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William Caldwell (1892–1984)

by James Cotton

William Caldwell, 1916

William Caldwell, 1916

Born in Fremantle, 26 February 1892, Caldwell was the son of Glasgow born carpenter George Caldwell (d.1938) and his spouse Kate Elder (d.1902). His uncle, James Caldwell, was a prominent Liberal member of the British parliament (1886-1910), representing Glasgow St Rollox and subsequently Mid Lanarkshire. His grandfather, William Caldwell, had been a carpenter and coachbuilder in Glasgow.

Winning a scholarship from Beaconsfield School to Perth’s Scotch College, Caldwell was a consistent academic achiever and was also a notable football player and cricketer as well as a member of the cadet corps. Matriculating in examinations conducted by the University of Adelaide, he returned to Scotch as a junior master, also participating in the first enrolment of students at the University of Western Australia in 1913. Excelling at Classics, in November 1915 he was granted a special degree – despite not completing his final year of studies – as he had enlisted (having earlier been rejected) in the AIF; he was also awarded the University’s first Rhodes Scholarship. Qualifying for the officers corps he was commissioned in January 1916; he embarked on the Miltiades for the European theatre in February.

Between August 1916 and August 1918 he served in France in the 48th Battalion, AIF. Twice wounded – at Pozières and later at Bullecourt – he was each time evacuated to Wandsworth (where at the 3rd London General Hospital orderly Tom Roberts frequently ministered to Australian officers). He was promoted to Captain in February 1918. Having been dispatched to senior officers’ school in Camberley, after return duty in France at the armistice he was granted leave in late 1919 to enrol at Balliol College, Oxford University. Undertaking a shortened course in Literae Humaniores (under the tutorship of A. D. Lindsay) he graduated with distinction before undertaking further studies in economics in 1921.

Travelling briefly to Australia in 1920 he returned to Britain via the USA, subsequently successfully passing an examination for recruitment to the newly established International Labour Organisation (ILO), an adjunct of the League of Nations, then being established at Geneva. Caldwell joined the ILO staff in 1921.

For long the only Australian on the ILO staff (until joined by Walter Crocker in 1934), he worked consistently to ensure that the organisation paid attention to developments in Australia. He was a frequent contributor – such contributions generally unsigned – to ILO publications especially on Australian and New Zealand topics, and broadcast over the League of Nations Radio to Australia.

Australian Labour delegates to the annual ILO conferences – notably E. J. Holloway in 1923 and John Curtin in 1924 – were impressed by Caldwell’s abilities which included serving during these conferences as the principal translator between the organisation’s two official languages, French and English. Later he similarly impressed Sir Frederick Stewart (Minister for Commerce 1932-34) who served as employer’s representative for Australia at the 1935 ILO annual conference.

Caldwell married Frenchwoman Berthe Rose Peccoud, 19 Jan 1924; they were to have two children, a son and a daughter.

He travelled to Australia performing duties for the ILO in 1924-25, 1927, and 1931. From November 1935 to September 1936 he acted as Australia based ‘correspondent’ for the organisation.

On his missions to Australia Caldwell travelled widely, meeting most state premiers, the leaders of industry, prominent members of the labour and union movements, and senior officials. He also interviewed the prime ministers and federal parliamentarians. With impeccable social credentials but undoubted personal sympathies with labour, his considerable efforts ensured that the ILO was taken seriously. The complex federal arrangements then prevailing determined that labour conditions remained principally a matter for the states, with the federal government playing the role of attempting to elicit and coordinate what information they found able to communicate to Geneva. Canberra was at that stage reluctant to use the external affairs powers granted under the constitution to bind the states to international undertakings, though Caldwell personally favoured this latter measure.

Whereas the ILO had been virtually ignored by the Hughes government, under Prime Minister S. M. Bruce Australia took a more constructive view. Caldwell’s assiduous advocacy was a major factor in this development. Many employers’ organisations were suspicious – on occasion even hostile – to what they considered invasions of their prerogatives. While organised labour was usually supportive, some elements of the leadership (notably in NSW) regarded the ILO as a handmaiden for oppressive capitalism and in some state administrations senior officials possessed only the haziest understanding of its functions. Caldwell’s careful and persistent persuasion with all these constituencies, documented in his copious reports to the ILO’s Geneva headquarters, which were often approvingly assessed by Director Albert Thomas personally, advanced the cause of the ILO and the improvement of the conditions of labour – especially of vulnerable workers including women and young persons – in Australia. He reported that Bruce had responded favourably to his suggestion that the issue of adhering to ILO conventions on labour standards should be a matter to be placed on the agenda of regular conferences with the state premiers.

Caldwell’s sympathies exhibited a wider progressive internationalism. He was well acquainted with Eleanor Hinder, pioneering Australian advocate for the cause of Chinese labour who later worked for the ILO and the United Nations. In Western Australia, his friendship with such figures as feminist Bessie Rischbieth and labour activist Jean Beadle led to his frequently addressing women’s groups devoted to broadening and extending the rights and roles of women. While in Australia he often also spoke to meetings of the League of Nations Union on Geneva’s internationalist project and its prospects, and in 1936 delivered lectures at Melbourne University on the economics of the ILO.

When the ILO was reorganised in the early 1930s he became a senior member of the ‘Extra-European Section’ (under the directorship of Mack Eastman). At this time the organisation was taking notice of the conditions of Australian aboriginal stockmen and other workers, corresponding with the government in Canberra to elicit information and publishing its findings. Evidence suggests that Caldwell’s personal interest in this issue was one of the determinants of this development. There is also evidence that in the later 1930s he assisted Jewish refugees from Austria to obtain permission and documentation in order to facilitate entry to Australia.

Caldwell’s responsibilities also extended to New Zealand. His patient work with New Zealand politicians and officials, including during a personal visit in 1927 and later in 1934-35, helped overcome Wellington’s initial reluctance to engage with the ILO.

Crossing France from Geneva in late May 1940 (just as the battle for Dunkirk was beginning) with his family Caldwell made his way back to Australia where he served in the 2nd AIF from October 1940 to March 1946. Based in Melbourne at Land Headquarters he attained the rank of Lt. Colonel. He resumed his career at the ILO in 1946, becoming Head of Personnel in 1951 and retiring in 1953. Continuing to live in Switzerland (but often wintering in Nice) he died in Geneva on 13 April 1984 and is memorialised at the columbarium of the Centre funéraire de Saint-Georges.

His son, William Robert Louis (b. Geneva, 1926), educated at Geelong Grammar and Melbourne University during World War 2, later also worked at the ILO.


  • Antony Alcock, History of the International Labour Organisation (London: Macmillan, 1971)
  • Fred Alexander, Campus at Crawley (F. W. Cheshire/University of Western Australia Press, 1963)
  • Neville Browning, Leane’s Battalion. A History of the 48th Battalion A.I.F. 1916-1919 (Osborne Park WA: Quality Press, 2009)
  • Sir Ivo Elliott ed, Balliol College Register 2nd edn (Oxford: Printed for Private Circulation, 1924)
  • Marilyn Lake, ‘The ILO, Australia and the Asia-Pacific Region: New Solidarities or Internationalism in the National Interest?’, in J M Jensen and N Lichtenstein eds, The ILO from Geneva to the Pacific Rim. West Meets East (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), pp.33-54
  • C. E. Landau, ‘The Influence of ILO Standards on Australian Labour Law and Practice,’ International Labour Review, 126 (1987), no.6, pp.669-90
  • Royal Meeker, ‘An International Civil Service’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 166, The International Labor Organization (March 1933), pp. 102-106
  • G. D. Mitchell, Backs to the Wall. A Larrikin on the Western Front (Crow’s Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2007)
  • Bobbie Oliver, Jean Beadle. A Life of Labor Activism (Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2007)
  • E. J. Phelan, ‘How the International Labor Organization Operates’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, Vol. 166, The International Labor Organization (March 1933), pp. 4-9
  • Scotch College, Reporter (Perth: Scotch College), 4-12, 1909-1919
  • Joseph Staricoff, ‘Australia and the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation', International Labour Review, 32 (1935), no 5, pp. 577-609
  • University of Western Australia, Calendar, 1915 (Perth: Simpson, Government Printer, 1914)
  • University of Western Australia, Calendar, 1916 (Perth: Simpson, Government Printer, 1915)
  • University of Western Australia, Calendar, 1917-18 (Perth: Simpson, Government Printer, 1918)
  • Peter Websdane, Beaconsfield Primary School The First Hundred Years 1890-1990 (Melville, WA: the Print Cell, 1990)
  • West Australian (Perth, WA)


  • Eleanor Hinder Papers, Mitchell Library, Sydney, MLMSS 770
  • Rhodes House Oxford, Archives
  • Rischbieth Papers, MS 2004 National Library of Australia
  • E J Holloway Papers, MS 2098, FOLDER 4, ‘Fifty Years Hard Labour’ [Melbourne 1954] National Library of Australia
  • University of Adelaide Library: Walter Crocker Papers, MSS327 C938p
  • University of Western Australia, Archives

International Labour Organisation, Archives, Geneva

  • G 900/29/1-4 Mr W. Caldwell
  • N206/1/4/1-3 Native Labour, Australia
  • N200/1/13/5 Enquiry on Industrial Labour in China 1937
  • P3538/B Caldwell, Mr W.
  • P761 Caldwell, M. W.

National Archives of Australia:

  • B2455, CALDWELL W
  • B884, V6707
  • A981, MIG 52 PART 2
  • A981, INT 278
  • A981, INT 279
  • A12508, 21/1646


  • — accessed March 2020

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Citation details

James Cotton, 'Caldwell, William (1892–1984)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 30 May 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

William Caldwell, 1916

William Caldwell, 1916

Life Summary [details]


26 February, 1892
Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia


13 April, 1984 (aged 92)
Geneva, Switzerland

Cause of Death


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