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John Stanley Cumpston (1909–1986)

by P. G. F. Henderson

This article was published:

John Stanley Cumpston (1909-1986), diplomat, geographer, historian and publisher, was born on 3 June 1909 in Perth, eldest of seven children of Victorian-born parents John Howard Lidgett Cumpston, medical practitioner, and his wife Gladys Maeva Cumpston née Walpole. He was educated at Wesley College, Melbourne, and the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1930; LL B, 1932; Dip.Pub.Admin., 1939). At university he was a prominent sportsman. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the Melbourne University Rifles in May 1932, he continued to serve in the Citizen Military Forces and was named `the best shot in the militia force in Australia’.

On 1 May 1933 Cumpston was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the Supreme Court of Victoria. He joined the Commonwealth Public Service in June 1934 as one of the first group of graduate appointees. After working in the Crown Solicitor’s Office in Sydney, he transferred in November 1935 to the Department of External Affairs, Canberra. At the Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Reid, on 31 May 1940 he married Helen Ida Dunbar, a librarian.

Seconded to the Australian Imperial Force on 1 October 1940, Cumpston was posted to the 2/23rd Battalion and made a liaison officer at 26th Brigade headquarters. He served at Tobruk, Libya, in April-May 1941, was promoted to captain in September and was mentioned in despatches. From December to February 1942 he was officer commanding the 9th Division Ski Company in Lebanon. In February 1943 he returned to Australia and in April joined the Allied Geographical Section at General Headquarters, South-West Pacific Area. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 25 April 1945. Rejoining the Department of External Affairs, Cumpston was first secretary in Santiago (1946-49), official secretary in Wellington (1950-53), and consul in Noumea (1953-58) and Dili (January-March 1963). In 1960 he had become departmental historian, a position he held until he retired in July 1969.

In 1939 Cumpston had assisted in the preparation and publication of the first reliable map of Antarctica. This led in 1940 to his being elected a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, London. The University of Melbourne awarded him a doctorate of letters (1949) for his studies in the geography of Antarctica and of the Pacific area. In 1966 his contribution to the knowledge of Antarctica was marked by the naming of the Cumpston Massif. His book on Macquarie Island, published in 1968, has remained the basic work of reference.

Although Cumpston wrote other books—on Tobruk, on Bass Strait sealers, and on Kangaroo and King islands—publishing became his main retirement occupation. He set up and funded a publishing company, the Roebuck Society, to `provide an outlet for books of merit on Australian historical subjects not otherwise published’. Before his death, it had produced over thirty publications.

Cumpston demonstrated public spiritedness in other ways. He helped to establish the Sir Leslie Morshead War Veterans’ Home, Lyneham, St Luke’s Church of England, Deakin, and the Brindabella Gardens retirement home, Curtin. He served as president of the Canberra and District Historical Society (1973-75) and of the Australian Capital Territory branch of the Rats of Tobruk Association (1958-67 and 1983). In all these activities, as during his earlier career in the department, Cumpston’s enthusiasm and good nature did much to achieve whatever the common goal happened to be. He encouraged people to make an effort, and they liked him for it. Injuries sustained in a motorcar accident in 1984 resulted in serious health problems. Survived by his wife and their two daughters and two sons, he died on 6 August 1986 at Royal Canberra Hospital and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times, 2 July 1969, p 10, 3 Apr 1979, p 1, 14 Aug 1986, p 15
  • Canberra and District Historical Society, Newsletter, Sept 1986, p 10
  • Tobruk Times, Sept-Oct 1986, p 1
  • series B883, item NX70393 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

P. G. F. Henderson, 'Cumpston, John Stanley (1909–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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