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Alfred Francis James (1918–1992)

by Tony Stephens

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Alfred Francis Phillip James (1918–1992), journalist, publisher, airman, political and religious activist, polymath, and eccentric, was born on 21 April 1918 at Queenstown, Tasmania, eldest of three sons of Victorian-born Alfred Edwin James, Young Men’s Christian Association secretary, and his New South Wales-born wife Beatrice Irene Teresa (‘Happy’), née Eather. Francis was proud to be a fifth-generation Australian through his mother, but his character was greatly influenced by his father, a man who held opinions strongly and publicly. In World War I James senior had served overseas with the YMCA, attached to the 2nd Light Horse Regiment, Australian Imperial Force. He became an Anglican clergyman and the family moved frequently between parishes in Tasmania and New South Wales.

While a student at Fort Street Boys’ High School, Sydney, in 1932 young James attracted public attention for the first time by telling how he and another boy fought off souvenir hunters to save the Australian and Union flags on the arch of the Sydney Harbour Bridge the night it opened. He next attended Goulburn High School. In 1934 and 1935 he was at Canberra Grammar School, where the headmaster, W. J. Edwards, awarded him a prize for divinity ‘because Francis believed it’ (Stephens 1992, 2), even though a fellow student, Gough Whitlam, achieved the highest marks. According to James, Edwards later expelled him after a dispute as to whether attendance at chapel was compulsory. He gained his Leaving certificate from Wollongong High School in 1936.

For some months in 1937 James served in the Royal Australian Air Force as an aircrew cadet at Point Cook, Victoria, but he could not accept military discipline in peacetime. When World War II broke out, he sailed to England and on 4 January 1940 enlisted in the Royal Air Force (RAF) Volunteer Reserve. In September 1941 he began operational flying, first with No. 452 Squadron, then No. 92 and No. 616 squadrons. He was with No. 124 Squadron on Anzac Day 1942, when his Spitfire was shot down over St Omer, France.

James bailed out and landed with his parachute in flames. He suffered a fractured back and severe burns to the face, legs, eyes, and wrists. In his own account of his ensuing captivity, he told the Germans he was Air Vice Marshal Turtle Dove, his RAF nickname. Surgeons in a French hospital gave him facial skin grafts, and an ophthalmic surgeon in Germany treated his temporary blindness before he was taken to Dulag Luft transit camp, near Frankfurt. He escaped, was recaptured, and transported to Stalag Luft III, where he established a matriculation class of twenty-two airmen, preached sermons, tunnelled, played chess, read dozens of books, and organised debates.

Released because of his injuries and sent to Cairo in October 1943, James celebrated with parties and flights around Heliopolis and Cairo before returning to England. After medical authorities categorised him as permanently unfit to fly, because of corneal scars that left him with seriously impaired vision, József Dallos fitted him with a pair of hard contact lenses, about an inch (2.5 cm) in diameter, that rested only on the sclera. A revised medical category allowed him to undertake non-operational flights in daylight. He delivered aircraft around Britain for the Air Transport Auxiliary. In January 1945 he collapsed with a duodenal ulcer, and on 28 April he was invalided from the RAF as a temporary warrant officer.

Late in 1944 James had persuaded Joyce Milfred Staff, to whom he was engaged in 1939, to leave her position as a school counsellor in New South Wales and join him in England. They were married on Anzac Day 1945 in the parish church of St Peter with St Thomas, St Marylebone, London. James began reading politics, philosophy, and economics at Balliol College, Oxford. He pursued his interest in politics, captained the college's hockey XI, and spoke twice in the Oxford Union. In February 1946, however, he left the university, reportedly sent down for taking part in the prank mistreatment of a student who failed to pay his gambling debts.

James became assistant editor of World Review in London, wrote articles for journals, and flew aircraft on contracts. His idea for a British Empire food scheme led him to set up and chair Anglo-Australian Fisheries Pty Ltd. He moved to Albany, Western Australia, in 1949; bought trawlers to operate from that port; and hired British trawler men. The business secured backing from the Western Australian government and began well but it ran into problems and, following a dispute with fellow directors, he resigned in February 1950 and returned to Sydney.

 Shortly afterwards James joined the Sydney Morning Herald, writing editorials and articles on education and religion, often while sitting in his 1928 Rolls Royce, parked outside. He completed one year (1950) towards a law degree at the University of Sydney, intending to become a barrister, but then dropped the course. Encouraged by Bishop John Moyes, he took over the Church Publishing Co. Ltd’s ailing Church Standard, which he incorporated in a new newspaper, the Anglican, in 1952. He wrote editorials and Joyce became editor in 1954. That year he left the Herald, saying he could not serve both God and Mammon. In 1957 he started the Anglican Press Ltd to print the Anglican and other publications.

After the Anglican Press went into receivership in 1960, an alliance between James and Rupert Murdoch vied with the Packer family for control of the printery. On 7 June a group led by Clyde and Kerry Packer brawled at the Chippendale premises with James’s supporters, led by the journalist and former boxer Frank Browne. The James-Murdoch forces won. In 1964 two magistrates found issues of OZ and Tharunka, printed by James, to be obscene. He was fined fifty pounds and ten pounds, but the Court of Criminal Appeal quashed both convictions.

James was a member of the Australian Institute of International Affairs, vice-president of the Association for International Co-operation and Disarmament (New South Wales), and a member (from 1957) of the Royal Australian Historical Society. He regularly took part in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s radio and television program Any Questions? In 1956 he had visited China with an Anglican delegation, reporting on the visit for the Anglican and the Daily Telegraph.

Until the mid-1960s the Anglican was widely read but its strong opposition to the Vietnam War led many supporters to cancel subscriptions. James addressed public meetings, appeared frequently on television, and wrote dozens of articles opposing the war on moral and logistical grounds. He infuriated Sir Robert Menzies’ government by correctly predicting in December 1965 an increased commitment of Australian troops (announced next March). At the 1966 Federal election, standing against (Sir) William McMahon as a Liberal Reform Group candidate for the seat of Lowe, he won less than 5 percent of the primary vote but generated anti-war publicity.

In 1969 James left Sydney for London to be fitted with a new pair of contact lenses. On the way, he visited China and, in June, had long articles published in the Sunday Times and the Age. These claimed he had ridden on horseback with a Kazakh cavalry regiment and visited nuclear sites at Lanchow (Lánzhōu) and Lop Nor. The Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review challenged the ‘journalistic coup’ as ‘extraordinarily incredible’ (26 June 1969, 695), and quoted a Chinese government spokesman as saying the articles were ‘pure fabrication’ (10 July 1969, 113). Photographs with the articles were unclear and apparently taken in 1956.

 En route home from London in 1969, James entered China from Hong Kong. Chinese officials detained him on 4 November. They did not release him until 16 January 1973, after Whitlam had told China’s premier, Chou En-lai, that James ‘might be eccentric but was no enemy of China’ (Whitlam 1985, 58). Although James was not a spy, he might have been happy for people to think he was. He later said: ‘My life is secret. [Nobody] will ever succeed in writing an article about the real James’ (Murdoch 1987, 5). He described his experiences in eight newspaper articles which he typed without notes in ten days after his release.

James resumed flying. He piloted three colleagues to Indonesia in a light aircraft in 1975; on a flight from Sydney to Melbourne in 1982, his plane ran out of fuel and he had to land in a field. In 1986 the Chinese government gave him and his wife an extensive tour of the country, with an apology for having imprisoned him. He reviewed books for newspapers and journals and wrote many letters to editors and bureaucrats, often defending ordinary people pushed around by the powerful. At his Wahroonga home he grew lawns from seed, established fruit trees, and laid out twelve bricked garden beds for vegetables. His private library of about twenty-five thousand books was one of Australia’s largest. Judy Cassab painted his portrait; Bob Ellis wrote a play, The James Dossier, first staged in 1975 (‘Biggles Goes to Church’ had been floated as a possible title); and a film on his life, The Gadfly, was made in 1994. James died on 24 August 1992 at home and was cremated. His wife and their two sons and two daughters survived him.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong). ‘Traveller’s Tales.’ 26 June 1969, 695
  • Far Eastern Economic Review (Hong Kong). ‘Traveller’s Tales.’ 10 July 1969, 113
  • James, Alfred. Biographical Sketch of Francis James. Unpublished manuscript, 1996. Held by Alfred James
  • James, Alfred. Interviews by the author, October 2012
  • Penrith City Library, New South Wales. Francis James Collection
  • James, Francis. ‘The Early Days.’ In Deo, Ecclesiae, Patriae, edited by P. J. McKeown, 49-60. Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1979
  • Murdoch, Anna. ‘Encounters with the Elusive Francis James.’ Age (Melbourne), 24 January 1987, Saturday Extra 5
  • National Archives of Australia. A1838, 1957/16/1 PART 1
  • People (Chippendale, New South Wales). ‘The Thorny Individualist.’ 30 November 1955, 32–33
  • Royal Air Force. Manuscript record of the service of Alfred Francis Phillip James. Copy held on ADB file
  • Stephens, Tony. ‘Flamboyant Francis Moves On, with Untold Stories.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 1992, 2
  • Souter, Gavin. Company of Heralds: A Century and a Half of Australian Publishing by John Fairfax Limited and Its Predecessors, 1831-1981. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1981
  • Sun (Sydney). ‘1 a.m. Drama on Bridge Arch.’ 23 March 1932, 19
  • Whitlam Gough. The Whitlam Government 19721975. Ringwood, Vic.: Penguin, 1985

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Citation details

Tony Stephens, 'James, Alfred Francis (1918–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 24 July 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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