Guide to the papers of Sir George Pearce


Title: Papers of Sir George Pearce.

Date range of collection: 1910-1937.

Collection number3DRL/2222

Extent: 8 boxes.

Location: Private Records collection, Research Centre, Australian War Memorial.

Abstract: The papers of Sir George Pearce document his life from 1910-1937, chiefly as Minister for Defence during the First World War. They comprise diaries, correspondence, official papers and reports relating to naval defence, the development of the Australian Imperial Force, First World War operations and campaigns, conscription, demobilisation, disarmament and Australia's role in the international community through the League of Nations. Correspondents include Field Marshal Lord Birdwood, Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson, Australian Prime Ministers, Andrew Fisher and William Hughes, Sir John Monash, Keith Murdoch, R Muirhead Collins and General Godley.


Administrative information

Provenance: Donated by Sir George Pearce to the Australian War Memorial in 1949. Non-military and non-defence papers were removed and transferred to the National Library in 1950 (MS 213). Collection guide completed September 2003.

Access: Open with exceptions.

Restrictions on use: Copyright of materials described in this guide is governed by copyright law in Australia. For further information contact the Curator of Private Records, Research Centre.

Preferred citation: Guide to the papers of Sir George Pearce, Australian War Memorial, 3DRL/2222.

Additional information

Related collections:

  • Papers of Field Marshall Lord William Birdwood, 3DRL/3376.
  • Papers of Sir Henry George Chauvel, PR00535.
  • Papers of Sir John Monash, 3DRL/2316.

Subjects: 1st Australian Imperial Force; 1 Australian General Hospital; 6 Division; Elections; Foreign relations; Politicians; Legislation; Conscription; Demobilisation; Recruiting.


Biographical note

George Foster Pearce was born on 14 January 1870 at Mount Barker, South Australia to English parents, blacksmith James Pearce and his wife Jane. Pearce was educated at Red Hill Public School before leaving at 11 and becoming a carpenter. In the Depression of 1891, he was forced to move to Perth to find work. Soon afterwards, he became a member of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners and in 1893 was working for the Trades and Labor Council.
After spending a year prospecting on the Coolgardie goldfields, Pearce returned to Perth and became increasingly active in Labor politics.
In 1900 he was elected to the Senate, after rising through the ranks of the State Labor Party. Initially Pearce was not particularly concerned with Australian security, however after Russia's defeat by Japan in 1905, he became convinced of the need for Australia to have a strong military and naval defence and to maintain close ties with Britain.
The Fisher Labor government was elected in 1908, with Pearce taking the sensitive portfolio of Defence. Shortly after taking up the position, in February 1909, he ordered three torpedo boat destroyers. (correspondence filed in series 9). He again became Minister for Defence in the second Fisher government from April 1910, implementing compulsory military training and developing the Royal Australian military college. Pearce was also responsible for the passing of Australia's first Naval Defence Act in 1910. In 1911 Pearce attended the Imperial Conference in London, which increased his conviction that war was inevitable between Britain and Germany.

During the First World War, Pearce continued to hold the position of Minister of Defence with both the Fisher and Hughes governments. With Hughes he was involved in the planning of the two conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917, and he was attacked by a number of parliamentarians and the media on this issue and his approach to censorship. The administration of the Department of Defence was also subject to severe criticism and in 1917 the government had to set up a royal commission that found inadequate administration had occurred particularly in the organisation of supply. For a while Pearce feared he might have to resign, though the commission did acknowledge the department had achieved a great deal under very difficult circumstances.

Pearce's main responsibilities as minister involved the supply and reinforcements of the AIF and he had a part in the selection of senior officers. He maintained detailed correspondence with commanders of the AIF, including General Sir Ian Birdwood. (correspondence filed in series 3). At the end of the First World War, Pearce was sent to London with his family to help organise repatriation of the AIF. Pearce worked with Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash for several months negotiating shipping and financial details. 

In 1921 Pearce became Minister for Home and Territory and represented Australia on the Empire delegation at the Disarmament Conference in Washington held from November 1921-February 1922. He made a good impression upon a number of other delegates, including Lord Balfour, the leader of the delegation. The conference also had the effect of temporarily relieving Pearce's concerns about the threat of Japan to Australian security.

Pearce held the position of Minister for Home and Territories from 1923-1926 and later vice-president of the Executive Council until 1929. Pearce was the only former Labor member to join the Bruce- Page government in 1923. He developed a strong professional relationship with Bruce who respected his knowledge and experience of international and imperial politics. 

From 1929 Pearce was the leader of the the Opposition in the Senate and in 1931 blocked the government's economic legislation. He became Minister for Defence in the United Australian Party government, under Prime Minister Joseph Lyons in 1932 and following the 1934 elections, Minister for External Affairs in the new UAP-Country Party coalition. After losing his seat at the Senate elections in October 1937, Pearce was appointed to a directorship on the Commonwealth Grants Commission, and during the Second World War, the Board of Business Administration.

Pearce died on 24 June 1952 at his home in Elwood, Melbourne and was cremated after a state funeral. He was survived by two sons and two daughters.


Heyden, Peter , Quiet decision: a study of George Foster Pearce (Victoria, Melbourne; Melbourne University Press, 1965).

Scope and content note

The papers of Sir George Pearce are held within the Private Records collection at the Australian War Memorial's Research Centre. They document Pearce's life from 1909-1934 and chiefly cover his experiences as Australian Minister for Defence in 1908-09, 1910-13, 1914-21 and 1932-34. The papers occupy two shelf metres and comprise a range of record types: diaries, letters, photographs, reports, legal papers and official documents.

The largest component of the collection focuses on correspondence between Pearce and military and political figures in Australia and overseas during the First World War. These include Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, Australian Prime Ministers William Hughes and Andrew Fisher and Field Marshal Lord Birdwood. Topics discussed cover events such as the development of the Australian Imperial Force (AIF), conscription, defence, repatriation and demobilisation. Later correspondence with Hughes and Fisher document Pearce's visit to Austria in 1919 to sign the Peace treaty and his delegate role on the League of Nations.

Post-war papers and correspondence focus on Pearce's role as the Minister for Home and Territories, 1921-1926 and include international conferences on disarmament and the role of the League of Nations.

SERIES 1: Pre-war papers and correspondence, 1909-1913

Reports and correspondence relating to Pearce's role as Minister for Defence prior to the First World War. The series comprises memorandum of conferences between the British Admiralty, Canada and Australia, June 1911; the creation of an Australian navy and the purchase of new destroyers, February 1909; drafts of Naval Discipline Acts; the development of a naval policy by the Deakin and Fisher governments; correspondence with Admiral Sir Reginald Henderson KCB, June 1910; correspondence relating to the building of the Royal Naval College at Jervis Bay, January 1912 and a published report of recommendations for the Commonwealth naval forces written by Henderson, 1911.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
1/1 Correspondence and papers, 1909-1910. 1
1/2 Correspondence and papers, 1909-1911 1
1/3 Correspondence and papers, 1910-1911 1
1/4 Correspondence and papers, 1910-1912 1
1/5 Account by Pearce of his journey from England to Australia via Germany, Russia, China, Japan and the Philippines, 1911. 1
1/6 Minutes of proceedings of the Imperial Conference, 1911. 1
1/7 Correspondence, 1911-1913. Includes letters from J Allen, Office for the Minister of Defence, New Zealand, 1912-1913; statements on Australian naval defence; minute of financial proposals for the Naval Board submitted by H W E Manistry, March 1913. 1

SERIES 2: Correspondence with Sir Ronald and Lady Helen-Munro Ferguson, 1914-1927

Comprises of extensive correspondence between Pearce, Minister of Defence, and Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson, Governor-General of Australia. A number of letters exchanged between Pearce and Lady Helen discuss Red Cross Society appeals. Other topics include an investigation into the management of the 1 Australian General Hospital in Egypt, 1915.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
2/1 Correspondence, 1914-1915, with Sir Ronald Muno-Ferguson. Includes correspondence with Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson relating to appeal of the Red Cross Society. 1
2/2 Correspondence, 1915 with Sir Ronald Munro-Ferguson and Lady Helen Ferguson relating to transport arrangements for Red Cross delegates on the transport ship SS Orsova. Includes a minute paper of masseurs for active service, 5 July 1915. Other correspondence concerns complaints made by Colonel Springthorpe of the conduct of staff at the 1 Australian General Hospital. 1
2/3-2/4 Correspondence, 1915-1916, relating to the conduct of Colonel Barrett and his administration of Australian hospitals in Egypt ; correspondence about the War Committee's efforts to raise 50,000 troops for the Australian Imperial Force; correspondence relating to the Archbishop of Brisbane's concern about prostitution in Egypt. 2
2/5 Correspondence, 1915-1918, relating to the 6pm hotel curfew in Liverpool, New South Wales; correspondence relating to a report written on internees at Trial Bay barracks; correspondence relating to the intelligence service in New South Wales. 2
2/6 Correspondence, 1916, with Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson relating to Colonel Springthorpe; correspondence relating to Keith Murdoch's report on Australian and New Zealand forces at Gallipoli, March 1916. 2
2/7-2/8 Correspondence, 1916-1918, relating to the War Pensions Act and its provisions for disabled officers, July 1916; correspondence relating to massage treatment for soldiers; correspondence relating to the Settlement Fund; correspondence with Lady Helen Munro-Ferguson concerning the Friendly Union of Soldiers Wives, October 1917; correspondence with Munro-Ferguson concerning military etiquette, December 1916; attached letter from Birdwood reporting on the abilities of Hobbs, Legge Monash and Gellibrand, December 1916; correspondence with Birdwood about raising a 6th division, January 1917. 2
2/9 Correspondence, 1916-1927. Correspondence with Pearce relating to the mismanagement of the Domain Anzac Service, April 1916; cuttings relating to Maud Butler's arrest for wearing an AIF uniform, April 1916. Two letters from Lord Novar, 1924-1927. 2
2/10 Correspondence, 1917-1919; correspondence with Munro-Ferguson and Birdwood regarding a proposal for the Gallipoli star, April 1918; correspondence relating to the visit of Lord Jellicoe to inspect the Royal Navy, 1919. 2
2/11 Correspondence, 1917-1920. Copies of letters from Birdwood, with 1 Anzac Corps in France, to Munro-Ferguson, January-May 1917; correspondence relating to the high instance of venereal disease contracted by Australian soldiers on leave in London, April 1917; letter of 9 May 1917 regarding the reputation of officers including Murray and Albert Jacka; correspondence relating to the progress of demobilisation, May 1919. 2
2/12 Correspondence, 1918. Includes letters relating to the treatment of Sergeant R Dodd on the hospital ship, SS Suevic, June 1918. 2

SERIES 3: Correspondence with Field Marshal Lord William Birdwood, 1915-1937

Letters exchanged between Pearce and Birdwood, mostly during the First World War. Later correspondence concerns Birdwood's opposition to the New South Wales Lang government; the Depression and economic recovery of Australia.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
3/1 Correspondence, 1915-1916. Letters from Birdwood concerning his impressions of Captain Morshead, October 1915; correspondence relating to progress at Gallipoli and the appointment of William Hughes as prime minister; correspondence relating to Colonel Richard Fetherstons's appointment to Director-General of the Australian Army Medical Corps; correspondence concerning recruitment and conscription, November 1915; funeral arrangements for General Bridges; correspondence regarding decisions not to appoint Australian officers to Divisional commands, February 1916. 2
3/2 Correspondence, 1916. Letters on Divisional appointments, March-May 1916; the return of Colonel Lamrock to Australia, June 1916; supervision of Australian soldiers at Salisbury Plain; nomination of Monash to command the 3rd Division; the death of Lord Kitchener; conscription referendum, September 1916. 2
3/3 Correspondence, 1916. Letters relating to the demotion of Colonel Pope and Brigadier-General Rankin, August 1916; reinforcements; telegrams discussing the promotion of Lieutenant-Colonel Cannan to command of 11 Infantry Battalion, August 1916; reports on progress of Colonel Holmes, October 1916. 3
3/4 Correspondence, 1916-1917. Letters discussing career prospects for Australian senior officers, November 1916; Referendum results on conscription, December 1916; venereal disease and division rivalry, 1917. 3
3/5 Correspondence, 1917. Letters concerning the award of KCMG to General Anderson, June 1917; the election of the National Party to government, and the failure of the conscription referendum in Australia, August 1917. Other topics covered include the death of Major General William Holmes and Gellibrand's ill health, August 1917. 3
3/6 Correspondence, 1917. Letters concerning reinforcements; leave arrangements for 1 Division; Australian elections and conscription referendum, September 1917. 3
3/7 Correspondence, 1918. Letters discussing casualties on the Western Front January 1918; training for the Flying Corps, February 1918; comments on the suitability of Major General James Whiteside McCay to replace Birdwood as commander of the AIF, March 1918. 3
3/8 Correspondence, 1918. Cablegram expressing appreciation for Birdwood's service as commander of the AIF; reports on Monash's progress as commander of the AIF, July 1918. 3
3/9 Correspondence, 1918; letters discussing Birdwood's new appointment to command the British Fifth Army in May 1918; demobilisaton, 1918. 3
3/10 Correspondence, 1918. Includes letters discussing Birdwood's appointment to command of the 5th Army, August 1918. Attached correspondence from General Monash arguing against Birdwood's removal from command of the AIF, June 1918. 3
3/11 Correspondence, 1922-1932. Includes letters from Birdwood during his command of the Northern Army in India, 1922-23. 3
3/12 Correspondence, 1928-1929. Includes letters concerning the possible commission of Duntroon cadets to the Indian army, April 1928. Other topics include stamp-collecting and Birdwood's trek through the Himalayas, 1929. 3
3/13 Correspondence, 1930-1937. Correspondence relating to the Depression in Australia, November 1930; Birdwood's opposition to the Lang govt in New South Wales, 1931; General Elliott's death; the start of the regular Air Mail Service, May 1931; Pearce's reappointment as Minister for Defence, January 1932. 4

SERIES 4: Correspondence with Prime Minister William Hughes, 1910-1919

Letters exchanged between Pearce and Hughes during the First World War, mainly concerning the issues of conscription and censorship. Later correspondence in 1918 relates to the demobilsation of the AIF.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
4/1 Correspondence, 1910-1916. Copies of letters from Pearce to Hughes relating to media reports on hospital treatment of Australian troops overseas, December 1915; copy of report instructing the Press to put complaints relating to conscription through the Censor, December 1915. 4
4/2 Correspondence, 1916. Cablegrams relating to the conscription scheme proposal; fall in AIF enlistment numbers, July 1916. 4
4/3 Correspondence relating to the delay in awarding the Gallipoli Star, July 1916; correspondence discussing the extension of the Commonwealth parliament, June 1916. 4
4/4 Miscellaneous correspondence between Pearce and Hughes, mainly relating to demobilisation, 1918. 4
4/5 Copies of messages sent to Birdwood relating to his appointment as Commander of the 5th Army, August 1918; cablegrams relating to industrial strikes in Australia, 1917. 4

SERIES 5: First World War papers and general correspondence,1914-1919

Correspondence, reports of proceedings, memorandums and minutes relating to issues of government in Australia during the First World War. Papers relating to the Recruiting Committee and conscription, demobilisation, repatriation, Labor conferences, correspondence relating to a visit by Pearce and his wife to the battlefields in France, July 1919; wool purchasing; conscription referendum, 1916; censorship, 1916; letter from Keith Murdoch to Pearce regarding the campaign in Gallipoli, September 1915; State Munitions Committee correspondence re manufacture of munitions, July 1916; letters from Keith Murdoch about the delivery of mail to Australian soldiers at the front and Hughes visit to Europe to attend the Paris conference, April 1916; Correspondents include Keith Murdoch, Andrew Fisher, Billy Hughes and Dame Nellie Melba.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
5/1 Papers, 1919-1920; Correspondence, minute papers on demobilisation, 1919. Includes a pamphlet on war cemeteries, 1920. 4
5/2 Correspondence from Major J Sands, in charge of German internment camps in NSW, May 1915; includes extracts from letters sent to the internees and diaries kept in the Liverpool camp, 1915. 4
5/3 Letter to Pearce from Keith Murdoch, 13 September 1915, discussing the issue of delivering mail to Australian soldiers at the front and the appointment of Australian officers to divisional command; donation appeal for Australian soldiers, signed by Nellie Melba, 20 July 1915. 4
5/4 Reports by the Federal Munitions Committee; correspondence with Munro-Ferguson, 1916-1917. 4
5/5 Correspondence with Sir John Forrest, William Hughes, Captain R Muirhead Collins regarding disabled soldiers and the conduct of the campaign in Galliopoli, October 1915; report to the Australian parliament in respect of settlement of returned soldiers on the land. February 1916; file on repatriation with attached notes by General Legge. 5
5/6 Minute paper by Dept of Defence on the anti-conscription manifesto seized at the Trades Hall, and Labor Call office, and related correspondence, August-September 1916. 5
5/7 Papers, 1915-1922. Correspondence with Monash, 1915-1919. Letters relating to his appointment to Brigadier, January 1916; behaviour of Australian troops in Egypt, March 1915; recruitment and the administration of the AIF at the end of the war, October 1918. Several messages from Victoria Monash, responding to Pearce's letter of congratulations on her husband's promotion, November 1918. 5
5/8 Correspondence and reports relating to the State Recruiting Committee, Western Australia. Correspondence with Keith Murdoch, November 1915, relating to Keith Murdoch's request to be sent to the Western Front. Also includes a copy of Murdoch's 'Gallipoli letter' written to Andrew Fisher, 23 September 1915. 5
5/9 Memorandums for the Naval Secretary; a message of support from Hughes to troops at sea, April 1917; press censorship, November 1917. 5
5/10 Notes and correspondence relating to demobilisation and repatriation of AIF, June 1917. 5
5/11 Correspondence with W A Watt, Acting Prime Minister, 23 August 1918 relating to the organisation of AIF commands overseas. 5
5/12 Instructions for local recruiting committees; Dept of Defence minute paper on establishing recruiting areas; correspondence relating to Pearce's visit to France, 1919. 5
5/13 Papers and correspondence concerning Pearce's visit to London to arrange matters on defence, demobilisation and repatriation, 1919. 5

SERIES 6: Correspondence with Andrew Fisher, 1909-1917

Correspondence exchanged between Fisher and Pearce, when Fisher was both Prime Minister of Australia and later as High Commissioner for Australia, London. Correspondence covers topics such as attendance at the London conference on naval and military defence of the British Empire, May 1909, the Pacific Naval question, 1914 and amendments to the Defence Act, July 1915.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
6/1 Correspondence, 1910-1917 5

SERIES 7: Correspondence with Captain R Muirhead Collins, 1908-1915

Filed in this series are letters written to Pearce by Captain R Muirhead Collins regarding naval defence and naval expenditure in the Commonwealth prior to the First World War. Other topics include representatives to the Naval and Military Conference in Great Britain, 1909; signing contracts for torpedo boat destroyers, 1909; copy of a speech given at the launch for cruisers for the navy of the Commonwealth of Australia, 1912; correspondence relating to the Imperial Defence committee, 1912; correspondence relating to Pearce attending the Vancouver Naval Conference, 1913. Correspondence after the outbreak of the First World War covers the British government's organisation of munitions, the internment of aliens in Britain, progress at Gallipoli, 1915; zeppelin raids over London; Australian casualty numbers at Gallipoli; the unpopularity of Prime Minister John Asquith; steel production of the Broken Hill Company and recruitment numbers in Britain, 1916.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
7/1 Correspondence, 1908-1912. 6
7/2 Correspondence 1912-1916. 6

SERIES 8: Correspondence with General J G Legge, 1915

Filed in this series are letters exchanged between Pearce and General Legge during the First World War. The correspondence comprises two letters written in September 1915 by Legge to Pearce regarding divisional arrangements at the Dardanelles for Australian and New Zealand forces.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
8/1 Correspondence with General J G Legge, 1915. 6

SERIES 9: Correspondence with General Bridges, 1909-1915

Letters exchanged between Pearce and General Bridges during the First World War. Topics include the landing at Gallipoli and the progress of Australian forces, 1914-1915.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
91/-9/2 Correspondence with General Bridges, 1909-1915. 6

SERIES 10: Correspondence with General Godley,1914-1916

Correspondence between Pearce and Godley covering the first two years of the First World War. Letters exchanged describe the difficulty of obtaining qualified officers for the Australian and New Zealand forces; letters from Godley while from Cairo, Egypt 1915; correspondence on the performance of the 4th Brigade at Gallipoli, May 1915; the wounding and death of General Bridges at Gallipoli, May 1915; public opinion on the evacuation of Gallipoli, January 1916; Australian reinforcements, February 1916; hopes for the formation of an Australian and New Zealand Army, March 1916; Godley's visit to the training camps at Salisbury Plains, June 1916; Australian referendum campaign, November 1916; reports on the progress of the 3rd and 4th Australian Divisions at the Battle of Messines, June 1915 and Godley's account of the death of General Holmes, September 1917.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
10/1 Correspondence, 1914-1918. 6

SERIES 11: Post-war papers and correspondence, 1919-1944

This series comprises pocket diaries, 1929-1936 with brief entries recording meetings, visits and appointments; correspondence from Birdwood and Monash, 1918-1919, concerning demobilisation; conference report on demobilisation with contributions by Pearce, Birdwood, Monash and General Griffith in Melbourne, July 1919; published orders on the arrangements for the July 1919 Victory March through London, and correspondence with Birdwood and Hughes relating to organisation of the Victory March, April 1919.

Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
11/1 Diaries, 1929, 1930, 1933, 1935, 1936. 6
11/2 Correspondence from Birdwood and Monash regarding demobilisation, 1918-1919. 6
11/3 Press notices on a demobilisation conference, 1919 and Pearce' intinerary for his battlefield tour in France, 1919. 6
11/4 Orders for London Victory March, 1919. 6
11/5 Correspondence and cablegrams from Hughes from Paris, April 1919 relating to the Anzac day celebrations; correspondence with Lord Milner, Secretary of State for the Colonies, regarding demobilisation of the AIF, March 1919. 6
11/6 Correspondence with Austen Chamberlain, Chancellor of the Exchequer, July 1919; loan arrangements between the Australian and British governments, 1919. 7
11/7 Correspondence with Hughes and Milner relating to the treaty with Austria, September 1919. 7
11/8 Programs and correspondence relating to the victory march of the Australian troops through London, 1919. 7
11/9 Correspondence, menus, delegations lists for the Armament Conference, Washington 1921; memorandum for Australian three-year defence plan, 1934-1937; program for entertainment for the United States Fleet in Melbourne, August 1925. 7
11/10 Naval Defence Report written by Admiral Viscount Jellicoe, submitted to the Commonwealth of Australia, August 1919. 7
11/11 Notes, newspaper cuttings relating to the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments, 1922, attended by Pearce. Also includes a 1944 copy of the Sydney Herald. 7
11/12 Minutes of the meetings of the Washington Conference on the Limitation of Armaments, November-January 1922. 7
11/13 Correspondence relating to Pearce's appointment to the Privy Council, 1927; report on defence expenditure, 1933; memorandum for cabinet on Australia's defence policy, 1934. 7
11/14 Letter and report to Pearce on disarmament, from J G Latham, June 1932. 7
11/15 Reports on conferences in New Zealand, attended by Pearce as Minister for External Affairs, 1934. Conferences covered disarmament and the role of the League of Nations. 7

SERIES 12: Ephemera, 1922


Series/Wallet Title, date and description Box
12/1 Menus and invitations. 7