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Stafford, Alfred George (Alf) (1906–1996)

by Michelle Flynn, Philippa Scarlett and Rita Metzenrath

This article was published:

Alfred Stafford, c. 1929

Alfred Stafford, c. 1929

Family photo

Alfred ‘Alf’ George Stafford (1906–1996), ministerial driver, cabinet officer, entrepreneur, and sporting personality, was born on 29 April 1906 at Binnaway, New South Wales, youngest of twelve children of John Allen (Allan) Stafford, Darug man and farmer, and his wife, Gamilaroi woman Mary Ann Blackman. Alf’s father was a descendant of the Warmuli clan woman Black Kitty, one of the first children placed in Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s Parramatta Native Institution in 1814. His mother was the daughter of the bushranger’s associate and farmer Thomas Henry Blackman. Alf completed his qualifying certificate at Binnaway Public School, followed by several years at high school in Mudgee; after leaving school he worked for a Binnaway grocer.

Described as ‘enterprising young gentlemen’ (Mudgee Guardian 1925, 22), in 1925 Stafford and a friend opened a drapery business at Binnaway and Coonabarabran, trading until 1928. In 1929 he joined the 1st Field Battery, Royal Australian Artillery, as a gunner, attributing his acceptance to the recruiting officer’s recognition of his sporting ability: he excelled in tennis, football, and cricket. He was discharged on medical grounds the following year.

Stafford travelled to Canberra in July 1930 and, by 1931, was employed at Canberra’s first department store, J. B. Young’s, Kingston, then owned by J. C. Strong, his former employer at Binnaway. Seizing the opportunity presented by the influx of young men in search of work during the Depression, he opened Alf Stafford’s Billiard Saloon and, in 1934, organised an exhibition game by the future world snooker champion, Horace Lindrum.

Known in his home town for his cricketing skills as ‘the Binnaway Colt’ (Mudgee Guardian 1927, 30), Stafford soon earned a reputation in Canberra as ‘a fine all-rounder’ (Canberra Times 1934, 2). In April 1930 he had the distinction of facing the first ball bowled at Manuka Oval. Prior to that he had regularly been the opening batsman for the St George Cricket Club, Sydney, in a team that included future legendary batsman Donald Bradman. During the 1930s he played for and captained Kingston and Manuka cricket club teams and the Federal Capital Territory Cricket Association representative side. In a match in 1935 against the visiting New South Wales Sheffield Shield team, in which the opposing captain was the Test cricketer Jack Fingleton, Stafford was ‘cheered as he walked to the crease,’ and was noted as ‘hitting with zest’ and completing a ‘splendid innings’ (Canberra Times 1935, 3). On 28 April of the previous year, he had married Edith Mary Dignam at Anglican Church of St John the Baptist, Reid. They had three children: John, David, and Diana.

In 1937 Stafford joined the Commonwealth Public Service as a transport officer, becoming a driver to both ministers and prime ministers. During his career he either drove or worked for eleven members of parliament who already were, or would go on to be, Australia’s prime minister: Joseph Lyons, Sir Arthur Fadden, John Curtin, Francis Forde, Sir Robert Menzies, Ben Chifley, Harold Holt, Sir John McEwen, Sir John Gorton, Sir William McMahon, and Gough Whitlam. Billy Hughes, whom he drove as a minister, praised him for his ‘nerves like steel and eyes like a cat’ (Stafford 1992). His nerve was demonstrated in August 1944, when, driving the Australian Labor Party minister Arthur Calwell, he was caught up in the escape of 1,104 Japanese prisoners of war from the No. 12 Prisoner of War Compound near the town of Cowra.

Stafford served Prime Minister Menzies twice, between 1939 and 1941 and again from 1949 until 1966. He became official driver to Menzies in February 1950 and in early 1951 joined the Parliament House staff as a cabinet officer, remaining in this position until his retirement. Working closely with Menzies for seventeen years, he earned a reputation as the prime minister’s right-hand man, and the two men developed an enduring friendship. In 1963 Stafford was the body double for a portrait of Menzies by the Archibald prize winning artist William Dargie. Menzies shared Stafford’s enthusiasm for cricket. When, in 1951, Menzies initiated the Prime Minister's XI matches (at the instigation of Jack Fingleton), Stafford served as adviser for the selection of the prime minister’s team.

To assist Stafford after his wife’s death on 29 April 1954, Dame Pattie Menzies arranged for him and his two younger children to live at the Lodge, the prime minister’s official residence, where they could be looked after by both herself and the housekeeper. This also enabled him to act as caretaker when Menzies and his wife were away on official business. It was as a result of this arrangement that he met his second wife, Heather Nesbitt, who worked as a cook for the Menzies. They were married on 27 November 1956 at St John’s Anglican Church, Reid, followed by a reception at the Lodge.

Stafford, who had joined the Canberra Racing Club in 1946, was made a life member in 1968. For over two decades, starting in the 1960s he was a respected race judge and served as a committee member until 1975, when the club disbanded to form the Australian Capital Territory Racing Club. His importance in Canberra racing circles was recognised in 1990 when he officiated at the opening of the Acton Stand on the anniversary of the foundation of the ACT Racing Club. He retired from the public service in 1972 and was appointed MBE that year ‘for dedicated service to several Prime Ministers’ (Governor General 1972). In retirement he continued to live in the house he had built at Barton in 1934, designed by the architect Kenneth Oliphant.

Interviewed in 1996, Stafford commented: ‘They used to say prime ministers come and go but Alf Stafford goes on forever. I wish it was true’ (Emerton 1996, 140). He died on 18 September 1996 at Deakin, survived by his second wife, his three children, and his stepdaughter. Following his cremation his ashes were scattered at the finish line of his beloved Canberra racecourse. While he freely talked of his Aboriginality to his family, it is unknown whether he spoke of his heritage to his wider contacts. However, his extended Gamilaroi family was aware of and took pride in his achievements.

Media coverage after the donation of Stafford’s papers to the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies in 2014 brought his life and achievements to the wider Australian and Aboriginal community, igniting interest in a man whose story provides evidence of an Aboriginal presence at the highest level of Federal politics during a time when Aboriginal people were facing multiple forms of official and unofficial discrimination.

 

Michelle Flynn is a granddaughter of Alfred George Stafford MBE. She is of Gamilaroi, Darug, English, and Irish descent. She was born on Ngunnawal land and was living on Ngunnawal land when she wrote this entry.

Philippa Scarlett is of Scottish, English, and Irish descent. She was born on Gadigal land and was living on Ngunnawal land when she wrote this entry.

Rita Metzenrath is of Argentinian and German descent. She was born on Kaurna land and was living on Ngunnawal land when she wrote this entry.

Research edited by Kiera Donnelly

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. MS 5013, Alfred 'Alf' George Stafford collection
  • Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies. STAFFORD_A01, STAFFORD.A02, Alfred 'Alf' George Stafford MBE collection
  • Canberra Times. ‘Bright Outlook for Cricket.’ 4 October 1934, 2
  • Canberra Times. ‘Sheffield’s Shield Team’s Visit.’ 4 March 1935, 3
  • Canberra Times. ‘Right Hand Man.’ 11 February 1971, 3
  • Daley, Paul. ‘Driving Mr Menzies.’ Meanjin, Autumn 2016, 26-36
  • Emerton, Val. Past Images Present Voices: Kingston and Thereabouts through a Box Brownie. Canberra: Canberra Stories Group, 1996
  • Flynn, Michelle, and Philippa Scarlett. ‘Unpacking Alf’s Cricket Case: The Stafford Family and World War I.’ 15 June 2019. Accessed 22 July 2021. https://indigenoushistories.com/2019/06/17/unpacking-alfs-cricket-case-the-stafford-family-and-world-war-1/
  • Flynn, Michelle. Unpublished research into Thomas Harley Blackman and the Blackman family
  • Governor General. Letter to Alfred George Stafford, 3 June 1972. Private collection. Copy held on ADB file
  • Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative. ‘New Business.’ 15 October 1925, 22
  • Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative. ‘New Enterprise.’ 22 October 1925, 27
  • Mudgee Guardian and North-Western Representative. ‘Cricket News.’ 13 January 1927, 30
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Stafford, Alfred. Interview by Bill Pye, 5, 7 April 1992. AIATSIS Stafford_A01 Sound recordings. Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies

Additional Resources

Citation details

Michelle Flynn, Philippa Scarlett and Rita Metzenrath, 'Stafford, Alfred George (Alf) (1906–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stafford-alfred-george-alf-30113/text37379, published online 2021, accessed online 24 September 2021.

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