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Viscount William Philip (Bill) De L'Isle (1909–1991)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

Viscount de L'Isle, by Australian News and Information Bureau, 1962

Viscount de L'Isle, by Australian News and Information Bureau, 1962

National Library of Australia, 44883435

William Philip Sidney, first Viscount De L’Isle, (1909-1991), governor-general, was born on 23 May 1909 at Chelsea, London, only son of William Sidney, barrister, mayor of Chelsea (1906-08), London County councillor (1922-34), and 5th Baron De L’Isle and Dudley, and his wife Winifred Agneta Yorke, née Bevan. Family ancestors included the courtier-poet Sir Philip Sidney and King William IV. Suffering from asthma in childhood, Bill did not attend boarding school until he entered Eton (1923-27). While at Magdalene College, Cambridge (BA, 1930; MA, 1935) he was commissioned in the Grenadier Guards reserve of officers (1929).

He qualified as a chartered accountant, was elected to Chelsea Borough Council in 1937 and was working at Barclays Bank’s Pall Mall office at the outbreak of World War II. Joining his regiment, he served in France before being evacuated from Dunkirk in May 1940. In a Church of England ceremony he married Jacqueline Corinne Yvonne Vereker, daughter of the 6th Viscount Gort, on 8 June at the Royal Military Chapel, Wellington Barracks, London. Returning to duty, he served in North Africa and Italy.  At Anzio during the night of 7-8 February 1944 Major Sidney repeatedly led his men into action and inspired them with extraordinary acts of courage, despite suffering a serious wound.  He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Back in London, he transferred to the army reserve and in a by-election in October 1944 was returned unopposed as National Conservative member for Chelsea in the House of Commons. He was parliamentary secretary, ministry of pensions, in (Sir) Winston Churchill’s government from May 1945. On his father’s death the next month, De L’Isle succeeded to the barony and entered the House of Lords. In 1949 he opened his historic home, Penshurst Place, Tonbridge, Kent, to the public and for the rest of his life improved and restored it while delighting in showing visitors its beauties. He was secretary of state for air (1951-55) in Churchill’s last government; on a visit to Australia with his wife in November 1955 he inspected the Long Range Weapons Establishment’s testing ranges at Woomera, South Australia. Resigning from the air ministry the following month, he was created 1st Viscount De L’Isle of Penshurst in January 1956. He resumed his business career and became a director of several companies, including Lloyds Bank, and managing director of Schweppes (Home) Ltd.

Seeking a replacement for Governor-General Lord Dunrossil while visiting England in March 1961, Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, unable to ‘think of an Australian who would be satisfactory,’ selected De L’Isle. Appointed GCMG in May, he reached Canberra with his family on 2 August and took office next day. Some six feet (183 cm) tall, affable, and active, His Excellency enjoyed the vice-regal trappings and travelled widely. He bought two cattle properties near Armidale, New South Wales. Lady De L’Isle died in Canberra on 16 November 1962. Her husband gifted a chime of bells cast in England to the Church of St John the Baptist, Canberra, in her memory.

When De L’Isle welcomed Queen Elizabeth II to Australia on her second royal tour in February 1963, his daughter Catherine carried out the duties of hostess at Yarralumla. No political controversies occurred during his term. His decision in October 1963 to grant Menzies a premature dissolution of the House of Representatives evoked no criticism, though it led to separate Senate and House elections for a decade. This was the only occasion that the House has been dissolved prematurely without a defeat of the government in the House or to synchronise elections for both houses of parliament. In June 1964, resplendent in white dress uniform and plumed hat, His Excellency opened the new House of Assembly in Port Moresby, Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Due to his wife’s illness and funeral, he had spent several months in England in 1962; he also took leave there from June to August 1964.

The last Englishman to be appointed Australian governor-general and the last (so far) to wear the uniform of office, De L’Isle relinquished his duties on 6 May 1965 and resumed his London business career. In 1968 he was appointed KG. At the British Embassy, Paris, on 24 March 1966 he had married Margaret Eldrydd Bailey, née Shoubridge, widow of the 3rd Baron Glanusk. Viscount De L’Isle died on 5 April 1991 at Penshurst Place, London, and was buried in the family vault.  His wife and the son and four daughters of his first marriage survived him. His portrait by Clifton Pugh is in the Parliament House art collection.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Women’s Weekly. ‘New Bells for St. John’s.’ 1 July 1964, 3
  • National Archives of Australia, Personal Papers of Prime Minister Menzies, M2576/14, 1172484
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘New Governor-General is Lord De L’Isle: V.C., Former U.K. Minister.’ 11 April 1961, 1, 2, 4 & 19
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Warm Welcome For De L’Isles.’ 3 August 1961, 10
  • ‘Colour, Pomp as Lord De L’Isle Assumes Office.’ 4 August 1961, 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Lord De L’Isle “Proud to Step on Aust.Stage”.’ 5 May 1965, 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘He Saw Every Corner of Aust.’ 5 May 1965, 6
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Hero We Were Quick to Salute.’ 8 April 1991, 6
  • The Times (London). ‘Two VCs Valour in Anzio Beach-Head.’ 31 March 1944, 4
  • The Times (London). ‘Chelsea’s V.C. M.P.’ 12 October 1944, 4
  • The Times (London). ‘Called by the “Fates” to Play Many Roles.’ 11 April 1961, 7
  • The Times (London). ‘Viscount De L’Isle.’ 8 April 1991, 16
  • The Times (London). ‘Viscount De L’Isle.’ 30 April 1991, 16
  • Woman’s Day. ‘A Governor-General Returns to Australia, 20 Years On.’ 22 April 1985, 52

Additional Resources

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'De L'Isle, Viscount William Philip (Bill) (1909–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 21 June 2024.

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

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Viscount de L'Isle, by Australian News and Information Bureau, 1962

Viscount de L'Isle, by Australian News and Information Bureau, 1962

National Library of Australia, 44883435

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Viscount De L’Isle of Penshurst

23 May, 1909
London, Middlesex, England


5 April, 1991 (aged 81)
Tonbridge, Kent, England

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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