Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walter Henderson (1887–1986)

by Peter Edwards

This article was published:

Walter Henderson (1887-1986), public servant and lawyer, was born on 29 November 1887 at Enfield, South Australia, fourth of five children of Thomas Henderson, an Ulster-born farmer, and his wife Maria Shapland, née Ford. Diminutive in stature, Walter was bullied at school and from about the age of 12 was privately tutored, largely by his father. To counter the humiliations associated with his lack of height, he developed two defences that were to shape the rest of his life: a devotion to scholarship, especially the study of European history, philosophy and law; and a combative, often aggressive personality.

Joining the South Australian Public Service in 1904, Henderson was by 1914 a reporter in the government reporting department. On 23 June 1913 at the Methodist manse, South Terrace, Adelaide, he married French-born Gertrude Ellen Jaunay. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 26 November 1914 and served in Egypt and France with the 1st Australian General Hospital, becoming a staff sergeant and company sergeant major. Discharged on 9 July 1919 in England, he moved to Paris to study law and history at l’Ecole Libre des Sciences Politiques. He graduated first in his class with a diploma `en section generale’ on 5 July 1921. His qualifications were those of a European administrator or diplomat, and through his marriage he claimed links with France’s Protestant elite.

Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce returned to Australia from the 1923 Imperial Conference dissatisfied with existing arrangements for information and advice on Imperial and foreign affairs. Advised by William Leeper of the British Foreign Office, he initiated the creation of two new public service positions: director of an external affairs branch in the Prime Minister’s Department in Melbourne and a liaison officer in London to be the principal channel of confidential information and views between the Australian prime minister and the British government. In 1924 Henderson and Richard Gavin (Baron) Casey respectively were appointed to these posts. After exchanging places with Casey for six months in 1927, Henderson spent much of 1928 and 1929 in a strenuous bureaucratic battle aimed at establishing a separate department of external affairs and diplomatic service. The Prime Minister’s Department was opposed and the Public Service Board approved only a highly diluted version of his proposals. Bruce, who was initially pleased with Henderson’s work, became critical of his abrasive style.

The Australian Labor Party’s victory at the 1929 election proved disastrous for Henderson’s prospects. He later claimed that when, at their first meeting, the new prime minister, James Scullin, said breezily: `Call me Jim’, he could only stutter in reply: `I am sometimes called Lord H.’, a nickname earned by his superior manner. Scullin commissioned a report by two senior public servants, (Sir) John McLaren and H. C. Elvins, on the organisation of the external affairs office. They saw little need for independent Australian diplomacy. Personal antagonism from Henderson’s subordinates helped to ensure the demise of his plans. He resigned, denouncing a Catholic-dominated Labor government for ejecting a conservative, highly educated Protestant, seemingly unaware that his manner, more than his social and religious identification, had caused his downfall.

Henderson settled in London; called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn on 26 January 1933, he practised international law for the rest of his career. He retired to Adelaide in the 1950s. In 1965 he led opposition to the mayor of Burnside’s proposal for a new swimming centre in Hazelwood Park. Eventually a pool was built, but without facilities that would have created unwelcome noise in the suburban neighbourhood. In the late 1960s and early 1970s he wrote pungent pieces for the Australian League of Rights and its offshoots. In particular he supported Ian Smith’s regime in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) following the unilateral declaration of independence in 1965. His tracts for the South Australia-Rhodesia Association and the Federal Council of Australia Rhodesia Associations (of which he was president) drew on his legal training and conservative values. They argued that the United Nations sanctions on the Smith regime were illegal and that the latter was justified in its constitutional position and political actions. He was widowed about 1972. On 21 June 1980 at his Glenunga home he married in a civil ceremony Marion Eileen Parish, née Gibbs-Jones, a widow. Childless, he died on 9 August 1986 at Kingswood and was cremated. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. G. Edwards, `Dr Walter Henderson—A South Australian in Charge of an Australian Foreign Office’, Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 11, 1983, p 3
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 22 Feb 1982, p 5, 12 Aug 1986, p 16
  • News (Adelaide), 13 Aug 1986, p 9
  • J. Cumpston, interview with W. Henderson (transcript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • W. Henderson diary, 1927 (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Peter Edwards, 'Henderson, Walter (1887–1986)', 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

Life Summary [details]


29 November, 1887
Enfield, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


9 August, 1986 (aged 98)
Kingswood, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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