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Wheatley, Frederick William (1871–1955)

by Robert Hyslop

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Frederick William Wheatley (1871-1955), headmaster and cryptographer, was born on 7 June 1871 at Kapunda, South Australia, son of James Edward Wheatley, music teacher, and his wife Wilhelmina Magdalena, née Basedow. Educated at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, in 1890 Frederick joined the teaching staff of Way College. On 28 June 1898 at St Peter's Anglican Church, Glenelg, he married Alice Ruth Kimber; they were to have three children. He taught at Prince Alfred College from 1901, studied at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1904), then transferred to King's College, Goulburn, New South Wales, in 1905. Appointed headmaster of Rockhampton Grammar School next year, he resigned in 1911 after clashing with the school board. Meanwhile he had become a captain (1908) in the Senior Cadets and had begun an association with the proposed Royal Australian Naval College, helping to draft the academic syllabus and college regulations.

Enrolling at Lincoln College, Oxford, Wheatley studied the ionization of gases and graduated B.Sc. in 1913; in that year the University of Adelaide awarded him a D.Sc. Before returning to Australia, he visited Germany where he improved his knowledge of the language and, by his own account, had conversations with Admiral von Tirpitz and General von Hindenburg. Appointed senior naval instructor on 6 February 1914, he joined the R.A.N.C. at Osborne House, Geelong, Victoria, to teach mathematics and physics. On the outbreak of World War I he was seconded to Navy Office, Melbourne, to work with Captain W. H. C. Thring and was placed in charge of intercepted enemy radio messages. With the aid of a captured code-book, he discovered the cypher key used to encrypt messages sent by Vice Admiral Graf von Spee's Pacific Squadron. Wheatley's brilliant work earned him the thanks of the Admiralty: the intelligence he supplied may have validated the decision to position the Royal Navy's superior forces which destroyed von Spee's ships in the battle of the Falkland Islands in December. He was later to exaggerate the impact of his code-breaking on the battle's outcome.

In 1915 Wheatley returned to the R.A.N.C. which, during his absence, had been relocated at Jervis Bay, New South Wales (later Australian Capital Territory). He became headmaster in 1920, the year when the academic staff were reclassified as civil officers. Throughout his tenure the college suffered from its geographical isolation and faced threat of closure. These problems may have cramped Wheatley's intellectual capacity and contributed to his sensitivity to real or imagined slights. While a difficult colleague, he was a proficient educationist and gained the affection of the cadets among whom he was known as 'Pa'. Bespectacled, with blue eyes and curly hair, he was an imposing figure, despite being only 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall. He left the R.A.N.C. in 1930 when it was transferred to Flinders Naval Depot, Victoria, taking with him the appreciation of the Naval Board for his 'conspicuous success' in educating cadets to standards which enabled them as officers to take high places in examinations during subsequent training with the R.N.

From January 1931 to February 1932 Wheatley was director of studies at the Cranbrook School, Sydney. Appointed C.B.E. in 1932, in his retirement he was an office-bearer in the Royal Empire Society. Survived by a son and daughter, he died on 14 November 1955 at Cremorne and was cremated. His son Ross served in the Royal Australian Navy in 1914-53 and held the rank of acting captain.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Eldridge, A History of the Royal Australian Naval College (Melb, 1949)
  • P. Beesly, Room 40 (Lond, 1982)
  • T. A. Clinch, The History of the Rockhampton Grammar School, Centenary 1881-1980 (Rockhampton, 1982)
  • I. Cunningham, Work Hard, Play Hard (Canb, 1988)
  • Cranbrookian, 11, no 1, Aug 1930, no 3, May 1931
  • Reveille (Sydney), July 1932, June 1934
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 May, 20 Sept 1930, 31 Jan 1931, 3 June 1932, 6 Sept 1934, 4 Feb, 24 May 1938, 15 May 1940, 13 June 1947, 12 Aug 1949, 7 Feb 1952
  • Cranbrook School Council minutes
  • Royal Australian Naval College records
  • Navy Office records (National Archives of Australia)
  • records (Australian War Memorial)
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Hyslop, 'Wheatley, Frederick William (1871–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/wheatley-frederick-william-9059/text15965, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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