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Wigmore, Lionel Gage (1899–1989)

by Darryl McIntyre

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

Lionel Wigmore, [right, with Gordon Freeth], 1963

Lionel Wigmore, [right, with Gordon Freeth], 1963

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L43305

Lionel Gage Wigmore (1899-1989), journalist and historian, was born on 14 March 1899 near Brockhampton, Herefordshire, England, son of Charles Lumbert Wigmore, farmer, and his wife Arabella Woodbourne, née Fewtrell.  The family migrated to New Zealand in 1909.  Lionel attended the Normal District High School, Christchurch.  He joined the staff of the Press, Christchurch, in 1915 and a few years later moved to the Lyttelton Times.  In 1918 he enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force but World War I ended before he was called up.

Migrating to Sydney in 1922, Wigmore worked (1922-28 and 1931-39) for the Daily Telegraph and the Sun, switching back and forth between them, as variously motoring, political and aviation reporter, special writer and sub-editor.  On 19 November 1926 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Emily Sheila Baverstock.  In 1928-31 he undertook publicity work for the oil industry and edited magazines.  He joined the staff of the Federal Department of Information in 1939.

In April 1941 Wigmore became the department’s representative in Malaya (Malaysia), based in Singapore.  He worked closely with the Far Eastern Bureau of the British Ministry of Information, as well as the British and Australian military forces, and supplied Australian service personnel with news from home.  Early in the posting, he fell foul of Major General Gordon Bennett, the Australian commander, who misunderstood Wigmore’s role.  His wife joined him for a few months but was evacuated in December following Japan’s entry into World War II.

With the surrender of Singapore imminent in February 1942, Wigmore was transferred to Java, where he acted as assistant Australian government commissioner to the Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia) and helped obtain supplies of vital materials for Australia before Java also fell to the Japanese.  He was then recalled and placed in charge of his department’s Melbourne office.  In 1944 he was posted to Canberra as chief administration officer.  From 1945 to 1947 he served as public relations officer with the Australian High Commission, India.  Back in Canberra, he was departmental chief liaison officer and representative in relation to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

In 1948 Gavin Long secured Wigmore’s appointment as an official historian of Australia in World War II.  Wigmore was to write the volume in the 'Army' series dealing with the campaigns in Malaya and the NEI in 1941-42 and the fate of the prisoners of war.  It was a difficult task.  The campaigns were controversial and the British official historian of the war against Japan, S. W. Kirby, called the loss of Singapore 'the greatest military defeat in British history'.  Wigmore and Kirby managed to reach near unanimity about the facts of the disaster but, despite consultation, were unable to resolve differences in their interpretations of some events.  Additionally, Wigmore’s appointment rekindled Bennett’s animosity and this increased as Wigmore sent him successive draft chapters for comment.  Bennett and his supporters falsely accused Wigmore of colluding with the Australian Staff Corps of the Permanent Military Forces to produce an account biased against him as an officer of the Citizen Military Forces; they also made unfounded claims of factual inaccuracy.

The history was based on interviews and correspondence with individuals, published memoirs, reconstructed war diaries, and official records of the countries involved.  Wigmore was assisted part time by A. J. Sweeting who obtained most of the documentary evidence, wrote the volume’s three chapters on the prisoners of the Japanese and drafted Appendix 4, 'Ordeal on New Britain'.  Entitled The Japanese Thrust, the book was published in 1957.  It was well received by the Australian public and was generally the subject of favourable reviews.

After completing the volume, Wigmore headed the Asian section of the Australian News and Information Bureau and had a second posting to India before he retired in 1962.  A foundation member of the Canberra branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, he had edited Span (1958)—an anthology of Australian and Asian writings—for the society; he also served two terms as its president.  With Bruce Harding, he published They Dared Mightily (1963), about Australian Victoria Cross and George Cross winners.  He wrote The Long View (1963), an account of Canberra’s development as the national capital, and Struggle for the Snowy (1968), a commissioned history of the Snowy Mountains scheme.  In old age he moved to Hobart.  He died there on 8 November 1989 and was cremated.  His wife and their daughter survived him.  An obituarist remembered him as 'urbane and whimsical, a man who carried his learning lightly', and a gentleman.

Select Bibliography

  • S. W. Kirby, The War Against Japan, vol 1 (1957)
  • A. B. Lodge, The Fall of General Gordon Bennett (1986)
  • Canberra and District Historical Society, Newsletter, March 1990, p 10
  • AWM67, items 2/50 and 2/51 (Australian War Memorial)
  • AWM93, items 50/9/3/4 and 50/9/3/3/4A Pts 1 and 2 (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

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Citation details

Darryl McIntyre, 'Wigmore, Lionel Gage (1899–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wigmore-lionel-gage-15876/text27077, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 24 March 2019.

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

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