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Sir Edwin McCarthy (1896–1980)

by David I. Smith

This article was published:

Sir Edwin McCarthy (1896-1980), public servant, was born on 30 March 1896 at Walhalla, Victoria, son of Australian-born parents Daniel McCarthy, miner, and his wife Catherine, née Kennedy. Educated at Christian Brothers' College, South Melbourne, Edwin left at the age of 15 and joined the Postmaster-General's Department as a telegraph messenger. In 1913 he moved to the Auditor-General's Office. Fourteen years later he transferred to the Department of Markets and Migration (later the Department of Commerce, then Commerce and Agriculture) where he worked as accountant (1927-33) and senior clerk (1933-35). Meanwhile, he studied part time at the University of Melbourne (B.Com., 1932). As assistant-secretary (marketing) from 1935, he accompanied Prime Minister Joseph Lyons on his visit to Britain that year, and again in 1937 to attend the Imperial Conference.

At St Joseph's Catholic Church, Neutral Bay, Sydney, on 4 July 1939 McCarthy married Marjorie Mary Graham, a 28-year-old nurse. After World War II broke out, he served on the Overseas Shipping Committee and travelled to England on government business. From 1941 to 1944 he was Australia's shipping representative in Washington, where he also liaised with the American authorities on other commercial subjects.

Returning to Australia, McCarthy was appointed (1945) secretary of the Department of Commerce and Agriculture and Commonwealth controller-general of food. In 1948 he helped to formulate the wheat price-stabilization scheme. Involved that year in drawing up the Havana Charter for an International Trade Organization, he was 'a foremost exponent of the case for international commodity agreements' at gatherings of Commonwealth prime ministers and at meetings under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In July 1949 he became vice-chairman of the International Wheat Council; he was to be its chairman in 1959-60.

McCarthy was sent to London in 1949 as Australia's deputy high commissioner. In 1952 he was appointed C.B.E. In 1955 he was knighted. He was acting high commissioner when President Gamal Abd-al-Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal on 26 July 1956. With other Commonwealth representatives, McCarthy was briefed by the British prime minister Sir Anthony Eden (Earl of Avon) and senior ministers. Although it was later claimed that the high commissioners were treated with less than full candour by Eden and his ministers, McCarthy sent cables home warning that the British might use force to regain the canal. Within fourteen weeks his prediction was fulfilled.

In 1957-61 McCarthy chaired the United Nations committee that dealt with international commodity arrangements. Australian ambassador to the Netherlands in 1958-62, he was also head of the new Australian mission to Belgium in 1959-62. In addition, he was Australia's first ambassador (1960-64) to the European Economic Community, an appointment which reflected his knowledge and understanding of his country's trading interests in Europe. During this period he confronted such major issues as Britain's application to join the E.E.C. and the Netherlands' dispute with Indonesia over West New Guinea (Irian Jaya).

Sir Edwin retired from the Commonwealth Public Service on 30 March 1961. At the request of the Federal government he continued to serve in his diplomatic posts in Brussels and The Hague. In 1962 he was appointed head of the Australian Permanent Mission to the European Atomic Energy Community; based in Brussels, he held this post until 17 March 1964. Sir Garfield Barwick, the minister for external affairs, praised his 'long, distinguished and valuable career of dedicated public service' and specifically mentioned his work in the field of international commodity agreements. McCarthy chaired (1964-67) the Commonwealth Economic Committee in London and remained in that city until the mid-1970s when he settled at Double Bay, Sydney.

As one of Australia's senior trade officials from the mid-1930s to the 1960s, McCarthy was a persistent, fair and good-humoured negotiator. He exerted considerable influence 'in the early debates on the importance of commodity price stabilisation to developing countries'. Throughout his career 'he firmly believed in the right and duty of a public servant to give his minister the best advice on policy he could offer'. His staff looked up to him; his colleagues regarded him as wise and experienced. Modest and unassuming, he was a friendly, courteous and dignified man of considerable presence. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died on 4 September 1980 at Woden Valley Hospital, Canberra, and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery. His son John joined the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Select Bibliography

  • W. J. Hudson, Blind Loyalty (Melb, 1989)
  • Canberra Times, 5 Sept 1980
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 6, 10 Sept 1980
  • Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (Canberra), personnel records
  • Sir Garfield Barwick, press release, 16 Mar 1964 (copy held on ADB file)
  • private information.

Citation details

David I. Smith, 'McCarthy, Sir Edwin (1896–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 16 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


30 March, 1896
Walhalla, Victoria, Australia


4 September, 1980 (aged 84)
Garran, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.