David Tothill: Dick Woolcott’s House

DSP Newsletter, No.5, August 1999

DAVID TOTHILL:  Dick Woolcott’s House

The matter of diplomatic housing does not usually feature in theoretical works on diplomacy. Yet it provides a pointer to the nature of foreign service besides being reflective in individual cases of underlying political circumstances. DAVID TOTHILL examines the curious case of ‘Dick Woolcott’s House’.

Richard Arthur (Dick) Woolcott is one of the most successful of all Australian diplomats. After working as a journalist in London in 1949 he joined his country’s department of external affairs. There he displayed the aptitude for the work which, complemented by his engaging personality, saw him scale the heights in a forty-two year career. By the early 1970s he was, as Canberra journalist Bruce Juddery put it, ‘ferociously capable in his dual role of diplomat/politician’.[1] His job – head of the department’s information and cultural relations branch but, at the same time, ‘unofficially its chief political trouble-shooter'[2] – was tailor- made to his abilities. While political and service exigencies occasioned an eighteen year delay before he was appointed head of department in September 1988, he was always in the running. As the then Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, said at Woolcott’s retirement dinner in 1992: ‘for the last 20 years or so, I do not think anyone has been in any doubt that it was really only a question of when, not whether, Dick Woolcott became Secretary’.[3]

Woolcott’s first post abroad was third secretary in the Australian embassy in Moscow. The Petrov Affair [4] brought his service there, indeed, the embassy itself to a premature end. After the 1954 closure an alternative post was found for him and he went to South Africa where he served with the Australian high commission from June 1954 to January 1957. W.R. Hodgson was the high commissioner and K.T. Kelly, later Hugh Gilchrist, the first secretary. An aspect of Woolcott’s service in South Africa is revealing of diplomatic privilege, the peculiar nature of diplomatic service in that country, as well as its then government’s international standing.

The Scramble for Housing

South Africa’s dual capital system where Cape Town is the legislative capital and Pretoria the seat of government, disrupts diplomatic routine in a way not experienced elsewhere. For diplomats it entails, or it used to do so, a move to Cape Town early in the summer and a move back to Pretoria six months later. Much time, effort and money is expended. The 1959 Australian post report compared the move to relocating a branch of the department of external affairs from Canberra to Adelaide every January and back every July. [5]

The 1951 post report highlighted the biannual scramble for housing: ‘Unless one is successful in securing a house in Cape Town for the following session while one is still there (the same applying mutatis mutandis to Pretoria) house hunting has to be carried on at a distance entirely by correspondence. It is useful but not always possible to have a reliable personal agent on the spot to inspect the premises and form a judgement as to their suitability before a lease is agreed upon.’ [6]

The 1959 report revealed that one officer with dependent children had eleven changes of residence in three years and another ten in three- and- a-half years besides which officers had ‘from time to time been involved in unpleasant and protracted disputes arising out of telegraphic or long-distance agreements in which conditions were not made clear on both sides’. [7] That probably referred to the experience of the twenty-nine year old Woolcott, then about to commence his last six months in South Africa before reassignment to Australia, when he advertised in the flats or houses wanted column of the Pretoria News on 28 April 1956: ‘Modern house 3 b rs, garage, servants’ quarters wanted for 5/6 months from the beginning of June. Please write Woolcott, Australian High Commission, Cape Town.’

Four of the eight advertisements in that day’s column were placed by representatives of Commonwealth governments – Woolcott, Listowel and Mills of the British high commission, and an unnamed ‘Canadian Government official’ who wanted a ‘furnished bachelor flat’. Dr G.W. Eybers of P.O. Box 80, Lynnwood, Pretoria, responded by letter the same day to Woolcott, Listowel and Mills, offering his house at 143 Eastwood Street at a monthly rental of £42.10.0d. Therefore, but for the fact that Woolcott was first with his telephone call asking for an option on the house, which Eybers granted, [8] the matter may never been have heard of again.

Eybers had already let the house successively to a German engineer, a senior official in the British high commission, the deputy head of the Soviet consulate-general and to the consul-general himself until his departure from South Africa when the South African government closed the consulate. [9] Thus he was accustomed to dealing with diplomatic and important local house-seekers. Woolcott on the other hand was an experienced diplomatic tenant. In the two years he had been in South Africa he had already rented four houses – two in Pretoria and two in Cape Town – at rentals ranging from £35 to £45 monthly and, according to him, his relations with his landlords had been ‘most cordial.’ [10]

Woolcott accepts the House

Woolcott recognised the house immediately from Eybers’s brief description of its location and the matter of furniture, saying he had none of his own and that he therefore wanted a fully furnished house. Eybers replied on 9 May: ‘We will have the items mentioned therein ready for you if you will please let us know when you wish to enter the house.’ He also described the furniture. [11] Woolcott accepted by telegram on 14 May ‘subject to confirmation that items listed end 2nd paragraph my letter 3rd May will be available as well as some crockery pleased to take house at £50 from 7th June’. [12]

Eleven days passed whereupon Woolcott telegraphically requested confirmation. [13] Eybers replied by telegram on 28 May: “Hereby confirm arrangements to let house for six months and supply items as per my letter ninth May also crockery usual lease conditions best regards”.

Woolcott rejects the House

Presumably because he had second thoughts, Woolcott had a third party inspect the house on his behalf on 28 May who reported unfavourably. Woolcott and his family arrived from Cape Town on 8 June and he and his wife completed their own inspection of it two days later, deciding that they would not take it. They notified Eybers accordingly by telephone on 11 June, Woolcott’s twenty-ninth birthday.

Eybers suggested later that the Woolcotts found the two-storey house, which was larger than they had expected, unsuitable because of Mrs Woolcott’s advanced pregnancy [15] – Woolcott told him in June that his wife was to due to give birth ‘within six weeks’.[16] His reasons for rejecting the house do not emerge clearly from the available documentation.

At this remove, however, his reasons as well as the facts of the case are of less interest than the attitude of the South African department of external affairs. More than three years passed from the day Woolcott rejected the house until the date of the last item on file – 24 August 1959 – a letter from the chief of protocol advising Eybers that because he was about to depart for that year’s United Nations General Assembly session Eric Louw, the minister of external affairs, could not receive him but that Gerhardt Jooste, the secretary for external affairs, was prepared to do so. [17]

Between those markers Eybers – perhaps because, as he said, his income was dependent on letting the house – relentlessly sought to extract from Woolcott, who left South Africa permanently on 20 January 1957, [18] compensation for what he alleged was breach of contract. From his side Woolcott equally relentlessly denied the existence of a contract, citing in support of that contention an opinion he had obtained from a Pretoria firm of attorneys. [19]

The Landlord’s pressure

Aware of Woolcott’s diplomatic status, Eybers put pressure on the department of external affairs to obtain satisfaction for him. In November 1956, presumably in order to cover itself, the department referred the matter to the department of justice: ‘As Mr. Woolcott enjoys diplomatic immunity he of course cannot be summoned to court. The Department would nevertheless be glad if the Law Advisers could give an opinion whether Dr. Eybers would, in the absence of immunity of the other party, have had a case for damages and if so, to what extent.’ [20] Robert Jones, an assistant secretary, signed the letter.

The legal advisers passed Jones’s query to the state attorney’s office which informed external affairs on 20 December 1956 that the parties had indeed ‘concluded a legal and binding lease as from the 7th June at a rental of 50 pounds per month’ and expressing the opinion that Eybers was entitled to £100 damages for ‘breach of contract’. [21] Eleven days later, on the last day of the year, the chief of protocol, N.J.J. Jooste, met with Hugh Gilchrist, Woolcott’s superior in the high commission. Jooste’s note on the conversation had Gilchrist saying he would advise Woolcott to send Eybers ‘a cheque before his departure’. [22]

On the basis of what Gilchrist reported to him about this conversation, Woolcott accused the department of ‘complete acceptance of Dr Eybers’ position’. [23] That may have been why, two years later, the state attorney’s office to whom the protocol section had sent Woolcott’s aide memoire, [24] hedged its bets. It said that while there had been a binding contract, Woolcott would have been able to withdraw from it if the quality of the furniture and the modernity of the house were not as they had been represented. That a third person had inspected the house on his behalf and had rejected it and the furniture supported Woolcott’s objections on these points and created the impression that his withdrawal was justified. [25]

Legal Situation

The South African Diplomatic Privileges Act, No. 71 or 1951, provided that an exempt person could not escape liability ‘in connection with any transaction entered into by him in his private and personal capacity’ (Section 3 (1)). Was this a transaction in Woolcott’s private and personal capacity? He had protested to Eybers for having approached his high commissioner, W.R. Hodgson, direct, telling him that it was ‘a personal matter between ourselves’. [26] And W.C. Naude, the deputy secretary for external affairs, collaborated with the chief of protocol, J.C.H. Maree, in May 1959 in drafting a letter to Eybers which incorporated the sentence: ‘I may mention further that the transaction between you and Mr Woolcott was a private one, and that this department only intervenes in such cases when it appears that the normal judicial processes are not available to the claimant’. [27]

Eybers was naturally free, Naude said, to approach Woolcott directly. (He was then two months from departing Canberra for the Soviet Union.) [28] In any case the ‘usual channels are open to you, through which your attorneys, if you so prefer, could take the matter further’, a suggestion Eybers not unreasonably dismissed out of hand. [29] It is, perhaps, in retrospect a pity no one thought to test whether what the department of external affairs considered to be a ‘private’ and Woolcott a ‘personal’, transaction in fact fell within the scope of the Act.


One has the strong impression that the department found this dispute embarrassing and wanted to restrict its involvement in it to the minimum. Either that or its behaviour bordered on incompetence. It was all very well for Jones to say ‘As Mr. Woolcott enjoys diplomatic immunity he of course cannot be summoned to court’. Jones would have known that sending governments can and do lift the immunity of their diplomatic representatives to allow suit to be brought against them. Diplomatic immunity is not immutable; indeed, the Act provided for its waiver. It would have been easy enough for the department to instruct its high commission in Canberra to ask the Australian authorities whether they would be prepared to suspend Woolcott’s immunity.

Eybers was never advised that was an option and it was an angle he didn’t know enough about to explore. Instead of briefing lawyers, he himself put his case to the department which had a vested interest in seeing it die. It was easy to put him down. He suspected as much, writing in 1959 that he could not understand ‘why your Department wants summarily to dispose of the matter and render me absolutely no further assistance’. Clearly Eric Louw, who wrote his Australian counterpart, Richard Casey, annual letters of thanks for the Australian delegation’s support on the South African items at the UN General Assembly, would not want a civil action brought against an Australian diplomat in a South African court with the attendant, and presumably negative, publicity in Australia. This was a time when the South African government considered the Australian government to be its ‘best friend’. [30] (The feeling was never reciprocated).

The Woolcott/Eybers affair points to the difficulty of hiring accommodation sight unseen besides serving as a practical example of diplomatic immunity at work albeit distorted by political considerations on the part of the host government. It is also indicative of the fact that foreign service is perhaps the only career where quite junior officers associate on a footing of equality with leading citizens of the countries where they are stationed. Here was a twenty-nine year old junior Australian public servant rejecting a house which was thereupon taken by the chairman of the public service commission.

Another point to emerge indirectly from the affair is that the easy flow of correspondence between Pretoria and Cape Town by means of public mails suggests that the service was better in 1956 than it is today. The same applies to overseas airmail. ‘Canberra is one of the least accessible places where the Union enjoys diplomatic representation’, wrote E.M. Rhoodie, the information attaché in South Africa’s Canberra high commission, in January 1959. ‘Airmail letters from South Africa take up to ten days.’ [31] They take longer now. Thus history is not necessarily the story of either liberty or progress.

*  *  *  *  *

David Tothill had three ambassadorial posts during his thirty-seven year career with the South African foreign service – Australia (1988- 92), Argentina (1980-84), and the European Office of the United Nations (1975-80). He retired in 1996. He holds the degrees BA (Hons) from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, and MA (cum laude) and DLitt et Phil from the University of South Africa, all in history. In 1998 he was a Harold White Fellow at the National Library of Australia.


1.B. Juddery, At the Centre: The Australian Bureaucracy in the 1970s, Melbourne, 1974, p. 105. Woolcott denies playing the politician. Personal communication, 17 January 1995. Juddery seems to have meant that he had good political nous.

2.Juddery, At the Centre, p. 94.

3.’Farewell to Dick Woolcott: Speech by Senator Gareth Evans, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, to Retirement Dinner, Parliament House, Canberra, 26 February 1992′, p. 3.

4.Vladimir Petrov was a colonel in the Soviet intelligence service and a member of the Soviet embassy in Canberra. He and his wife Evdokia defected to Australia in April 1954. See R. Manne, The Petrov affair: politics and espionage. Sydney, 1987.

5.National Archive of Australia (NAA), A1838/1, 1348/5, Commonwealth of Australia, Department of External Affairs, Post Report: South Africa (Pretoria and Cape Town) February, 1959, p. 4.

6.NAA, A1838/1, 1348/5, ‘Australian High Commissioner’s Office in the Union of South Africa, Report on Post Conditions’, 18 May 1951, p. 6, para. 17.

7.Ibid., Commonwealth of Australia, Department of External Affairs, Post Report: South Africa (Pretoria and Cape Town) February, 1959, p. 3.

8. Archives, Pretoria (CAP), BTS, 130/10, Vol. 2, Eybers/Chief of Protocol, 12 October 1956.

9.CAP, BTS, 90/6/25, Vol. 1, Eybers/secretary for external affairs (sea), 21 April 1959, pp. 3-4.

10.Ibid., Woolcott/Eybers, 11 July 1956, p. 2.

11.Ibid., Eybers/Woolcott, 9 May 1956.

12.Ibid., Woolcott/Eybers, 15 May 1956. (Telegram.)

13.Ibid., Woolcott/Eybers, 25 May 1956. (Telegram.)

14.Ibid., Eybers/Woolcott, 28 May 1956. (Telegram.)

15.Ibid., Eybers/sea, 21 April 1959. She was pregnant with her second child. CAP, BTS, 130/10, Vol. 2, Woolcott/Eybers, 11 July 1956.

16.CAP, BTS, 130/10, Vol. 2, 25 June 1956.

17.CAP, BTS, 90/6/25, Vol. 1, Maree/Eybers, 24 August 1959.

18.CAP, BTS, 130/10, Vol. 2, Hodgson/department of external affairs, 13 November 1956. He would have taken leave after arriving in Australia because he got to Canberra only at the beginning of March. The Canberra Times, 6 March 1957. (Canberra Diary.)

19.CAP, BTS, 130/10, Vol. 2, Hazelhurst, Galgut & Courtis/Woolcott, 31 July 1956.

20.Ibid., Jones/Secretary for Justice, 3 November 1956.

21.Ibid., State Attorney/sea, 20 December 1956. (Translation.)

22.Ibid., Handwritten note initialled NJJ, 31 December 1956.

23.Ibid., Aide Memoire for the Chef de Protocol, 15 January 1957, p. 2, para. i.

24.Ibid., Best/State Attorney, 28 January 1957.

25.CAP, BTS, 90/6/25, Vol. 1, State Attorney/Department of External Affairs, 6 November 1958.

26.CAP, BTS, 130/10, Vol. 2, Woolcott/Eybers, 25 June 1956.

27.CAP, BTS, 90/6/25, Vol. 1, Naude/Eybers, 23 May 1959. (Translation.)

28.He arrived in Moscow on 22 July 1959. The Canberra Times, 23 July 1959.

29.CAP, BTS, 90/6/25, Vol. 1, Eybers/sea, 6 August 1959.

30.See, e.g., CAP, BTS, 4/2/32, Vol. 2, Uys/sea, 7 July 1954. (Translation).

31.South African Panorama, January 1959, p. 7.

Leicester University | Politics Department | CSD
Last updated: 28 October 1999

1 Response

  1. Desiree Vorster says:

    Dear Mr. Tothill

    Your article is of great interest to me as I am currently in a similar position where I rented my apartment in Pretoria to a french diplomat for 3 years and after 11 months he is breaching contract due to the hight rental he agreed to. His lawyer, Paul School is writing his letters claiming total immunity. I am now approaching a lawyer but too but am afraid that I will not get far and it is costing me money I dont have. (His rental is/was my only source of income). The french man did not respond to the letter of demand and summons is to be issued this Thursday, 2 July 2009

    I have not approached the Ambassador yet and after contacting the Deparatment of Foreign Affairs, they just sent an email suggesting I get a lawyer. No more, no less.

    Do you have any advice or know of a lawyer who has won such cases before?

    I would welcome a response whole heartedly.

    Brian writes: I am passing your message to Mr Tothill, but I’m afraid that this is not an advice column and I doubt whether he will be able to help you. The only suggestion I can offer is that you might write to the ambassador to say that if your tenant continues to default on his obligations to you by sheltering behind his diplomatic immunity, and if the ambassador is not willing to waive this French diplomat’s immunity so that the matter can be resolved fairly in court, you will be obliged to seek publicity for the whole affair in the Pretoria media as a warning to South Africans not to let their property to French diplomats in future. But you should probably consult your lawyer before you write to the ambassador in those terms. (Alternatively your lawyer could write the letter.)

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