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Maurice Carmel Timbs (1917–1994)

by Wayne Reynolds

This article was published:

Maurice Timbs, on his wedding day, 1943 [detail]

Maurice Timbs, on his wedding day, 1943 [detail]

Australian War Memorial, 014836

Maurice Carmel Timbs (1917–1994), public servant, was born on 14 July 1917 at Glen Innes, New South Wales, eleventh of twelve surviving children of Patrick Joseph Timbs, grazier, and his wife Catherine, née McCormack, both New South Wales born. Maurice was educated locally at St Joseph’s Convent, before winning a bursary (1931) to De La Salle College, Armidale. In 1936 he began a career in the Commonwealth Public Service, being appointed as a clerk with the Department of Trade and Customs. Awarded an exhibition that year, he studied at the University of Sydney (BEc, 1940).

On 9 July 1940 Timbs enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Allocated to the Royal Australian Artillery, he served in the Middle East (1940–42) with the 2/6th Field Regiment and in Australia with the 11th Field Regiment (1942–43), 57th Anti-Aircraft Regiment (1944–45), and 2/1st Medium Regiment (1945). In February 1943 he was commissioned as a lieutenant, a report on him as a trainee officer having noted his pleasant personality and capacity for hard work. On 24 April that year at the chapel of the 119th Australian General Hospital at Adelaide River, Northern Territory, he married Lieutenant Heather Joan Woodhead, Australian Army Nursing Service. He transferred to the Reserve of Officers on 9 November 1945. Moving to South Australia, he resumed work at the departments of Treasury and of Trade and Customs. By 1949 he had relocated to Canberra and was employed as a finance officer in Treasury.

Three years later Timbs joined the Prime Minister’s Department as a deputy assistant secretary. During 1954 and 1955 he was posted to the United Kingdom, first attached to the Joint Services Staff College and then on exchange to the British Cabinet Office. Back in Australia, he was promoted to assistant secretary in 1955 and four years later was appointed first assistant secretary. In these roles he became involved in work on Australia’s nuclear program. In 1957 he was called on to evaluate the implications of Britain’s detonation of a thermonuclear device in the Pacific at Christmas Island. He also represented the department on the committee which drafted the Australian Defence Principles on Disarmament in 1960, where he emphasised that any measures adopted would need to take account of the People’s Republic of China. The potential nuclear threat China posed to Australia would remain one of his main concerns.

In 1960 Timbs joined the Australian Atomic Energy Commission based in Sydney; he worked as its general manager (1963–64) before becoming its executive member (1964–73). He contributed to international discussions following China’s detonation of a nuclear device in 1964. Aware that some in the government wanted to retain the possibility of developing nuclear weapons, he ensured that the AAEC avoid any comment that would limit Australia’s emerging nuclear program. He also took part in the delicate discussions designed to separate a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (which would preclude the option to make nuclear weapons) from the Federal government’s desire to proceed with a steam-generated heavy water reactor (which would potentially deliver fissile material for both civil and military purposes). Although he helped to prepare contractual and financial documents for the tenders for the reactor, he was unable to convince the AAEC to select his preferred American Westinghouse Electric International Company bid.

Timbs’s involvement in nuclear policy ceased after Labor’s electoral victory in December 1972. On winning power Gough Whitlam appointed him secretary to the Department of Services and Property. Timbs, Whitlam stressed, was well qualified to carry out the services function, noting that he held several voluntary roles including as a director of the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and the Australian Opera (deputy chairman, 1974–80). The department was abolished following the dismissal of the Whitlam government and Timbs became the Australian member of the British (1976–85) and Christmas Island (1976–84) phosphate commissions. In 1981 he was appointed AO.

Forthright, keenly observant, and at times iron-fisted (NLA MS9673), Timbs prided himself on his management and administrative skills. Until the late 1980s he served as a director of several companies and charitable organisations, including the Royal New South Wales Institute for Deaf and Blind Children (life governor, 1978). In August 1994 his wife died after a prolonged illness. Survived by his son, he died on 6 December that year at Darling Point and was buried in the Church of England cemetery, Waverley.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Alder, Keith. Australia’s Uranium Opportunities. Sydney: Pauline Alder, 1996
  • Australian. ‘Civil Servant Excelled in Varied Roles.’ 22 December 1994, 13
  • Leah, Christine M. Australia and the Bomb. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014
  •   National Archives of Australia. B883, NX56969
  •   National Library of Australia. MS9673, Papers of Ann Moyal, 1870–2010
  •   Reynolds, Wayne, and David Lee, eds. Australia and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty 19451974. Canberra: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2013

Additional Resources

Citation details

Wayne Reynolds, 'Timbs, Maurice Carmel (1917–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2018, accessed online 26 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Maurice Timbs, on his wedding day, 1943 [detail]

Maurice Timbs, on his wedding day, 1943 [detail]

Australian War Memorial, 014836