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Frederick Meares (Fred) Osborne (1909–1996)

by Evan R. Jones

This article was published online in 2023

Frederick Osborne, early 1950s

Frederick Osborne, early 1950s

Psephos - Adam Carr's Election Archive

Frederick Meares Osborne (1909–1996), solicitor, naval officer, and politician, was born on 20 January 1909 at Mosman, Sydney, youngest of six children of New South Wales-born parents William Alexander Osborne, bank manager, and his wife Eleanor Mary, née Scott. The family moved to Orange when Fred was a few weeks old, where he later attended Orange Primary School. William had died when Fred was just two, forcing Eleanor and her older sons to provide for the family. A determination to overcome the tragedy contributed to the ambitious and hard-working temperaments of their children. In 1918 the family returned to Mosman, where Fred attended Mosman Public School (1918–21). He undertook secondary education at North Sydney Boys’ High School (1922–24) and, with the financial assistance of his oldest brother, at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (1925–26). A scholarship then allowed him to reside at St Andrew’s College and study at the University of Sydney (BA, 1930; LLB, 1934). He subsequently began a career as a solicitor, joining his older brother Ronald at the firm Dibbs, Crowther & Osborne.

Anticipating the outbreak of World War II, on 16 February 1939 Osborne volunteered for a commission as a sub-lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve (RANVR), an action that reflected his lifelong ‘fascination of the sea and the romantic attraction of the Navy’ (Osborne 1994, 325). He trained in anti-submarine warfare at Rushcutters Bay, began full-time duty on 27 September, and arrived in Britain in February 1940 for service with the Royal Navy. Posted in March to the anti-submarine trawler HMS St Loman, in May he set an example ‘of courage in the face of the enemy’ by ‘maintaining his station under heavy and sustained air attack’ off Namsos, Norway; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (Pfennigwerth 2016, 100).

From September Osborne served in the corvette HMS Gentian, as first lieutenant until August 1941, and then as the commanding officer. Promoted to acting lieutenant commander in January 1943, he was posted ashore as an instructor in the Western Approaches Tactical Unit at Liverpool. There, he met Third Officer Elizabeth Marjorie Drake, Women’s Royal Naval Service. The couple married at the parish church of St George, Hanover Square, London, on 4 November 1944. Twelve months earlier, Osborne had assumed command of the destroyer HMS Vanquisher. He was awarded a Bar to his DSC for his part in the sinking of the German submarine U-878 in the Bay of Biscay on 10 April 1945. Over the course of the war, he crossed the Atlantic twenty-two times, escorting convoys without ever landing in the United States of America or Canada. From August to November 1945 he commanded the sloop HMS Peacock in the Mediterranean. He returned to Australia in August 1946 and was demobilised in Sydney on 3 October. Continuing his RANVR service part time, he was promoted to commander in 1955 and transferred to the Retired List in 1967.

Osborne had long been interested in politics. In 1949 he was elected to the Federal parliament as the Liberal member for the inner western Sydney division of Evans. In 1953 he accompanied a parliamentary delegation to attend Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation at Westminster Abbey. After a brief tenure as minister for customs and excise in 1956, he was appointed minister for air (1956–60). Travelling abroad as a Commonwealth government representative, he witnessed Ghana’s independence ceremonies in 1957. During his time as a member of parliament, he filled several acting ministries, including for the navy, supply, defence production, immigration, and the interior. He oversaw substantial growth in Australia’s air warfare capability, leading the Royal Australian Air Force in acquiring modern aircraft and refurbishing airfields to accommodate them, and also undertook the logistical challenge of helping to coordinate Australia’s aerial response to the Malayan Emergency (1948–60). After a brief tenure as minister for repatriation (1960–61), he lost his seat by seventy votes in the 1961 election and returned to legal practice. Continuing to play an active role in Liberal Party politics, he served as president of the New South Wales division (1967–70). He was appointed CMG in 1969.

Following his political career, Osborne’s professional interests increasingly expanded into the commercial sphere. He served on the boards of more than a dozen companies, beginning in 1962 with the English Electric Co. of Australia Pty Ltd and Lloyds of London (1962–74). Subsequent prominent appointments included with Email Ltd and British Aircraft Corporation (Australia) Pty Ltd, which later became British Aerospace Australia Ltd. He was chairman of Mauri Brothers & Thomson Ltd for nine years, finishing with, after an acquisition in 1982, their parent company Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd, from which he stepped down in 1984. Toward the end of his career, he became engaged in many charitable activities and served as a patron of the arts, notably as director of the board of the Australian Ballet Foundation (1979–87). Known by his contemporaries as a man of courtesy, intelligence, and personal charm, he was a notable host and an enthusiast for Australian wines. While he regarded wartime service as his most important contribution to his country, his political achievements were substantial. He was influential within the Liberal Party and Prime Minister John Howard credited him with playing a ‘decisive role’ (Aust. HOR 1996, 3240) in reshaping its position on the contentious question of state aid for denominational schools. Survived by his wife, and their two sons and two daughters, he died on 23 July 1996 at Sirius Cove Nursing Home, Mosman, and was buried in Northern Suburbs General cemetery (later renamed Macquarie Park cemetery and crematorium), North Ryde.

Research edited by Matthew Cunneen

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. House of Representatives. Parliamentary Debates, 20 August 1996, 3239-3242
  • National Archives of Australia. A3437, A1977/581
  • National Archives of Australia. A3978, Osborne, F. M.
  • Osborne, Frederick Meares. 'F. M. Osborne.’ In Contact!: HMAS Rushcutter and Australias Submarine Hunters 1939–1946, edited by G. R. Worledge, 325–51. Sydney: Anti-Submarine Officers 'Association, 1994
  • Osborne, Frederick. Interview by Ron Hurst, 11 June 1985 to 21 January 1991. Transcript. Parliament’s Oral History Project. National Library of Australia
  • Pfennigwerth, Ian. Bravo Zulu: Honours and Awards to Australian Naval People. Vol. 1, 1900–1974. West Geelong, Vic.: Barrallier Books Pty Ltd, trading as Echo Books, 2016
  • Rayner, Harry. Scherger: A Biography of Air Chief Vice Marshal Sir Frederick Scherger. Canberra: Australian War Memorial, 1984.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Evan R. Jones, 'Osborne, Frederick Meares (Fred) (1909–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/osborne-frederick-meares-fred-32436/text40228, published online 2023, accessed online 20 April 2024.

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