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Ric Prichard Throssell (1922–1999)

by Nathan Hobby

This article was published online in 2023

Ric Throssell, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1991

Ric Throssell, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1991

National Library of Australia, 11678878

Ric Prichard Throssell (1922–1999), diplomat and author, was born on 10 May 1922 at Greenmount, Perth, only child of Hugo Vivian Hope Throssell, farmer and soldier, and Katharine Susannah Prichard, writer and political activist. When Ric was eleven, his heavily indebted father, a Victoria Cross winner for actions in the Gallipoli campaign, died by suicide, still traumatised by his World War I experience. His father’s former classmates subsequently established a fund to pay for his education at Wesley College in South Perth. As the atheist ‘son of a militant communist and a broken war hero,’ he was somewhat out of place ‘among the sons of the farmers and professional men of conservative Western Australian society’ (Throssell 1989, 145) at the school but did not feel any pressure to conform.

Though he had dreamed of being a film director, with World War II commencing Throssell began work as a school monitor. He attended lectures at the University of Western Australia, then trained as a primary school teacher at Claremont Teachers’ College. On 19 September 1941 he enlisted in the Citizen Military Forces, transferring to the Australian Imperial Force on 11 July the next year. He served in Papua with the Milne Force (later 11th Division) Signals from 21 August 1942. Having been selected for the diplomatic cadet program with the Department of External Affairs, he was discharged with the rank of lance corporal in June 1943. He returned to Australia and, after training in Sydney, joined the postwar planning section in Canberra, where he worked under the historian and public servant (Sir) Paul Hasluck. Described as ‘a thoroughly Australian type, dark hair, dark brown eyes, well-modelled features, handsome, and slightly over six feet [183 cm] in height’ (Smith's Weekly 1945, 13), on 29 September 1945 at Carlingford, Sydney, Throssell married Elwen Hague ‘Bea’ Gallacher, also a public servant, in an Anglican ceremony. In November 1945 he was posted to Moscow as third secretary to the legation, but the posting was cut short when Bea died suddenly of poliomyelitis in July 1946.

Throssell returned to Canberra, where his work concerned the emergent United Nations. He soon met philosophy graduate and librarian, Eileen Dorothy (Dodie) Jordan, who worked in the same departmental office; they married at St John’s Church of England, Reid, on 3 October 1947. The couple were to have four children, including a son who died in infancy. Throssell was posted to Brazil from 1949 to 1952 then returned to Australia to administer the Colombo Plan’s scholarship program for international students from south and south-east Asia for thirteen years, later working in the Cultural Relations Branch. He finished his career as director of the Commonwealth Foundation in London from 1980 until his retirement in 1984 after a stroke.

Unlike his mother, who was a founding member, Throssell never joined the Communist Party of Australia. Nevertheless, his diplomatic career was limited by unproven suspicions of espionage. In April 1954 the junior Soviet diplomat Vladimir Petrov defected, revealing he had been a KGB (Committee for State Security) agent operating out of the embassy in Canberra, and Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies announced a royal commission on espionage. Petrov named Throssell as part of a spy ring sending classified information to Moscow. Dodie Throssell, who had been a member of the University of Melbourne branch of the Communist Party (1942–44) while studying there, was also under suspicion. In February 1955 the Throssells were called to testify before the commission in Sydney, but the final report, delivered in September 1955, cleared them both, finding that the charges against Throssell were ‘hearsay assertions’ and that Moscow was interested in him probably owing to ‘his association with persons who were or had been Communists, or were sympathetic to Communism’ (Australia 1955, 141–42). To his perpetual frustration, the taint of the accusations did not lift in the decades that followed, and he was not granted a top-secret security clearance necessary for promotion. In 1995 the intercepted Venona cables to Moscow were publicly released, and despite Throssell believing they vindicated him further, the historians Desmond Ball and David Horner repeated the allegations in their book Breaking the Codes (1998).

Mindful of his mother’s lifelong struggle to make a living as an author, Throssell maintained his diplomatic career while writing in his spare time. He was awarded two Commonwealth Literary Fund fellowships (1958 and 1972) to support his creative endeavours. Between 1944 and 1965, he wrote, by his own count, twenty-eight plays, many of which he produced and acted in for the Canberra Repertory Society. According to a critic, ‘the cast of his mind is predominantly mordant, cautionary, inclined to brood on the disasters that have overtaken men because of their mistakes’ (Rees 1978, 375). One of his most successful plays, The Day Before Tomorrow, concerned the survivors of a nuclear war; it was staged in 1956, a year before the publication of Nevil Shute’s novel on the same theme, On the Beach. In another acclaimed play, For Valour (1958), Throssell drew on his father’s life in depicting a troubled war veteran.

In the 1970s and 1980s Throssell turned to life-writing, exploring the complicated legacy of his parents in two auto/biographical works. In Wild Weeds and Wind Flowers: The Life and Letters of Katharine Susannah Prichard (1975), he defended his mother’s reputation after a brutal obituary by the poet Dorothy Hewett. My Father’s Son (1989) paired his father’s post-World War I struggle with Throssell’s own Cold War quest to clear his name. In the last decade of his life, he turned to the genre Prichard had been best known for—fiction—publishing four novels between 1990 and 1998. Particularly concerned with the threat of nuclear war, in 1984 he donated his father’s Victoria Cross to the organisation People for Nuclear Disarmament so it could be sold to fund a feature film, The Pursuit of Happiness (directed by Martha Ansara, 1987).

Fulfilling a decision made months earlier, Throssell took his own life between 19 and 20 April 1999, just hours after Dodie, who had been battling a brain tumour, died at their home in Canberra. They were survived by their children Karen, Querida, and Jim, and their four grandchildren. They were commemorated in a secular service at Norwood Park crematorium, which included songs of peace that he had requested: ‘Imagine,’ ‘We Shall Overcome,’ and ‘Where Have All the Flowers Gone?’ As his friend and fellow diplomat Neil Truscott put it, the playwright would have been pleased that this final show was ‘standing room only’—a testament to the respect he garnered from many quarters throughout his life.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Abjorensen, Norman. ‘True Believers Paid for Their Idealism.’ Canberra Times, 27 April 1999, 11
  • Australia. Royal Commission. Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage. Canberra: Government Printer, 1955
  • Ball, Desmond, and David Horner. Breaking the Codes: Australia’s KGB Network, 1944–1950. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1998
  • Clark, Andrew. ‘Ric Throssell and Dodie Throssell.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 30 April 1999, 29
  • Batchelor, Don. ‘The Context of Australian Playwrighting 1939–1968: A Case Study of the Theatre Career of Ric Throssell.’ PhD thesis, University of Queensland, 1995
  • National Archives of Australia. A6119, 364
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX29026
  • National Library of Australia. MS 8071, MS Acc00.222, MS Acc17.098, Papers of Ric Throssell, approximately 1860–2002
  • Rees, Leslie. The Making of Australian Drama from the 1830s to the Late 1960s. Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1978
  • Smith’s Weekly (Sydney). ‘Versatile Son of Famous V.C.’ 24 November 1945, 13
  • Throssell, Karen. The Crime of Not Knowing Your Crime: Ric Throssell against ASIO. Melbourne: Interventions, 2021
  • Throssell, Ric. Interview by Don Baker, 30 January and 3 March 1992. Recording and transcript. National Library of Australia
  • Throssell, Ric. Interview by Hazel De Berg, 30 March 1967. Transcript. Hazel de Berg collection. National Library of Australia
  • Throssell, Ric. My Father’s Son. Richmond, Vic.: William Heinemann, 1989

Additional Resources

Citation details

Nathan Hobby, 'Throssell, Ric Prichard (1922–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/throssell-ric-prichard-32379/text40136, published online 2023, accessed online 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ric Throssell, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1991

Ric Throssell, by Virginia Wallace-Crabbe, 1991

National Library of Australia, 11678878

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Life Summary [details]

Birth

10 May, 1922
Greenmount, Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Death

20 April, 1999 (aged 76)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death

suicide

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.

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