Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sir Adrian Herbert Curlewis (1901–1985)

by Douglas Booth

This article was published:

Adrian Curlewis, n.d.

Adrian Curlewis, n.d.

National Library of Australia

Sir Adrian Herbert Frederic Curlewis (1901-1985), judge and surf lifesaving administrator, was born on 13 January 1901 at Mosman, Sydney, second child of Sydney-born Herbert Raine Curlewis, barrister and later judge, and his English-born wife Ethel, née Turner, author of children’s stories. Educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore), Adrian studied law at the University of Sydney. He worked in a law firm, then served as clerk first to Sir William Cullen and then to (Sir) Philip Street, chief justices of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. Admitted to the Bar on 11 March 1927, he practised in Sydney. A founding member of the Palm Beach Surf Life Saving Club, he was club captain (1923-28) and president (1929-33). He married Beatrice Maude Carr on 12 December 1928 at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney.

Commissioned in the Militia on 6 June 1939, Curlewis transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in September 1940. By February 1941 he was a general staff officer, 3rd grade, at the headquarters of the 8th Division in Malaya. Twelve months later, when it was obvious that Singapore would fall to the Japanese, he was included in a plan to evacuate the divisional commander, Major General Henry Bennett, and some staff officers. However, Curlewis considered it improper to leave 'the men at this critical time, even if it did mean the chance of getting home'. Following his capture, for eighteen months his family did not know whether he was alive or dead. He helped organise the 'Changi University' education scheme and kept two secret diaries. One, written during his eight months (April-November 1943) constructing the Burma-Thailand railway, became the basis of a report (co-authored with Lieutenant Colonel C. H. Kappe) detailing the activities of 'F' force and its experience of Japanese atrocities. His diaries and letters, compiled by his daughter, were published as Of Love and War (1982). Following his release in September 1945, Curlewis was a key witness before the commission of inquiry into Bennett’s escape from Singapore. On 26 January 1946 Captain Curlewis transferred to the Reserve of Officers.

In 1948 Curlewis was appointed a District Court judge. He served on a number of government inquiries, including the State shark menace advisory committee (1934-35), the royal commission (1950) on Claremont Hospital for the Mentally Insane, Western Australia, and the commission of inquiry (1973-74) into privately operated omnibus and tourist vehicle services in New South Wales. Always interested in young people, he sat on the councils of his old school, Shore, and Wenona School.

Juvenile delinquency and crime after World War II worried Curlewis. Delivering the Roentgen Oration to the sixth annual meeting of the College of Radiologists of Australasia, in 1955, he 'charged' the community with 'gross neglect of its duties to youth … by failing to give proper instruction' and 'by placing false values before [them]'. He urged the minister for justice to 'appoint an Advisory Committee to inquire into the causes of delinquency'. The State government eventually heeded the call and appointed Curlewis chairman of the youth policy advisory committee in 1960. He did not claim to have the solutions to juvenile crime, but believed that his experiences as a prisoner of war, 'learning and practising every conceivable form of dishonesty in order to remain alive', and observing youth involved in surf lifesaving placed him 'in a better position … than any of my brother judges' to understand the issues confronting young people. The committee’s report (1962) bears his imprimatur, especially his faith in the ability of established youth organisations to train young people in 'responsibility' and thus combat misbehaviour.

Very active in public life, Curlewis held leadership roles in numerous associations. He was chairman (1949-71) of the New South Wales National Fitness Council, founder (1956) of the Outward Bound movement in New South Wales, national co-ordinator (1962-73) of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award in Australia, and president (1968-84) of the Royal Humane Society of New South Wales. In 1960 he chaired an international convention on lifesaving techniques that led to widespread adoption of the 'kiss of life'. As president (1934-41, 1945-75) of the Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, he saw the association enter a period of crisis in the 1960s as young men left the clubs en masse and took up surfboard riding. Their pursuit of what he regarded as selfish personal interest troubled him. He was appointed CBE in 1962 and CVO in 1974, and was knighted in 1967. In 1971 Sir Adrian retired from the bench. Survived by his wife and their son and daughter, he died on 16 June 1985 at his Mosman home and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. J. H. Henchman, A Court Rises (1982)
  • S. Brawley, Beach Beyond (1996)
  • D. Booth, Australian Beach Cultures (2001)
  • Surf Life Saving Association of Australia, Annual Report, 1974-75, p 2
  • Australian Law Journal, vol 59, no 9, 1985, p 581
  • Australian Women’s Weekly, 14 Sept 1955, p 12, 17 Feb 1971, p 4
  • series B883, item NX70316 (National Archives of Australia)
  • N. Bennetts, interview with A. Curlewis (transcript, 1976, National Library of Australia)
  • Curlewis family papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Additional Resources

Citation details

Douglas Booth, 'Curlewis, Sir Adrian Herbert (1901–1985)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 22 June 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Adrian Curlewis, n.d.

Adrian Curlewis, n.d.

National Library of Australia

Life Summary [details]


13 January, 1901
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


16 June, 1985 (aged 84)
Mosman, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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Military Service
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