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James Robert (Bob) Willoughby (1909–1993)

by I. R. Hancock

This article was published:

James Robert Willoughby (1909–1993), Liberal Party federal director, was born on 14 January 1909 at Greenock, Scotland, one of ten children of George Robert Willoughby, ship’s steward, and his wife Florence Isabella, née Warren. After schooling in Greenock, in 1924 Bob arrived in Adelaide with his mother to join his father and an older brother. Within two weeks, he had a job with the South Australian Liberal Federation (later the Liberal and Country League) and for sixteen years worked in various capacities as clerk, sub-accountant, and field organiser. On 19 October 1929 at St Theodore’s Anglican Church, Rose Park, he married Robina Davidson (d. 1982), a machinist, whom he described as ‘a Kirkcaddie lass’ from the ‘Kingdom of Fife’ (NLA MS 5000/8/301); they had no children.

In 1938 Willoughby was appointed secretary to George McLeay, the leader of the Lyons-Page coalition government in the Senate. From 1941 he was private secretary to senior United Australia Party (UAP) politicians, and in 1945 accompanied McLeay, representing the Opposition, to the founding conference of the United Nations at San Francisco, United States of America. After serving as a personal assistant to Prime Minister (Sir) Robert Menzies, and having shown ‘outstanding flair for efficient organisation’ (Canberra Times 1951, 4), in 1951 he succeeded (Sir) Donald Cleland as federal director of the Liberal Party of Australia. At first Willoughby occupied a rented office in Canberra while the federal officials in charge of research and public relations shared accommodation in Sydney with the Liberal Party’s New South Wales division. He wanted the federal secretariat to have permanent headquarters in Canberra (which was achieved in 1965) and become a securely financed, professional body with expanded functions and an enhanced status.

Pursuing these aims Willoughby had to contend with the determination of State divisions to defend their fiefdoms and conduct federal campaigns in their own States. Although he headed the staff planning committee, the body responsible for planning federal campaigns and advising the federal executive, the State general secretaries—notably (Sir) John Carrick (New South Wales) and John McConnell (Victoria)—were the principal contributors on election strategy and tactics. They regarded the federal director and the secretariat as only equipped to organise meetings, assemble literature, and provide access to ministers. Menzies, however, relied on ‘Willow’ for his efficiency and dependability, for being a good listening post in the party organisation, and as someone who could sort out the often messy affairs of the smaller divisions and deflect over-enthusiastic Federal and State presidents.

Short, stocky, and with a greying moustache, Willoughby worshipped Menzies, even emulating the way the ‘Chief’ smoked a cigar. His preference was for the backroom, where he provided the federal Liberal Party with a management structure, research apparatus, election analysis, and continuity notably absent in its precursor, the UAP. He was proud of being Australian, but equally proud of his Scottish ancestry and of hailing from the ‘non-spending side of the Tweed’ (Hancock 2000, 126); he retained an accent unmistakably that of the Clyde. Appointed OBE in 1957 and CBE in 1965, he retired in 1969. He recalled ‘a rich, rewarding life’ (Australian 1967, 9), and could claim, as he did in 1954, that he ‘never allowed anything … to interfere with my duties’ (NLA MS 5000/7/158). Predeceased by his wife, he died on 2 February 1993 in a nursing home at Aranda, Canberra.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Australian. ‘I had a rich, rewarding life from my job because I have always believed what we were doing was right’. 19 May 1967, 9
  • Canberra Times. ‘Mr J. R. Willoughby Federal Director of Liberal Party.’ 23 August 1951, 4
  • Hancock, Ian. National and Permanent? The Federal Organisation of the Liberal Party of Australia 19441965. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2000
  • National Library of Australia. MS 5000, Records of the Liberal Party of Australia, Federal Secretariat, c. 1985–1990
  • Whitington, Don. ‘When and Why the Liberals Ruled.’ Nation, 7 October 1961, 7–8

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Citation details

I. R. Hancock, 'Willoughby, James Robert (Bob) (1909–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 22 June 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

Life Summary [details]


14 January, 1909
Greenock, Renfrewshire, Scotland


2 February, 1993 (aged 84)
Aranda, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Cause of Death


Cultural Heritage

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