Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Harry Frederick (Fred) Whitlam (1884–1961)

by Cameron Hazlehurst

This article was published:

Harry Frederick Ernest (Fred) Whitlam (1884-1961), Commonwealth crown solicitor, was born on 3 April 1884 at Prahran, Melbourne, eldest of five children of Victorian-born parents Henry Hugh Gough Whitlam, clerk, and his wife Janet Turnbull, née Steele. Educated at Armadale State School and, on a scholarship, at Wesley College, Fred took first place in the Victorian Public Service clerical examination in December 1900 and entered the Department of Lands and Survey on 8 July 1901. He transferred to the Crown Solicitor's Office and in 1911 joined the Commonwealth Public Service in the land tax branch of the Treasury. Having gained accountancy qualifications and studied at the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1914), he was appointed to a professional position in the Commonwealth Crown Solicitor's Office in 1913. At the Collins Street Baptist Church on 10 September 1914 he married Martha Maddocks (d.1958). Their daughter Freda was to become principal of Presbyterian Ladies' College, Croydon, Sydney, and later moderator of the New South Wales Synod of the Uniting Church in Australia; their son Gough was to become prime minister.

Promoted to senior clerk in 1917, Whitlam transferred to the Sydney office next year. On 12 April 1920 he was admitted as a barrister and solicitor of the High Court of Australia on the motion of his chief and mentor Sir Robert Garran. He rose to deputy crown solicitor in 1921. Moving to Canberra as assistant crown solicitor in 1927, he succeeded William Sharwood as crown solicitor on 29 December 1936.

In the small Canberra community, the successive Whitlam family homes were notable for well-stocked libraries, the hospitality of their imposing hostess, and the scholarship and kindly courtesy of her husband. Whitlam contributed widely to civic life. He lectured in commercial law at Canberra University College, served on the college council and became president of the University Association of Canberra. President of the Young Men's Christian Association of Canberra, he was also a member of the Canberra Grammar School council. (Sir) Paul Hasluck recalled: 'Any educational or cultural activity in those days in Canberra depended a good deal on Fred Whitlam'. Gough Whitlam recorded that until wartime pressures made it impossible, his father 'was the virtual ombudsman and legal aid officer for the people of Canberra'. In retirement, while negotiating on behalf of the solicitor-general (Sir) Kenneth Bailey, he was to give sympathetic consideration to the complex land-lease needs of the infant Australian National University.

Whitlam's influence as a senior legal adviser to the government for over twelve years was extensive and significant. On the Lyons government's controversial national insurance initiative, for example, he drafted legislation for the National Insurance Commission, recommended the appointment of James Brigden as chairman, and drew up the agreement between the commission and the Australian branch of the British Medical Association. He also briefed Wilfred Dovey, his son's future father-in-law, as counsel assisting the subsequent royal commission. Closer in political sentiment to John Curtin and Ben Chifley than to their predecessors, Whitlam was largely responsible for preparing the documentation for the 1944 referendum on Commonwealth powers and, with the solicitor-general, for advising Bert Evatt during the bank nationalization litigation (1947-49).

Accompanying the Australian delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1946, Whitlam put the case for Evatt's 'very ambitious' proposal for an international human-rights court. Instructed by Evatt not to compromise, he reported to his wife that he had 'stiffened the sinews and summoned up the blood', but to no avail. Early drafts of Article 18 of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights reflected his advocacy of freedom to change religion or belief as well as to manifest and teach them. He retired as crown solicitor on 2 April 1949, but continued to be closely involved in United Nations matters as an adviser to the Department of External Affairs and Australian representative at sessions (1950, 1954) of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights.

Chairman of the Australian Commission of the Churches on International Affairs and a good friend of the Australian Student Christian Movement in its postwar immigration and international concerns, Whitlam was enlisted to draft a constitution for the Australian Council of Churches. He had an abiding interest in theology, generally attending with his family whatever church was most convenient. In latter years he was in the Presbyterian fold, becoming an elder of St Andrew's Church, Forrest, Canberra. Survived by his two children, he died on 8 December 1961 in Canberra Community Hospital and was cremated. Greatly respected, and especially popular with younger generations of public servants, Whitlam had, according to H. C. Coombs, 'a memorable command of the English language' and 'a gentle, softly spoken style but as deep a commitment to social reform as his son'. Many, like Hasluck, remembered 'a public-spirited, meticulous and dutiful man with an inquiring but cautious mind'.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Renfree, History of the Crown Solicitor's Office (Canb, 1970)
  • H. C. Coombs, Trial Balance (Melb, 1981)
  • P. Hasluck, The Chance of Politics (Melb, 1997)
  • M1505, item 1383 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

Cameron Hazlehurst, 'Whitlam, Harry Frederick (Fred) (1884–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 21 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


3 April, 1884
Prahran, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


8 December, 1961 (aged 77)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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.