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Clarence Lindsay (Clarrie) Hermes (1921–1991)

by Gary Humphries

This article was published:

Clarence Lindsay Hermes (1921–1991), chief magistrate and intelligence officer, was born on 16 January 1921 at Arncliffe, Sydney, second son of New South Wales-born parents Alphonse Réné Hermès, schoolteacher, and his wife Daphne, née Browne. Clarrie’s family moved to South Australia in 1928 and he attended Birdwood High School, Adelaide Hills. He did not complete his Leaving certificate, which he later regretted. After finishing school in 1936 he worked briefly as a copy-boy with the Adelaide News, then as as a clerk at the Union Bank of Australia Ltd.

Following the outbreak of World War II, Hermes enlisted in the Royal Australian Air Force on 4 June 1940. As a wireless telegraphist and one of the first airmen trained to intercept enemy radio communications, he served at headquarters and in wireless units in the Northern Territory, Queensland, and Victoria. In October 1944 he was commissioned and in April 1945 promoted to flying officer. On Labuan Island, Borneo, following the Allied invasion in June 1945, he displayed an ‘unusual flair’ (NAA A9300) for intelligence duties. He was demobilised in Australia on 4 March 1946.

Taking advantage of the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, Hermes attended the University of Adelaide (LLB, 1950) and was admitted as a legal practitioner of the Supreme Court of South Australia on 18 December 1950. He worked in private practice at Whyalla until 1952 and then spent a year with the South Australian Crown Law Office. A keen member of the debating club while at university, he had been noticed by (Sir) Richard Blackburn, professor of law, who recommended him to the newly established Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS). Hermes became one of the organisation’s first recruits and ‘most brilliant officers’ (Waterford 1991, 2).

On 9 May 1953 Hermes married Betty Ellen Lewthwaite in the Church of England, Whyalla. Following his marriage, he was sent to London for training with the British Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). Poised to head the ASIS station in Indonesia, he resigned in 1957 after his friend and mentor Alfred Brookes failed to have his contract as ASIS director renewed. Returning to South Australia, Hermes worked briefly again for the Crown Law Office before moving into private practice. He liked the law but disliked its business side; he especially disliked ‘dunning people for money’ (Canberra Times 1970, 9). In 1961 he applied successfully for a position as a magistrate with the Adelaide Police Court. Two years later he was appointed a stipendiary magistrate for the Australian Capital Territory (ACT).

Stern but unpretentious, Hermes soon developed an interest in the rehabilitation of young people. In 1967 he founded Outreach, a group dedicated to providing supervised homes for juvenile offenders. He was also active in Legacy and in various parents’ and citizens’ associations. From 1967 to 1970 he was president of the Council of Social Service of the ACT. He was appointed Canberra Citizen of the Year in 1968 and in 1969 received a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship that enabled him to visit Europe and the United States to study legal practices concerning juvenile offenders.

Hermes stepped down from the bench to contest the by-election for the House of Representatives seat of the Australian Capital Territory as a Liberal Party candidate in 1970. Triggered by the death of James (Jim) Fraser, a popular and long-serving member of the Australian Labor Party, the by-election resulted in a huge swing to the Liberal Party, but not enough to elect Hermes. Following his defeat, he accepted a senior position in the Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department. Posted to London in 1974 as senior assistant secretary, he returned to Australia in 1979 as deputy president of the Repatriation Review Tribunal. In 1980 he was appointed Canberra’s chief magistrate. The rise in violent and drug related crime deeply saddened him. On retiring in 1984 he reflected that, apart from cases involving alcohol, drug cases had been ‘unknown when I first came to this court’ (Campbell 1984, 7).

At the request of Prime Minister Robert (Bob) Hawke, in 1984 Hermes conducted a special inquiry into the Sheraton Hotel incident in Melbourne in which ASIS officers had staged a mock hostage rescue operation without informing hotel management or staff. In 1985 he was appointed AM. Between 1984 and 1986 he conducted oral history interviews with former parliamentarians, including Sir John Gorton, for the National Library of Australia. He served as chairman of the ACT Credit Tribunal from 1987. Survived by his wife and four sons, he died on 24 January 1991 at Woden following a heart attack. A road at Gungahlin and a park at Hughes are named for him in Canberra.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Campbell, Rod. ‘Retiring Magistrate Cites Violent Crime and Drugs as Canberra’s Major Problems.’ Canberra Times, 4 March 1984, 7
  • Canberra Times. ‘Former SM Who Likes to Serve.’ 9 May 1970, 9
  • National Archives of Australia. A9300, HERMES, C. L.
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  •   Waterford, Jack. ‘Hermes: A Humane Magistrate.’ Canberra Times, 25 January 1991, 2

Additional Resources

Citation details

Gary Humphries, 'Hermes, Clarence Lindsay (Clarrie) (1921–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 22 May 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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