When the Duke of Kent’s brother the Duke of Gloucester became Australia’s Governor-General in 1945, his demeanour and attitudes were contrasted strongly by the media with those of his brother, who was to have been Governor-General but who had been killed on active service in the war.
In 1945 the Duke of Gloucester came to Australia with his wife and two young sons, Prince William and Prince Richard, to become the Governor-General. The Duke replaced Lord Gowrie as Governor-General and after being sworn in on 30 January 1945, served in the position for a period of two years. Announcing his appointment, Prime Minister Curtin said:
“Australians will be deeply appreciative of His Majesty’s action in appointing a member of the Royal Family to be Governor-General of Australia. All in the country will look forward with affectionate and loyal interest to the arrival again in Australia of His Royal Highness”
Curtin believed that appointing a member of the Royal Family would improve the likelihood that Britain would maintain its commitment to the defence of Australia, and demnstrate that Australia had not become a dependency of the United States. He feared that appointing an Australian might cause unnecessary partisan division.The Sydney Morning Herald concurred – how that newspaper has changed.The editorial of 16 November 1943 reads:“In acceding to the Curtin Government’s request that the Duke might be appointed to Canberra, his Majesty at once gives immense gratification to the peoples of Australia and reaffirms the supreme importance of the Crown as the centre and symbol of Empire unity.”
As we mentioned, Mr. Eddie Ward challenged the Prime Minister’s decision at a Labor Cabinet meeting on 23 November 1943, advancing the doctrine that the Governor-General should be an Australian citizen, and this was a dangerous retrograde step for the current Labor leaders to appoint a member of the royal family to the position.. He was unsuccessful, gaining neither support in the Cabinet nor in the press. As we have seen, the hand of the “pea green incorruptible” has since reached out from the grave. Our leaders now say it is wrong to appoint a member of our Royal Family, and that even a future King of Australia is not only ineligible to be the Sovereign’s representative. They even feel that it is appropriate to announce this over the media as a sort of public reprimand for allegedly harbouring such improper thoughts. And we don’t even know whether Ms. Tina Brown was talking through one of her latest fashion chapeaux.
Coming to Australia was not the simple thing it is today. According to the National Archives, the Duke and his family arrived on a blacked out ship in late January 1945, in danger always of attack by submarines. Tight security surrounded all news of his voyage to Australia. A telegram from the Federal Censor to all state censors dated 9 January 1945 set the following guidelines for the media coverage of the journey:
“Until official announcement of arrival of Duke of Gloucester and party on Australian mainland no publication is permissible of any material which would indicate:
Movements or whereabouts of the party
Mode of transport to Australia
Imminence of party’s arrival in Australia
For censors’ guidance, this prohibits at present any further stories associating Duke with next Parliamentary session, special Canberra preparations and arrangements for his reception”
The archival note says that concern for security was heightened when it was discovered the boat carrying the Duke and his party was being followed by a German U-Boat. The submarine was eventually sunk by the Royal escort ship and the Duke’s party arrived safely in Australia.
The Australian Dictionary of Biography reports that after this dangerous voyage, the Gloucesters arrived in Sydney on 28 January 1945 and the Duke was sworn in at Canberra two days later. “They found the heat, the snakes, the rats, the flies and the isolation of Yarralumla (their official residence) a strain, but put up a brave public show. The two very young children were popular with the Australian public and helped to break down formality. The Duke and Duchess joined happily in Australia's celebrations of the victory in Europe in May and in the Pacific in August. Gloucester had brought his own Avro York aircraft. Although the Duchess did not enjoy good health, theirs was a vigorous tour of duty, involving constant travel, flights to all States and a visit to Papua and New Guinea (interrupted by Curtin's sudden death) and to Norfolk Island. Taller than his brothers, the moustached Gloucester looked comfortable in the uniform of his office; he was less at ease as a dinner-party host. Having served two years in the post, he left Sydney on 17 January 1947, returning by air to England to fulfill official duties there during the visit to South Africa of his brother King George VI. While not the most popular occupant of the office, Gloucester had exercised his public duties conscientiously and without controversy.”
It is fashionable among the chattering classes – at least those who know of this appointment – to decry and belittle the Duke’s contribution. Certainly his brother the Duke of Kent would have been more colourful, but this has never been a criterion for vice-regal appointment. According to a note in the National Archives, the Duke of Gloucester’s Governor-Generalship was assessed by the prominent intellectual, poet and publisher , and republican when it was not fashionalble to be one, Mr. Max Harris, in The Bulletin in 1983. Harris’ verdict was that “the Duke of Gloucester was our greatest Governor-General”.
To support this conclusion, Harris gave the following examples which illuminate the Duke’s activities whilst serving in the position:
“It was the Gloucester concept of the office that differed from any other of the incumbents before or since. He believed that the Governor-General had to make himself visible to ordinary Australians… And it was up to him to go to them… Within two of Australia’s grimmest years, 1944 and 1945, [that is,1946 and 1947 DF] by land and a problematical little aircraft, he covered 63 000 bush miles…The Australians were hostile because Britain had repaid tens of thousands of Australian lives with sweet-nothing in our hour of military need. The only way the Duke could sell back the idea of Empire unity to the recalcitrant Aussie natives was face to face…[For example] on the occasion of the Japanese capitulation, Gloucester managed to be in three state capitals within the day, flying in a York and Anson aircraft.”
The Archives say Harris concluded his assessment with these words:”What a pity he had to be a Pom. And royal to boot.” ( Max Harris, ‘The Aussie Way – it did for the Duke of Gloucester’, The Bulletin, 26 July 1983, pp.30–2)
The Archives note that the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester visited Australia again in 1965. “Whilst in Australia they visited Canberra (and the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme where the Duke opened a power station), Tasmania (for the purpose of opening the Tasman Bridge), New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland. They also spent time privately with friends at Beaufort in Victoria and Bungendore and Palm Beach in New South Wales.”
The archival note says that there was some fear that the visit would have to be cancelled because of a car accident suffered by the couple shortly before their departure for Australia. The tour went on, but due to a broken arm sustained in the accident, the Duchess wore her arm in plaster and a sling for the duration of the visit. The Duke died in 1974.