Copyright © Australian War Diary (World War One)



Tuesday, 30 June 1914

On Tuesday morning, as Australians and New Zealanders read in their morning newspapers more details on the Sarajevo assassinations, the Commonwealth government received its first communication from the Imperial government on the matter, this being sent from London on its Monday afternoon, along one of the same three cables which had brought the press reports the day before.

When the Melbourne GPO opened at 9 am, a messenger from Government House, a white, three-storey Italianate mansion on St. Kilda Road, arrived as usual to check if any cablegrams had arrived overnight from the Colonial Office in London. This was the sole, proper method of overnight communication between the Commonwealth and Imperial governments and also, though less frequently, with foreign governments, via the Foreign Office, from either foreign embassies in London or British embassies abroad.

State governments retained their pre-Federation authority to communicate separately with the Colonial Office although the boundaries of the subject matter of that avenue of communication had been keenly disputed with the Commonwealth since 1901 and was unresolved in 1914.

The telegram exchange was not large. The week before Government House had sent three and received two--one, on appointing a particular acting-consul for Paraguay in Perth and a longer one on awarding honours to Australians. So far this week two had arrived--both dated 29 June--the second, sent at 6 pm 'in clear', asked if there was any objection to the appointment of the nominated new Chinese consul-general. There was not.

​The earlier one was briefer--eight words--arrived on the Pacific cable and was enciphered, with

some words replaced by code-words: 'Seven motorial Archduke Franz Ferdinand Austria from

jickajog.' Its heading, though, was clear. The Imperial court in London had announced seven

days of mourning in sympathy with the Austro-Hungarian court. Nothing yet indicated the

assassinations might lead to hostility towards Austria-Hungary, an international crisis or war.

​In Government House, those allowed to see such encoded messages, apart from the Governor-General, were only his Private Secretary and the House's chief, the Military Secretary: salaries of both, he paid. The only officer there employed by the Commonwealth, apart from kitchen staff, chauffeurs and gardeners, was their supervisor, the Official Secretary,  George Steward. It is unclear whether, after a struggle going back to Federation, he was now permitted to see Imperial communications before the Governor-General had decided on his own initiative or advice from the Colonial Office--by inclusion of the codeword 'kindlessly'--which messages he would share with his prime minister.

​                                                                                                       Around the Empire, especially in the three most prestigious colonies--India,

                                                                                                       Canada and Australia--appointments to a governor's personal staff, like the

                                                                                                       governor himself, were largely reserved to the aristocracy. Within that class,

                                                                                                       governors preferred to appoint relatives of themselves or close friends.

                                                                                                       This provided a career path for young aristocrats to vice-regal level while 

                                                                                                       assuring a governor his closest officials were trustworthy, not only due to them not

                                                                                                       being a colonial British subject but because of shared class and, even, family.

                                                                                                       Sir Ronald Craufurd Munro Ferguson, the sixth governor-general, had only

                                                                                                                              arrived seven weeks prior. Born into a wealthy, land-owning family of

                                                                                                       ancient Scottish descent, after Sandhurst and the army, he entered

                                                                                                       parliament, became private secretary to Lord Rosebery, the Liberal's

                                                                                                       Foreign Secretary and strongly supported the Conservatives' imperialism.

                                                                                                       Prospects in the new Liberal government thus limited, he accepted this post

                                                                                                       having refused governorships of South Australia (1895​) and Victoria (1910).

Munro Ferguson appointed as military secretary his brother-in-law, Lord Frederick Blackwood, a major in the 9th Lancers in the Boer war and son of the land-owning first Marquis of Dufferin. His private secretary was his nephew, Geoffrey Luttrell, from a very ancient Lincolnshire, land-owning family. He had two aide-de-camp: John Anstruther, a captain of the Carbiniers and, like Munro Ferguson, from Fife's land-owning aristocracy; the second, inherited from his predecessor, was urban middle-class. The 2nd London Regimen's Captain Wilfred John Hutton Curwen's Surrey grandfather and father were respectively a merchant's clerk and grocer, earning enough to send him to prestigious Charterhouse School and Oxford University, where he won a blue for soccer, and later played test cricket in New Zealand in 1906-07. 

​By contrast, the Commonwealth's sole official in Government House, Steward, was born to a London labourer; worked there as a night postal messenger and parcel sorter, and married a fishmonger's daughter. Modestly educated but an accomplished sculler and amateur boxer, after emigration, he rose rapidly in Tasmania's public service from railway department clerk, chief clerk of education, secretary to the premier and clerk of the Governor's Executive Council. In 1901, believing he was promised headship of the new, key Federal Department of External Affairs, which supported the prime minister, he unhappily accepted its deputy position, so he jumped when offered the Government House post in late 1902.

The first Governor-General, Lord Hopetoun, had blocked the Commonwealth's initial appointment of the Official Secretary and removed its clerk temporarily attached as secretary to his Executive Council, giving both positions to his own private secretary and allowing only a junior public servant to assist. His Colonial Office instructions--including that ‘You will pay minute and strict attention to the Rules’--were that handling of all secret and confidential communications 'must be done' only by his private secretary unless Commonwealth ministers agreed to accept his nominee as Official Secretary. ‘The reasons for this are obvious', he was told, 'The Official Secretary is nominally a member of the Governor-General’s Staff, but he is appointed and paid by the Federal Ministers and his office is operatically a branch of the Commonwealth Government, whereas the Private Secretary is under the sole and immediate control of the Governor-General.’ 

Governor-Generals were given two cyphers. The most highly sensitive was for 'secret and confidential' communications with the Colonial Office and other governors including in the six Australian states, New Zealand, Fiji and the High Commissioner of the Western Pacific​. The other was for secret communications between colonial governors and British diplomatic, consular and naval officers, including all naval commanders-in-chief, senior naval officers and commanders of naval ships abroad​. He was instructed not to ‘allow the Cypher to pass out of your own custody’ unless personally given to someone 'possessing your full confidence’, such as his successor or his private secretaries. Even the Governor-General was refused access to the separate Foreign Office cypher for communication with embassies in foreign countries.

Commonwealth ministers initially had no cypher. There was no need: it was a clear protocol they were not to communicate with any part of the Imperial government directly, let alone with foreign governments. Occasionally, prime ministers of Australia, Canada and New Zealand exchanged en clair telegrams. In 1903, the Colonial Office approved Hopetoun giving the prime minister the less sensitive cypher but not its de-cypher, so he could receive coded messages while either was travelling but still not allow prime ministers to decode sensitive Imperial communications. In 1910-11, the Governor-General was approved to give full access of the lesser cypher to ministers but only for communication within the Commonwealth.

The Commonwealth had won another concession in 1902-3, using its control over Government House allowances to force Steward's belated appointment as Official Secretary. Whether by 1914 his first loyalty was to the Commonwealth government or Government House is not clear.

Sir Munro Ferguson with prime minister Cook, Melbourne, 1914. Military secretary, Lord Blackwood is to his left-rear, with the wives. At front are captains Curwen and Anstruther. State Library of Victoria H2007.129/3