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John Henry Starling (1883–1966)

by David I. Smith

This article was published:

John Henry Starling (1883-1966), public servant, was born on 15 January 1883 at Greensborough, Victoria, son of John Henry Starling, carpenter, and his wife Jane, née Gapper, both English born. Educated at the Greensborough State School until aged 15, he won a scholarship to Stott & Hoare's Business College, Melbourne. Having joined the Department of Lands and Survey in 1900, he transferred to the Commonwealth public service in 1902 as a clerk in the Governor-General's Office where he was assistant to (Sir) George Steward. Starling became a licensed shorthand writer (1906) and an accountant and auditor (1908) before being promoted to the Department of External Affairs in 1909. On 15 February 1911 he married Sarah Elizabeth May Price at St Katherine's Anglican Church, Eltham. He transferred to the newly established Prime Minister's Department in February 1912 and was appointed chief clerk in September 1917. As second-in-charge of the department, he took a large part in its organization and development through World War I.

In June 1919 he succeeded Steward as official secretary to the governor-general and secretary to the Federal Executive Council, holding office under Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, Lord Forster and Lord Stonehaven. Responsible for the governor-general's correspondence and his establishment's expenditure, Starling also encoded, decoded and dispatched correspondence between governments, and between the governor-general and the secretary of state. He was an associate (1920) of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries and was appointed O.B.E. in 1920 and C.M.G. in 1925. After the Imperial Conference (1926) resolved to alter the existing channel of communication, a system of direct correspondence with the British government was taken over by the Prime Minister's Department in January 1928. (Abolition of the official secretaryship to the governor-general was postponed until parliament transferred to Canberra in 1927.) Starling continued as secretary to the Federal Executive Council until 1933, but in July 1929 was promoted assistant secretary of the department's territories branch. In 1933-35 he was secretary to the Prime Minister's Department and secretary to the Department of External Affairs; he was first assistant Commonwealth Public Service commissioner in 1935-38.

A 'small, neat, grey man who specialised in protocol', Starling was active after his retirement in January 1948 in the Canberra branches of the United Nations Children's Fund, the World Council of Churches and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. His recreations included bowls and golf. In Melbourne he had been a vestryman and member of the Church of England Men's Society; in Canberra he was a church warden and lay reader at St John's, Reid, and a councillor and guarantor of St Paul's, Manuka. A Freemason from 1913, he belonged to Lodge Commonwealth; having been treasurer of the Canberra Rotary Club for ten years, he was made an honorary life member in 1965. Starling died in Canberra Community Hospital on 5 April 1966 and was cremated. Two sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Cunneen, Kings' Men (Syd, 1983)
  • J. Gibbney, Canberra 1913-1953 (Canb, 1988)
  • Canberra Times, 7 Apr 1966
  • Starling personal papers (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

David I. Smith, 'Starling, John Henry (1883–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 January, 1883
Greensborough, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


5 April, 1966 (aged 83)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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