

After Menzies became prime minister again in 1949 and strong Australian support for retention by the Netherlands of West New Guinea developed, Stirling was appointed ambassador (1950-55) in The Hague.  This was probably the high point of his career.  He helped to persuade successive Dutch coalition governments to hold to their policy of opposition to Indonesian territorial claims, exerting an influence held by few Australian ambassadors in Europe.  In 1951 the minister for external affairs, R. G. (Baron) Casey, offered Stirling the secretaryship of the department in Canberra, but he declined, preferring to serve as a diplomat.  Appointed CBE in 1953, he was ambassador (1955-59) to France during the 1956 Suez crisis, and the Algerian war of independence that led to General de Gaulle’s return to power in 1958.  Stirling was ambassador (1959-62) to the Philippines, his only Asian post, and then ambassador (1962-67) to Italy, 'doubling' in 1964-65 as ambassador to Greece.  He was appointed knight grand cross of the Order of St Gregory the Great (1963) and to the Royal Order of George I of Greece (1964).

A bachelor, Stirling was accompanied on his postings by his sister Dorothy, who was an invaluable hostess.  Their mother had also lived with them during the early posts.  As an ambassador Stirling was a strong advocate for Australian policies.  Immersing himself in the local literary and cultural scene, he befriended many people outside the official set, travelling widely and using his facility in foreign languages to good effect.  He retired in 1967 and declined a knighthood.

Returning to Melbourne, where he enjoyed wide acquaintance, Stirling remained interested in public affairs, languages, literature and family history.  In 1970-79 he published seven books, including Gang Forward (1972), On the Fringe of Diplomacy (1973), Lord Bruce (1974) and A Distant View of the Vatican (1975).  A high church Anglican, he was enthusiastic about the possibility of a closer relationship with Roman Catholicism.  His diaries, which he kept from his time at Oxford until his death, contained records of conversations with Bruce during the war and with Menzies over many years.  Stirling died on 3 July 1981 at East Melbourne and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery.  He left his collection of books and paintings and a monetary bequest to Scotch College, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Stirling papers (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Canberra).

Citation details

Jeremy Hearder, 'Stirling, Alfred Thorp (1902–1981)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stirling-alfred-thorp-15727/text26915, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 25 June 2017.

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

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