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Richard Gavin Gardiner Casey (1890–1976)

by W. J. Hudson

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Richard Casey, by James Quinn, 1930s

Richard Casey, by James Quinn, 1930s

National Library of Australia, 2890797

Casey, Richard Gavin Gardiner, Baron Casey of Berwick, Victoria, and the City of Westminster (1890-1976), engineer, diplomat, politician, governor and governor-general, was born on 29 August 1890 in Brisbane, eldest child of Richard Gardiner Casey, pastoralist and politician, and his Queensland-born wife Jane Eveline (Evelyn Jane), née Harris. Richard senior, the son of Cornelius Casey, worked as a jackeroo, did well as a manager of properties in New South Wales and then became a minor partner in three Queensland holdings. Partly of convict stock, and twenty years younger than her husband, Evelyn came from a notable family: her father George Harris and her maternal grandfather George Thorn had been Queensland parliamentarians, and an uncle George Henry Thorn had been premier in 1876-77.

Poor seasons and low prices impoverished Richard senior and in 1893 he moved his family to Melbourne where he prospered as a company director, partly by drawing on connexions made in Queensland with Thomas and Walter Hall, major partners in the fabulous Mount Morgan Gold Mining Co. Ltd. Affluence was to free young Richard from material worries for the rest of his life, but his father was stern, dominating and misanthropic, and Richard was less privileged in emotional terms. Living in the family mansion, Shipley House, at South Yarra, he was educated as a day-boy at Cumloden School, St Kilda, and then for three years at the nearby Melbourne Church of England Grammar School. With a bent towards science rather than classics, he spent one year (1909) as an engineering student at the University of Melbourne before sailing to England and entering Trinity College, Cambridge (B.A., 1913; M.A., 1918); he graduated with second-class honours in the mechanical sciences tripos. As a student he had been a keen debater and oarsman, rowing for Trinity at Henley, and he saw something of France and Germany. He returned to Australia and, on his father's instruction, worked at Mount Morgan (his father was now chairman of the company) until war broke out in August 1914.

Appointed lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force on 14 September 1914, Richard junior embarked for Egypt next month. He was to serve throughout the war and rise to major, but in all those years he never commanded men. He began as an orderly officer and then aide-de-camp to Major General (Sir) William Bridges, commander of the A.I.F.'s 1st Division, and in August 1915 he became a staff captain with the 3rd Brigade at Gallipoli. Casey was evacuated with fever in October, but recovered in time to be appointed general staff officer, 3rd grade (intelligence), with the 1st Division, just before its move to the Western Front and the nightmare of the Somme in 1916. He observed operations, and collected and sifted information; in January 1917 he was awarded the Military Cross and was made brigade major of the 8th Brigade. This demanding position entailed regular visits to the front under trying and hazardous conditions; for his work he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in 1918. From February that year he was G.S.O.2 (training), on the staff of the Australian Corps.

Like so many others, Casey in later life rarely referred to his war service, though letters and diary fragments make it clear that both at Gallipoli and on the Western Front he went through three distinct phases: almost boyish exuberance, followed by depression, then retreat into a detached military professionalism. Like so many, he was angered by the appalling carnage about him, and saw himself as part of a younger generation which would do better. It was perhaps unfortunate that these harrowing years of the most intense experience were, as with the previous apprenticeship to his father, spent in the service of much older and more senior men and tended to confirm his assumption that advancement came best, not from competition with equals or marshalling the support of juniors, but from nomination by seniors who rewarded courtesy, deference and industry. Twice mentioned in dispatches, he resigned his A.I.F. commission and was demobilized in London on 10 June 1919. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers and in the early 1920s served as a part-time intelligence officer at Army Headquarters, Melbourne.

Casey's brother Dermot Armstrong (1897-1977) had also served in World War I. He was born on 27 August 1897 at South Yarra, Melbourne, and educated in England at Eton and the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. Commissioned in the Royal Horse Artillery on 23 November 1916, he was sent to the Western Front; he was awarded the M.C. (1918) for directing the fire of his battery in the face of an enemy advance. After the Armistice he worked on a number of archeological 'digs' in England. At St John's Anglican Church, Toorak, Melbourne, on 27 August 1924 he married Gwynnedd Mary Browne, a grand-daughter of A. S. Chirnside.

From 1929 he assisted the British archeologist (Sir) Mortimer Wheeler on sites in England. Back in Australia, Dermot was a founder of the Anthropological Society of Victoria, president (1947) of the Royal Society of Victoria and honorary ethnologist to the National Museum of Victoria for forty years. He joined Wheeler at Taxila, India (Pakistan) in 1944. Resuming fieldwork in Australia in the 1950s, he became a foundation member of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. Colleagues acknowledged his skill as an excavator and his mastery of exposition, and appreciated his modesty, good humour and generosity. Dermot died on 13 September 1977 at Mount Macedon, Victoria, and was cremated; his wife, daughter and son survived him.

With the death of his father in 1919, Richard had returned immediately to Melbourne. Although young for such positions, he virtually succeeded to his father's seats on company boards, including that of Mount Morgan. Involvement in mining employers' organizations and with groups behind the National Party followed. These affiliations, in turn, led to friendship with S. M. (Viscount) Bruce who became prime minister in 1923. At this point Casey was not much interested in politics, seeing himself rather fancifully as an antipodean Henry Ford. Casey bought a small steel-manufacturing firm in Melbourne, but found that industrial greatness would not come from making cutlery. He also joined a syndicate to back the brilliant Melbourne engineer A. G. M. Michell who had designed a new kind of automobile engine. Casey took the engine to America, but could not persuade the Ford Motor Co. or General Motors Corporation to accept it. He then found himself leading an incredibly busy work and social life, but it was a self-set busy-ness leading nowhere very obvious, and he scarcely hesitated when, in 1924, Bruce urged him to join the Commonwealth Public Service and go to London as Australia's liaison officer (in effect, as Bruce's political agent).

Casey was a great success in London. With the credentials valued by their caste, he was liked by the senior men in Westminster and Whitehall, and he was able to report to Bruce on everything from British defence policy to club gossip. He was Bruce's eyes and ears at the Imperial centre, but he also acted for him in some political matters and for the Australian government in some League of Nations forums in 1925-30 at Geneva, Switzerland. While in London, and by now 35, he married 34-year-old Ethel Marian Sumner (Maie) Ryan on 24 June 1926 at St James's parish church, Westminster. His bride was the only daughter of Sir Charles Ryan, a Melbourne surgeon, and Lady Ryan (Alice, née Sumner). Maie was related by blood or marriage to leading Victorian families, among them the Clarkes, Chirnsides and Grices; a Ryan aunt had married a brother of the 6th Duke of Buccleuch and (9th Duke of) Queensberry; Maie's only brother Rupert had married Lady Rosemary Hay, daughter of the 21st Earl of Erroll. A lively and gregarious woman with an interest in the arts, Maie was to provide for Casey a marriage of unusually close and constant companionship. Supportive but also stimulating, she would give him strength and direction.

Because Bruce was not very interested in developing an independent Australian diplomatic service, Casey became restless in London and concerned about his future. Yet, it was only with Bruce's electoral defeat in 1929 and his replacement as prime minister by Labor's James Scullin—with whom Casey could not hope to enjoy the intimate, almost filial, relationship possible with Bruce—that Casey decided to return to Australia and enter Federal politics. He left England in February 1931. At the elections later that year, and endorsed by the new United Australia Party led by Joseph Lyons, Casey was returned to the House of Representatives for the Victorian seat of Corio.

An indifferent orator, shy, stiff, unmoved by parliamentary ritual and irritated by what seemed to him the inexpert amateurishness of government in a democracy, Casey was poorly equipped for politics, but he worked very hard to educate himself in public finance, was prepared to live in Canberra (which he loathed), was modestly adventurous in his views (questioning protection if it did not benefit consumers), and in career terms he was successful. He became an assistant-minister at the Treasury in 1933, treasurer in 1935, and minister for supply and development in 1939. As treasurer, he had to cope with Australia's slow emergence from the Depression and, while he invested immense effort in preparing legislation and a bureaucratic structure for a national insurance scheme, the scheme was shelved because of approaching war, and he left no monuments. Encouraged initially by Bruce to see himself as a certain prime minister, Casey was never in the race, and certainly not after the move of (Sir) Robert Menzies from Victorian to Federal politics in 1934. When Lyons died in 1939, Casey stood for the U.A.P. leadership, and thereby the prime ministership, but he came in behind Menzies and even old W. M. Hughes. Casey did not help his cause by joining the Country Party leader Sir Earle Page in appeals to Bruce to return, and, in any case, he was far too modest and too inept in organizing support for himself.

In 1939 the Menzies government decided to establish Australia's first diplomatic posts, in Tokyo and Washington. Casey was asked to head the legation in Washington. Appointed Australian minister to the United States of America, he resigned from parliament on 30 January 1940. As in London, he proved to have an extraordinary flair for diplomacy, and, despite representing a country of which Americans knew little, soon enjoyed access to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the friendship of leading politicians, officials and servicemen. Although he was now 50, boyish charm and courteous deference opened doors to him, and he was a keen convert to the American craft of public relations.

Unable to cope with H. V. Evatt, minister for external affairs in the Labor government which assumed power under John Curtin in October 1941, Casey was keen to move on, and was happily surprised when, in March 1942, (Sir) Winston Churchill offered him the position of United Kingdom minister of state in the Middle East, based in Cairo. Australia still saw itself as a British country, but this move to United Kingdom political service during war raised some Australian hackles, not least those of Curtin. It also raised hackles in Whitehall, especially in the Foreign Office. Casey's principal duties in Cairo were to contain an almost impossible range of civil problems in the region—some of it colonial and some independent, some of it occupied and some not, most of it under some form of British control but some of it ruled by the French—and to assist the theatre's military commanders at a political level. Long hours, a difficult climate, and the problems of a large and varied jurisdiction took their toll on his health, but he did the job probably as well as it could be done, and certainly well enough to satisfy Churchill who, in November 1943, offered him the governorship of Bengal, India.

On 22 January 1944 Casey took over a Bengal devastated by famine and politically sundered by nationalist agitation and communal conflict. He could (and for a time did) impose governor's rule, but ordinarily had to work with a ministry, and yet he, rather than his chief minister, would be held responsible by New Delhi and London for the good government of Bengal. He improved the civil service, fought with a measure of success for funds from New Delhi, encouraged development projects, and kept his ministries in a condition of reasonable harmony and efficiency. As in Cairo, he was shocked by British racial snobbery, and he tried to break down walls between Government House in Calcutta and the local community. Casey had his share of prejudices and assumed that everyone else had them, though he thought it ungentlemanly and politically unwise ever to show them. Again, the climate, the long hours and the frustrations of the job affected his health, but he was counted a success, and for many years to come would enjoy the affection of the politicians and officials he had known in Calcutta—more especially those who were Moslems and became Pakistanis. Casey himself was to regard his Bengal years as perhaps the most fruitful of his life.

Encouraged by some people when he was away to see himself as a successful challenger to Menzies—who now led the new Liberal Party but whose ability to woo the electorate was under question—Casey arrived home in April 1946 determined to re-enter Federal politics (with this in mind, he had refused a peerage while in Bengal). He failed to organize pre-selection in time for the elections in September that year, and was at something of a loose end until he was persuaded to become federal president of the Liberal Party in September 1947. In this position he achieved much. Although somewhat out of touch with a new generation of politicians, he had retained his old social, army and business connexions, and it was estimated that his public appeals and remorseless private solicitations raised the then extraordinary amount of £250,000 for the party in 1947-49. He also proved adept at using public relations and advertising in the Liberal interest—and in the Casey interest.

Never very happy with democratic pluralism and group strife, during World War II Casey had been both impressed by the unity of purpose achieved by a national government in Britain and appalled by the social and political conflict he had seen in the Middle East and India: he returned to Australia preaching consensus in politics and industry as vital to the country's well-being. He did what little he could to break down the barriers that faced Catholics in the Liberal Party, raged against reactionary employers and bloody-minded employees, took a close interest in the new field of industrial psychology, held a kind view of trade unionism and even urged reform of the White Australia policy.

At the elections in December 1949 Casey was returned for the outer-Melbourne seat of La Trobe and, with J. B. Chifley's Labor government defeated, entered the Menzies ministry as minister for supply and development (national development from March 1950) and for works and housing. He professed to enjoy these portfolios, even though the new government was more interested in containing inflation than spending on grand public works. Casey seemed, however, to suffer a severe bout of clinical depression and it was only when he succeeded (Sir) Percy Spender in 1951 as minister for external affairs that he began to recover. His problems were many, but high among them were lack of rapport with Menzies, and impatience with party and Federal politicking. The external affairs portfolio and especially the travel that went with it allowed some removal from Menzies and domestic politics. Casey remained an indifferent performer in parliament and in cabinet, and, unlike his predecessors Evatt and Spender, was not a policy innovator. He excelled rather as a minister-diplomat, courting his overseas counterparts to the point of achieving friendship with many of them. He also took a close interest in the administration of his department and in the welfare of its officers.

In public, Casey seemed to be a devoted Cold-War warrior, fervently supportive of Britain and the U.S.A., and deeply hostile towards the Soviet Union and China; he was the minister responsible for the Australian Secret Intelligence Service. In private, his views and at times his behaviour were very different. He came out against Britain's militant reaction to the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956, but he could not move Menzies and said nothing against Britain in public. Again, while at ease with Americans, excessive dependence on the U.S.A. distressed him. Year after year he campaigned in cabinet for greater Australian self-sufficiency in defence, but was confronted by colleagues who preferred the financially cheaper alternative of alliance diplomacy. Totalitarianism also distressed him, but he argued in private that—whatever one thought of it—a communist China must be accommodated and urged his fellow ministers to allow diplomatic recognition; again, they turned him down.

If Casey was an innovator at all, it was in constantly preaching the importance of Asia to an Australia which had taken little interest in it. He frequently visited Asia (and thereby forced the Australian press to take an interest), kept a close eye on aid to Asian countries and urged his young diplomats to concentrate on Asia rather than Europe. Casey had also given close attention to the Antarctic since the 1920s and played a leading part in the negotiation in 1959 of a treaty covering co-operation in exploration and scientific research there. A research station and several geographical features in Antarctica were named after him. Throughout the 1950s Casey was, as well, the minister responsible for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. Although tending to be impatient with theoretical work, he was personally committed to furthering the role of the C.S.I.R.O., and few other areas of government so absorbed him or allowed him to operate with such conviction.

In January 1960 Casey was made a life peer; next month he resigned from the ministry and parliament. It was by then something of an anomaly that an Australian should be appointed to the Upper House of another country's parliament, yet, for most Australians, Britain was still the mother country and few were inclined to quibble. Lord Casey ordered his time around annual trips to London and appearances in the House of Lords, but he had no obvious constituency, he was distressed to find that British interest in the old dominions was waning fast, and he warmed to the forms of Westminster no more than he had to those of Canberra. At home, he enjoyed having a seat (1960-65) on the C.S.I.R.O. executive; he involved himself in the Australian-American Association, the Australian-Asian Association of Victoria, the Freedom from Hunger Campaign, and International House at the University of Melbourne. Then, in mid-1965, he accepted appointment, and on 22 September was sworn in, as governor-general—nominated to his grateful surprise by Menzies.

Casey was the first Australian citizen to be recommended for the governor-generalship by a non-Labor government; provided that he performed well, it was unlikely that there would be a reversion to appointees from Britain. He did perform well, mainly because he took the office seriously and because he enjoyed it. More interventionist than convention encouraged, he interposed in disputes between 'his' ministers in the interests of harmony in 'his' governments, raised policy matters with ministers and senior public servants, and questioned submissions. He was fortunate in that he had the kind of presence which, while not very impressive in cabinet rooms or parliamentary chambers, was well suited to vice-regal office. And in Maie he had an ideal wife, sharply conscious of her dignity but down-to-earth. Casey also literally civilized the office. Averse to uniforms and plumes, he chose civilian forms which made it easier for men like (Sir) Paul Hasluck to succeed him.

While not as competent and stylish a writer as Maie, and inclined at times to look to others for drafts, Casey published a good deal: Australia's Place in the World (Melbourne, 1931), An Australian in India (London, 1947), Double or Quit (Melbourne, 1949), Friends and Neighbours (Melbourne, 1954), Personal Experience 1939-1946 (London, 1962), The Future of the Commonwealth (London, 1963), Australian Father and Son (London, 1966), and Australian Foreign Minister (edited by T. B. Millar, London, 1972).

Retiring in April 1969, Casey lived out his days with Maie at Edrington—a substantial house (inherited by Maie and Rupert in the 1930s) on 1000 acres (405 ha) at Berwick, outside Melbourne—and at Little Parndon, a renovated townhouse in East Melbourne. Although now moving into his eighties, Casey did not enjoy the enforced quiet of retirement. Survived by his wife, daughter and son, he died on 17 June 1976 at St Vincent's Hospital, Fitzroy, and was buried in Mount Macedon cemetery. His estate was sworn for probate at $621,560 in Victoria and £64,899 in England.

Casey was the last of a kind. Australia's evolution towards full independence, culturally as well as constitutionally, meant that no Australian could ever again enjoy the range of appointments which fell to him. An engineer by training and inclination, and always most at home with the practical (typically, his passions were cars and planes, and he and Maie took up flying in the 1930s and remained keen pilots for most of their lives), he was at times out of his intellectual depth; nervous and shy, he was often ill at ease in public life and even to some extent in domestic life; ambitious, he lacked ruthlessness; wealthy, he tried to use his freedom in public service to a society disinclined to honour his caste. He was an unusually good man, but his was the morality of Edwardian secular gentlemanliness, and there were not many Edwardian gentlemen in the worlds in which he chose to operate. Above all else, he was a trier. He looked over his own shoulder and tried to be morally good; he tried to be a good husband (and succeeded); he tried to be a good father (and did not succeed so well); he tried to do well the many different jobs which came his way (and generally succeeded). Even his demanding father could not have found fault in terms of Casey's public trophies: apart from his peerage, he was a privy counsellor (from 1939), and was appointed C.H. (1944), G.C.M.G. (1965) and K.G. (1969). A portrait by J. P. Quinn is held by the National Library of Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Hudson, Casey (Melb, 1986) and for sources
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Newsletter, no 9, Jan 1978
  • Journal of Historical Society of South Australia, no 9, 1981
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, 28, no 2, 1982
  • Herald (Melbourne), 11 Sept 1965
  • Casey papers (National Library of Australia and National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

W. J. Hudson, 'Casey, Richard Gavin Gardiner (1890–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Richard Casey, by James Quinn, 1930s

Richard Casey, by James Quinn, 1930s

National Library of Australia, 2890797

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Baron Casey
  • Casey, Baron

29 August, 1890
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


17 June, 1976 (aged 85)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.