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H. V. Evatt

Given NameH. V.
Born30 Apr 1894
Died2 Nov 1965


ww2dbaseWhen Winston Churchill referred to Russian policy as "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma" in a broadcast on 1 October 1939, this colourful phrase could have been applied to the External Affairs Minister in the Curtin government, Dr H. V. Evatt. Evatt's first meeting with Churchill, however, would not occur until the beginning of May 1942.

ww2dbaseHerbert (Bert) Vere Evatt was one of eight sons of a middle class licensee of the Bank Hotel in the main street of East Maitland in Australia. The family occupied the quarters at the rear of the premises, and employed a cook and a maid. Bert began his schooling in East Maitland for his formative primary years, and had a happy childhood, with success at school, the companionship of his brothers, and enjoyment of football and cricket. With Bert growing steadily being firmly rooted in East Maitland, he was about to be plucked out of his place in the world and replanted in more fertile soil. His father died of pneumonia in October 1901, leaving Bert's mother to provide for six boys (two sons had died in their youth before Bert was born) ranging from a one year old baby to an eighteen year old on the verge of manhood. Bert's mother, Jeanie, was strong-willed and devoutly religious. Jeanie raised her sons to go to church on Sunday, read their Bibles and sing in the choir. This instilled a strong sense of morality in Bert and his brothers that would remain their entire lives. Jeanie persisted in trying to run the hotel herself, but friends and family convinced her to move to Sydney. She sold the Bank Hotel and bought a two-storey house in Milson's Point, with views of Sydney Harbour. That part of North Sydney at the time had a blend of middle and working class families, with great disparities of wealth between them. Bert Evatt attended the Fort Street Model School in Obseratory Hill, which prepared boys for university matriculation. Such was its standard of academic excellence that boys traveled from Penrith, Windsor or Campbelltown to attend. The school's headmaster was Alexander Kilgour, a disciplinarian and an excellent administrator, who retained a friendship with Bert Evatt until Kilgour's death in 1944, often writing him letters, congratulating Evatt on his latest achievement. When Bert Evatt completed his senior exams he received first-class honours in all but one. For this achievement he was runner-up to dux of the state, securing two scholarships for tertiary education degrees. He chose to study an undergraduate degree in Arts and Law at Sydney University. His brothers Ray and Frank were killed whilst serving in the AIF during the First World War. Although grieved at the loss of his brothers, Evatt was opposed to German militarism and autocracy. As President of the University of Sydney Undergraduate Association in August 1915 he presented four hundred pounds, raised by students, to the National Belgian Relief Fund. He twice tried to enlist in 1915, but was rejected for astigmatism. As the first referendum on conscription in 1916 approached Evatt wrote an editorial for Hermes, where he supported compulsory national service in Australia, saying it would

allow for proper organization of our resources.... It would resolve the doubts and difficulties of thousands of Australian youths and men who under our present system do not see their way clear to enlist.... It would show that Australia was willing to sacrifice all for an Empire which has given it absolute domestic freedom and virtual independence – it would prevent undue waste of effort... and it would be fairer for all.

ww2dbaseDespite this attitude, Evatt's university associates radicalized him, his sympathies shifted to the left, so his views on conscription would be completely different after he graduated. In May 1918, when Evatt was 24, his aunt introduced him to a nineteen year old neighbour, Mary Alice Sheffer. The couple was engaged in November 1918. They were married on 27 November 1920 in Mosman Congregational Church, taking their honeymoon in California and Hawaii. Evatt graduated from his law degree with first-class honours and the University Medal. He was admitted to the Sydney Bar. Very little about Evatt pointed him in the direction of the Labor Party. He was from a middle class background, and the ideals of liberalism still held sway on Evatt's mind. The legal profession was a privileged minority: there were only 170 barristers across New South Wales, with approximately a thousand solicitors. On average, a suburban solicitor could expect five hundred to a thousand pounds income a week, at a time when the average worker's wage was 250 pounds per week, incomes in the Sydney Bar could reach as high as fifteen thousand pounds. Nonetheless, his first two cases involved ALP politicians that had opposed conscription. There is no indication that Evatt actively sought these cases. In his first year on the Bar, Evatt was junior counsel for a big case involving the Queensland premier, J. T. Ryan. Ryan was the only Australian state premier to oppose conscription in 1916-17. Due to this, he was attacked by those on the right of politics and the press. The Melbourne Argus claimed in an editorial that "the Ryan government had entered into a paltry and contemptible conspiracy with the Germans and other disloyalists", so Ryan brought a libel case against the Argus. Although the senior council was prominent in the case and it was a victory for neither party, Evatt was seen in legal circles as a lawyer of great promise. Occasionally, Evatt took police court cases, and was assigned as defence for P. S. Brookfield, a militant trade unionist and socialist, frequently charged with inflammatory public comments. Evatt argued a strong defence, but Brookfield could not keep his mouth shut. The judge issued Brookfield a five pound fine, and Evatt was left to ponder the wisdom of investigating character of clients. While both these cases dealt with civil liberties, Evatt's correspondence to an old university acquaintance had been read by the Commonwealth censor, and details submitted to the Department of Defence. Evatt's university friend was a radical left wing agitator, who Evatt hoped to write a book with to renounce Evatt's earlier middle class beliefs. 1920 introduced Evatt to many of the characters that were to play key roles in his political career during the Second World War and in the postwar reconstruction. This is the year he joined the ALP. As he represented New South Wales in the Engineers Case of 1920, Evatt encountered, for the first time, a Melbourne barrister, R. G. Menzies, who was representing the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. The entire case is odd in light of subsequent events. Evatt represented state rights in the case, while Menzies represented a union, and argued, indirectly, for Commonwealth government powers superceding state. When another ASE case arose involving the NSW railways, Evatt questioned an ASE member who would later become prime minister of Australia, J. B. Chifley, who had been demoted from engineer to fireman at the time, presumably to discipline him due to ASE membership. On the stand is where the future prime minister and his deputy met for the first time. In 1924 Evatt received a doctorate of Law from Sydney University with University Medal for his thesis on "the Royal Perogative". Evatt garnered widespread public attention in 1925, when he ran for the Balmain seat for the Legislative Assembly in the NSW state election. Evatt was a newcomer to parliamentary politics, but he received 14,766 primary popular votes, more than the aggregate votes for the other three Labor members running for the seat, as well as more than the combined total of the five Nationalist members running for that seat. Evatt also represented unionists in the Walsh-Johnson deportation case in the High Court. The Bruce federal government had revised immigration laws to enable it to deport people disrupting the economy with industrial desputes. Two British sailors had been threatened with deportation for striking, and were offered support by the president of the Federated Australasian Seamen's Union, Tom Walsh, and the union's assistant secretary, J. Johnson. The union officials were threatened with deportation themselves. It did not help that Walsh and Johnson were British immigrants themselves. The Solicitor-General of the Bruce government, Sir Robert Garran, argued "once an immigrant, always an immigrant". Evatt won a stunning victory of a unanimous vote of all six Justices sitting on the High Court bench by convincing the court to follow "the basic rule of law, not the arbitrary rule of parliament". He received significant attention from ALP members and the working class for his efforts. In 1929 Evatt was appointed Kings Counsel. The following year the Cabinet of the Scullin ALP federal government was left, while the Prime Minister was out of the country for an Imperial Conference in London, with two empty seats on the High Court bench. While it was not expected that those seats be filled, all but one of the currently occupied seats, occupied by Justice Rich, had been political appointments by conservative governments, so the cabinet felt obliged to fill the vacancies while they could. Evatt and McTiernan, the former attourney-general of Jack Lang's NSW government, were chosen. These appointments, together with Rich, who was appointed in 1913, would significantly alter the running of the High Court. During Evatt's time there, besides the general duties around the court Evatt wrote many books, including:

ww2dbaseIn August 1940, in his Darlinghurst chambers, Evatt decided to resign from the bench, and run as the ALP member for the federal seat for the electorate for Barton. At the time, the seat had been held by a UAP member for a decade. Evatt campaigned and won the seat in the 1940 general election by a significant majority, he was brought into the Advisory War Council along with three other ALP members, including leader of the Opposition, John Curtin, in March 1941. When the Governor-General invited Curtin to form an ALP administration in October, Evatt was assigned two ministry posts: Attourney-General and Minister of External Affairs. These posts are vital to the nation's war effort. During wartime the former deals with laws addressing the treatment of internal enemies of the state, in addition to its usual peacetime function of administering the statutes to be followed by law-abiding citizens. The latter organizes the conflict against external enemies, belligerent nations the country is at war with. As Attourney-General, Evatt introduced the Statute of Westminster Adoption Bill to the Australian Parliament. Since the statute's passing in Whitehall in 1931, conservative Australian governments had refused to adopt it, thereby removing the final formal hurdle to complete sovereignty before Australia. In the capacity of External Affairs Minister, Evatt led a wartime mission to the Allied capitals, in 1942, yet had found his objective an almost impossible task. Charged by Curtin with the task of securing more war equipment, specifically modern fighter aircraft, Evatt flew out of Sydney on 13 March 1942. In Washington, whenever Evatt pressed for a more generous amount of equipment in the newly formed Pacific war concil, his voice was drowned out by representatives from other nations requesting similar resources. When the crumple-suited Australian External Affairs Minister flew on to London, arriving in early May, he was determined to secure for Australia the wherewithal to successfully resist a Japanese invasion. Unfortunately, this goal was in conflict with the agreed Anglo-American beat-Hitler-first strategy. From the moment his plane landed in the British capital, these diametrically opposed viewpoints brought Evatt into conflict with British military figures and political ministers, from Churchill down. Evatt even accused the Australian high commissioner, S. M. Bruce, of disloyalty. A British intelligence operative later noted that they did

a great deal to educate and mellow this parochial, restless, rude, ambitious, indefatiguable and, by no means unintelligent creature whose brain and energy one cannot help respecting and to some extent, liking, in spite of his drab appearance, dreary droning voice with its nazal [sic] whine, and his unattractive personality."

ww2dbaseDuring the 1943 general election, Evatt shared in the electoral success of the rest of the ALP: Evatt was re-elected to the seat of Barton by a margin of 51,000 No. 1 votes, the largest number of primary votes of any single Australian federal electorate to that date. Before entering politics Evatt had been a man of noble ideas, now he tried to translate the ALP's electoral success into the dominance of ideas as the war drew to a close. In 1944, unsatisfied with the Commonwealth government's constitutional conquest of taxation and unwilling to surrender the ALP's emergency wartime legislation with the arrival of the war's end, Evatt sought to expand the Commonwealth powers within the constitution permanently by amending an all-or-nothing fourteen point proposal for "Post-War Reconstruction and Democratic Rights", which included social services, the organized marketing of primary produce, and control over industrial employment, to the Australian Constitution. To succeed, the ALP would need a majority popular vote for the yes case, in a majority of states in a referendum. Menzies saw his chance to wound an ascendant ALP. He campaigned for state rights. When the referendum was held only 45.9% of the electors and two states, South Australia and Western Australia, could be persuaded to give a yes vote. Evatt learned from this defeat, and the 1946 referendum only had three separate proposals, and 54.39% of electors and six states supported the yes case to give the Commonwealth government a wider range of powers over social services. Evatt led the Australian delegation to the conference at San Fransisco in 1945, the conference which contributed to the details of the Charter of the United Nations, where he earned the informal title "champion of the small nations". His proposals greatly influenced the UN Charter: of the 38 proposals suggested by Evatt, fourteen were completely accepted, and twelve were partially accepted. He applied the principles that he frequently applied in his earlier career, to the founding years of the United Nations: the right of the individual before the law, justice even for the underpriviledged. He was instrumental in the formation of the Jewish homeland in Israel during 1947. The UN met in New York City for the first time in 1948. Evatt was elected President of the General Assembly on 21 September. It was a tumultuous time for the organization. Evatt provided strong leadership on issues as diverse as the self-determination of Indonesia; the Berlin blockade; and international protest to the persecution of the Roman Catholic Primate of Hungary, Cardinal Josef Mindszenty, arrested by the communist regime of Hungary for treason. While upholding the rights of the individual and small nations in the intenational scene, Evatt was involved in Australian domestic politics: in the Chifley ministry Evatt ranked third, behind the prime minister, Ben Chifley, and deputy prime minister, Frank Forde. In 1949 Evatt became deputy prime minister in the Chifley government. 1949 became a year of disaster, an election on 10 December brought a sweeping victory to the coalition parties, led by Menzies and Fadden. Overnight, Evatt became deputy leader of the Opposition. However, the ALP still controlled the Senate. In 1950 the Menzies government announced it intended to pass legislation to outlaw the Communist Party of Australia. The ALP allowed the bill to pass through the Senate, not wishing to contest a poor election result by blocking legislation opposing communism. Evatt and Chifley were opposed to this stance, but were over-ruled by the Federal Executive of the ALP. The legislation was to come into force in October. In parliament Menzies read from a list of communists involved in the union movement provided to him by Security. Within twenty-four hours he had to withdraw a number of names and apologise, for the list he had been provided was wrong. Several trade unions challenged the validity of Menzies' legislation in the High Court. The government's argument was that it was at war in Korea, that this war involved communists, and the defence provisions in the Australian constitution allowed for this legislation. Evatt received a brief for the Waterside Workers Union, but the case was a clear victory for neither side. With Chifley's passing, the ALP elected Evatt as leader of the part as it entered another term in Opposition. Menzies continued to pursue his crusade against communism and communists: he pressed for a referendum in 1951 to settle the issue. Evatt led the campaign for the no case. When the results were returned, the aggregate vote favoured Menzies' proposals, but the states were a closely run race: Tasmania, Queensland and Western Australia were for the proposals; whereas South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales were against; Evatt said of his victory:

I regard this result as more important than half a dozen general elections. The consequences of a mistaken vote in an election verdict can be retrieved. But an error of judgement in this constitutional alteration would tend to destroy the whole democratic fabric of justice and liberty. The Australian people have resisted appeals to emotion and withstood the pressure of fear and hysteria by refusing to write into this great document provisions which are utterly non-British and very antithesis to the glorious traditions of our race.

ww2dbaseDuring the Second World War, on the international scene, H. V. Evatt was a riddle, due to his pursuit of high ideals in the face of opposition from the pragmatic plans of larger countries; in his country of origin, Australia, he was a mystery, due to propaganda about him in the postwar reconstruction; within the ALP itself, Evatt was an enigma, due to his background and ideals. He was from a middle class background, not involved in the union movement, and an internationalist; his election in caucus as leader of the Opposition was proof that not all ALP leaders must have a similar background to John Curtin: working class, involved in trade union movement, and isolationist. In 1960 Evatt was appointed Chief Justice of the NSW Supreme Court. His decisions became more erratic and he experienced a gradual mental decline until a nervous breakdown in 1962. Evatt passed away in Canberra in 1965.

ww2dbaseSources: K. Buckley, B. Dale & W. Reynolds, Doc Evatt: Patriot, Internationalist, Fighter & Scholar, The Australian Dictionary of Biography, A. Dalziel, Evatt: the Enigma, D. Day, The Politics of War.

Last Major Revision: Dec 2008

H. V. Evatt Timeline

30 Apr 1894 H. V. Evatt was born.
2 May 1942 Dr. H. V. Evatt, the Australian representative to the British War Cabinet and the Pacific War Council arrived in the United Kingdom.
2 Nov 1965 H. V. Evatt passed away.


Portrait of H. V. Evatt, date unknownPrime Minister John Curtin and his ministry, Government House, Canberra, Australia, 1941
See all 5 photographs of H. V. Evatt

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Visitor Submitted Comments

1. Anonymous says:
29 Sep 2012 05:14:22 PM

Come on now!!! The claim that the average workers income was 250 pounds per week in the 1920's is absolutely rediculous - it was more like 2 to 3 pounds per week. Even by the mid 1970's an average workes income had still not reached 250 pounds ($500) per week. In 1966, a high school principal in NSW received far less than 250 pounds per week.

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Portrait of H. V. Evatt, date unknownPrime Minister John Curtin and his ministry, Government House, Canberra, Australia, 1941
See all 5 photographs of H. V. Evatt

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