Alexander Downer Collection

 

Signed portraitThe Alexander Downer Collection was gifted to the University of South Australia by the Hon. Alexander Downer, with the aim of providing a consolidated record of the contribution made by Mr. Downer, his father Sir Alick Downer, and his grandfather Sir John Downer to South Australian and Australian politics and to world affairs.

The Collection comprises items dating from 1887 through to 2014, including photographs, newspaper clippings, reports, diaries, correspondence, artwork, and realia collected from international travel and diplomatic engagements. A large number of records which were originally compiled by Alexander and Sir Alick have also been transferred to the University from the National Archives of Australia (opens in new window).

The Collection is housed in the Jeffrey Smart Building on the City West campus of the University of South Australia and was officially launched on 18th December 2014 by the Hon. John Howard OM AC .

Information on the contents of the Collection can be found here and in the UniSA Archival Collections, and digital copies of selected items can be viewed. For further information or access to the Collection, please email the Archivist.

Alexander John Gosse Downer AC

Alexander Downer was constantly exposed to the machinations of politics at a young age, both at home with important visitors including Robert Menzies, and when his family would travel to Canberra in school holidays to visit Parliament House and attend Question Time. Menzies encouraged a young Alexander to attain a profession and gain some life experience before entering politics, advice which Alexander abided by. When the family later moved to London he was exposed to the upper echelons of the British monarchy and ruling political class.Mr Downer in Parliament

He attended Crafers Primary School and Geelong Grammar School in Australia, then Radley College in England and the University of Newcastle upon Tyne. He entered the work force as an economist for the Bank of New South Wales before joining the Australian Diplomatic Service. Some of this time was spent at a posting in Brussels. He then worked as an advisor to Malcolm Fraser and Andrew Peacock before serving as the Executive Director of the Australian Chamber of Commerce. In 1984 he was elected to the House of Representatives as Liberal Member for Mayo, a newly-created seat based in the Adelaide Hills. He held this seat until his resignation in 2008.

Alexander had a long and successful career in Parliament, rising through the ranks of Opposition until he served as Leader of the Liberal Party from May 1994 to January 1995 and is Australia’s longest serving Foreign Minister - 1996 to 2007.

As Foreign Minister, Alexander travelled the globe representing Australia’s interests in bilateral negotiations and multinational forums. He handled a series of crises, including interventions in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, responses to terrorist attacks in the United States and Indonesia, and Australia’s participation in coalitions fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq. Alexander also demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to the ongoing evolution of aid policy for the benefit of developing nations.

Post-politics Alexander has taken up a number of engagements. He worked as one of three principals at boutique consultancy firm Bespoke Approach, and was appointed a Visiting Professor of Politics and International Trade at the University of Adelaide. Alexander served as the Chairman of Common Ground, an Adelaide not-for-profit that provides housing to the homeless.

Alexander’s long experience in international relations was put to use as the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy on Cyprus from 2008 until 2014. He currently holds the position of Australia’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, following in his father’s footsteps.

In 2013 he was appointed a Companion (AC) in the General Division of the Order of Australia, recognizing his eminent service to Parliament through the advancement of international relations and foreign policy, particularly in the areas of security, trade and humanitarian aid. In the same year he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate at the University of South Australia.

Sir Alexander Russell Downer

Alexander Downer Senior, known throughout his life as Alick, was born in Adelaide in 1910. The death of his father when Alick was only 5 left him with an ambition to live up to Sir John’s career of public service.

Alick studied at Geelong Grammar School, and from 1928 at Oxford University. He completed degrees in economics, politics, and law, and returned to South Australia in 1934 to practice law, residing in his newly constructed estate Arbury Park at Bridgewater in the Adelaide Hills.

After the outbreak of war, Alick enlisted in the army and was stationed in Malaya in late 1941. After the fall of Singapore, he was sent to the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp at Changi and remained until the war’s end in 1945.

In 1949 Alick was elected to the House of Representatives for the Liberal Party from the seat of Angas, in the South Australian Riverlands. As a backbencher he showed interest in constitutional law and foreign affairs, and attended the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953.

In 1958 Prime Minister Robert Menzies appointed Alick to his Cabinet as Minister for Immigration. In this role, Alick was a tireless promoter of emigration to Australia among European nations and oversaw gradual reform in immigration policy.

Following the 1963 election, Alick was appointed to the position of High Commissioner to the United Kingdom. Between 1964 and 1972, he battled to keep Britain’s attention on Australia in a time when the UK was preparing to enter the European Economic Community. He built connections among the British establishment, and was appointed to the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire as Knight Commander (KBE) in 1965.

Sir Alick returned permanently to Australia in 1976, retiring to the Barossa Hills where he remained until his death in 1981. He is survived by his four children Angela, Stella, Alexander and Una.

Lady Mary Downer

Lady Mary Downer was the wife of Sir Alick. She was born Mary Gosse in 1924, the youngest daughter of Sir James Hay Gosse and Joanna Lang Barr Smith. Mary was raised in Adelaide with her four brothers and attended Seymour College. She enlisted in the army at 18 and served as a truck driver in Western Australia in a searchlight battalion during World War II.

Mr Downer and MaryIn 1946, Mary met Alick at a cocktail party at the South Australian Hotel, and they were married in April 1947. As her husband’s political career developed she became a tireless campaigner for the Liberal Party, serving alternately as president, secretary and treasurer of her local branch as well as assisting on polling days.

Mary Downer accompanied her husband to London when he took up the role of Australian High Commissioner. Here she became involved in the Australian expatriate community, establishing the Chicken and Chablis Club, a luncheon club promoting fellowship between expatriate women. Mary became Lady Downer in 1965 when her husband was knighted.

Post politics Mary was an active patron for a number of causes including the Mary Potter Foundation and the Barossa Valley Music Festival. She lived in the family property Martinsell in the Barossa Hills until her death on 14th October 2014.

Sir John William Downer

John Downer was born in 1843 in the newly-established colony of South Australia. His early brilliance won him a scholarship to study at St Peter’s College, and he was admitted to practise as a barrister at only 22. He built a reputation as one of Adelaide’s best advocates, before entering politics.John Downer

John was elected as a member of the South Australia House of Assembly for the district of Barossa in 1878. As a talented member of Parliament, he was appointed Attorney-General in 1881. In this role he was a champion of legal reform, advocating for the rights of married women and accused persons.

In 1885, John was elected Premier of South Australia, becoming responsible for negotiations with other colonies and with the Imperial Government. In 1887 he sailed to London to attend the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria and the Colonial Conference, at which he impressed with his skilled representation of colonial interests. He was appointed as Knight Commander of the Order of Saint Michael and Saint George (KCMG) during this visit.

After returning to Adelaide Sir John continued to be a leading light of the Parliament, frequently leading the Opposition and serving briefly again as Premier in 1892-1893. He advocated for the federation of Australia, and was a leading delegate to both the 1891 and 1897-98 Conventions, helping to draft the proposed Australian Constitution.

Following the success of Federation in 1901, Sir John was elected to the first Australian Senate, where he endeavoured to defend the new Constitution and the political and legal institutions it established. Retiring after just one term, he continued to practice law and was elected to the South Australia Legislative Council from 1905 until his death at home in 1915.

Lady Una Downer

Una Stella Russell, born 1871, was the second wife of Sir John Downer and the mother of Sir Alick Downer. Una met Sir John at the house of Sir Edmund Barton in Sydney during the 1897 Federation Convention. Their 1899 wedding was also held at Barton’s house and he served as Best Man. After John’s death, Una married again in 1919 to D’Arcy Addison, a senior Tasmanian public servant, and moved to Hobart. Una and Alick shared a very close relationship, which is represented in this collection through the almost daily letters they sent to each other while Alick was attending boarding school. Around 1936 Una and D’Arcy moved to South Australia to be closer to Alick, where they continued to live until their deaths within a few months of each other in 1955.

The Alexander Downer Collection was gifted to the University of South Australia by the Hon. Alexander Downer, with the aim of providing a consolidated record of the contribution made by Mr. Downer, his father Sir Alick Downer, and his grandfather Sir John Downer to South Australian and Australian politics and to world affairs.

The Collection comprises items dating from 1887 through to 2014, including photographs, newspaper clippings, reports, diaries, correspondence, artwork, and realia collected from international travel and diplomatic engagements. A large number of records which were originally compiled by Alexander and Sir Alick have also been transferred to the University from the National Archives of Australia (opens in new window).

Areas of study and research

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