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Peter Abernethy Coldham (1919–1995)

by Aaron Pegram

This article was published:

Peter Abernethy Coldham (1919–1995), air force officer, barrister, and judge, was born on 18 February 1919 in Sydney, younger son of Queensland-born John Cockburn Coldham, mining engineer, and his American-born wife, Mamie Elma, née Adams. The family moved to Woods Point, Victoria, in 1924, before settling in Melbourne. Peter attended St Kilda Park State School, Caulfield Central School, and then Caulfield Grammar School (1930–36), where he became school captain, and led the first XI cricket team. He frequently attended court sittings to admire the skills of leading advocates, a practice which, together with family ties to the legal profession, led to his studying law at the University of Melbourne (LLB, 1940). When World War II broke out, he was serving part time (1939–40) in the Melbourne University Rifles; afterwards, he switched to the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Reserve.

After three months clerking with a law firm, Coldham enlisted in the RAAF on 26 April 1941. His height was recorded as five feet nine and a half inches (176 cm) and his weight as 147 pounds (67 kg). He qualified as a pilot in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) under the Empire Air Training Scheme, and by August 1942 was in Britain, learning to fly heavy bombers. As a temporary flight sergeant, he joined No. 460 Squadron, RAAF, based at Breighton, Yorkshire, in March 1943 and began an intensive period of air operations, flying Lancasters. His first sortie was to Duisburg, Germany, on the night of 26–27 March. Later that month and in early April, he participated in eight more night-raids on targets in Germany and France; in two of these attacks, on the German cities of Essen and Kiel, he piloted the famous aircraft ‘G for George,’ later part of the collection of the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. In April 1943 he transferred to No. 156 Squadron, Royal Air Force (RAF), at Warboys, Cambridgeshire. The squadron was a unit of Pathfinder Force, its aircraft flying ahead of the main-force bombers to locate targets and mark them with flares.

Commissioned in June 1943, Coldham was promoted in November to acting (later, temporary) flight lieutenant, in advance of his substantive promotion to flying officer the next month. In all, he flew on forty-six operations, including raids on the German cities of Berlin (six times), Munich (twice), and Pilsen (twice), and the Italian city of Milan (twice), as well as taking part in Operation Hydra, the RAF’s raid on the German V-weapon research centre at Peenemünde on 18 August 1943. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross (1943) and a Bar to the DFC (1944). Both citations described his ‘courage and determination’ in identifying targets and pressing home attacks, and the latter noted that he had extended his pathfinder’s tour of duty to forty-six operations ‘voluntarily to coincide with that of his crew’ (NAA A9300). He flew his last sortie on 20 December 1943 then spent six months as an instructor in England. In November 1944 he arrived back in Australia, where he was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis following a routine X-ray at Townsville, Queensland, resulting in a year in hospital. His RAAF appointment was terminated on 17 January 1946.

On 20 February 1946 Coldham married Melbourne-born Jean Margaret Smith at Toorak Presbyterian Church. Rejecting a job offer from the Department of External Affairs, he instead resumed his legal career. On 2 December he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor in Victoria, and proceeded to forge a reputation as a persuasive trial lawyer. He was involved in inquiries and royal commissions, especially relating to aircraft crashes, won record damages for some clients, and represented the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd in defamation cases. In 1963 he was appointed Queen’s Counsel and in 1966 became deputy president of the Courts-Martial Appeal Tribunal (president 1970–71). He served as chairman (1969–71) of the Victorian Bar Council, and on the executive (1969–71) of the Law Council of Australia.

In February 1971 Coldham was appointed to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission as a deputy president, and simultaneously to the Flight Crew Officers Industrial Tribunal. His appointment to the tribunal ‘marked a return to the tradition in federal arbitration whereby senior arbitrators possessed a legal training’ (Blain 1984, 68). He overcame initial misgivings about his legalistic approach to develop a good relationship with the Australian Federation of Air Pilots. Although he had initially declined to switch to the bench in an unfamiliar field, he soon appreciated the commission’s importance to the whole community. He was a member of the bench that made the historic Equal Pay Case ruling in 1972 that enlarged the principle of equal pay for women for equal work to equal pay for work of equal value. In 1977 he received Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee medal, and chaired the Committee of Reference for Defence Force Pay that in January 1978 recommended equal pay for servicewomen. He brought to this committee a personal penchant for researching defence force working conditions at first hand that included spending time aboard a Royal Australian Navy submarine. In 1979 he was also a member of the bench that in the Maternity Leave Case granted twelve months of unpaid maternity leave to working women.

Following the dissolution of his first marriage, Coldham married Pamela Lindsey Nicholson, a secretary, on 9 September 1978. He retired in February 1989, but was almost immediately recalled to act for six months as deputy president of the new Australian Industrial Relations Commission, during which he presided over challenging proceedings hearing the pay claim that preceded the 1989 pilots’ dispute.

In retirement, Coldham enjoyed theatre, music, and painting with the Malvern Artists’ Society. He relished his lifetime passion for cricket, claiming he had seen almost every century (Sir) Donald Bradman scored at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Friends knew him as a fine entertainer and conversationalist. He died on 14 September 1995 while holidaying in London. His wife survived him, as did the three daughters and one son of his first marriage. A service was held at Caulfield Grammar School, where his family donated two memorial benches commemorating him, and his ashes were interred at Springvale Botanical cemetery.

Research edited by Stephen Wilks

Select Bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial. AWM65, 754
  • Blain, Nicholas. Industrial Relations in the Air: Australian Airline Pilots. St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1984
  • Brennan, Columb. ‘Courage and Passion in a Distinguished Life.’ Age (Melbourne), 9 October 1995, 16
  • Coldham, Peter. Interview by Ken Llewelyn, 22 March 1995. Australian War Memorial
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, Coldham, Peter Abernethy
  • Norington, Brad. Sky Pirates: The Pilots’ Strike That Grounded Australia. Crows Nest, NSW: ABC Enterprises, 1990
  • Sweeney, Charles A. ‘Formidable Opponent at the Bar.’ Australian, 1 November 1995, 18
  • Thomson, David S. ‘Peter A. Coldham D.F.C., Bar and Bench.’ Labora 29, no. 1 (February 1991): 18, 20

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Aaron Pegram, 'Coldham, Peter Abernethy (1919–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2020, accessed online 17 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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