Whitlam the weather watcher

Patrick Ferry
Tuesday, 8 November 2022

Edward Gough Whitlam (1916–2014) was elected as Australia's 21st prime minister on 5 December 1972. His time as 'P.M.', is still remembered for its significant social, economic and other reforms. Gough is also remembered as the only Australian prime minister ever dismissed by a Governor General. Less well known is the fact that Gough's distinguished career of public service began decades earlier. While still at school, Gough became one of Australia’s volunteer weather watchers.

Reading the rain gauge

Gough Whitlam moved to Canberra after his father (the Assistant Crown Solicitor) was transferred to the new capital. Gough attended Telopea Park School from 1928 to 1931. Among the subjects he studied there were English, history, Latin, geography and science.

The school was then part of the Bureau of Meteorology's Australia-wide volunteer rainfall observation network. Observations were recorded daily at 9 am. This involved the science teacher and students reading the rain gauge and taking cloud, wind and visibility observations. The observations were posted back to the Bureau at the end of each month.

One of the practical challenges was keeping up a steady stream of data during the school holidays. Gough took observations over the long summer holidays in December 1930 and January 1931. At the time, he lived nearby in the suburb of Forrest. Gough didn’t miss a day, not even Christmas or New Year's Day. For the most part, the weather was uneventful, except for 42 points (10 mm) of rain which Gough recorded on 3 January 1931.

Observing the stars

Gough put his observation skills to good use again during WW2. He qualified as an RAAF air observer and navigator. After completing his navigation course, Gough was recommended for astronavigation. This involved using the sun, moon and stars to determine an aircraft’s position.

A link with Stalin remembered

Decades later, Gough was at a dinner in Canberra to mark the retirement of Dr John Farrands, Secretary of the Department of Science. He was seated with Dr John Zillman, then Director of the Bureau of Meteorology. During the conversation, Gough mentioned that he'd 'started out with the Weather Bureau' all those years ago. Dr Zillman told Gough that he knew of only one other world leader who had been a meteorologist: Joseph Stalin. On hearing this, Gough burst into laughter and replied: 'Well comrade, at least I was in good company!'

The National Archives would like to thank Dr John Zillman AO and Janelle Inkster of the Bureau of Meteorology for their assistance with this story.