Frederick Widdowson Doidge was born at Cootamundra, New South Wales, on 26 February 1884, the son of Edwin Doidge and his wife, Mary Lucy Chilcott. His father had been a journalist in Thames, New Zealand, before becoming proprietor of the Cootamundra Liberal newspaper. Educated to primary school level, Doidge learnt the journalist’s craft under his father. He sailed for New Zealand in November 1902, but his ship, the Elingamite, was wrecked on the Three Kings Islands, and he was forced to spend two days in an open boat.
Doidge worked as a newspaperman on the Pātea Country Press. Thereafter his rise was rapid: from shipping reporter on the Auckland Star to that paper’s representative in the parliamentary press gallery, and subsequently to chief reporter. In 1912 he helped form the New Zealand Journalists’ Association and became its first president.
Doidge married Lyle Eirene Clark at Auckland on 1 March 1909. Although childless, the marriage was a happy one, Eirene proving a warm, polished and presentable hostess as Doidge subsequently moved among politicians, bucolic electors and business tycoons.
Failing to obtain the post of New Zealand official war correspondent in 1915, Doidge underwent an operation for a double hernia to facilitate his enlistment in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force on 2 May 1916. He had concealed a bout of tuberculosis which followed his shipwreck. Doidge was tall and thin, of dark complexion and hair, and had deep-set blue eyes. As a corporal in the Auckland Infantry Regiment he served in France between August 1917 and March 1918. His journalistic skills were employed at Divisional Headquarters during the Passchendaele (Passendale) offensive and the harsh winter that followed. For three weeks in March–April he was a patient at No 2 New Zealand General Hospital, Walton-on-Thames, suffering from a recurrence of his pre-war complaints.
Before his discharge on 24 August 1918, Doidge was seconded to the British Ministry of Information under the Canadian millionaire adventurer and entrepreneur Lord Beaverbrook. Employed after the war by Beaverbrook’s newspaper group, Doidge proved a skilled business executive, becoming a director in 1928 and, in 1934, manager of Lane Publications, the group’s book department.
Doidge was one of Beaverbrook’s talented young men who made the Daily Express, Sunday Express and Evening Standard newspapers such great successes in terms of circulation and clever and appealing journalism. He recruited both David Low and Arnold Bennett and was labelled by his master as ‘The Man who got the Million [readers]’. The relationship was cemented by Beaverbrook’s 1931 Empire Free Trade crusade, which aimed to make the British Empire a tariff-free union; Beaverbrook provided the fervour and Doidge the organising skills. Although the campaign failed, Doidge’s role was a critical one and gave him a real taste of practical politics. He never lost his faith in full protection for British industry and agriculture, and free trade between Britain and the empire.
Financially secure but physically exhausted, Doidge returned to New Zealand in May 1935. He immediately plunged into political life, flirting with the Democrat Party before standing unsuccessfully as an Independent for Rotorua and for the New Zealand National Party in Manukau in 1936. He successfully contested Tauranga for the National Party in 1938. Doidge’s major policy was an antipodean version of Empire Free Trade. There could, he stated, ‘be no return to prosperity in New Zealand until we [achieve] a sheltered market in Britain for our primary products’. Vehemently opposed to the New Zealand Labour Party’s plans to reinflate the economy, control credit, support secondary industry and embark on ‘radical socialist policies’, Doidge also rejected the Locarno treaties, which guaranteed European frontiers, and collective security, pleading for a return to Britain’s ‘splendid isolation’ from Europe in combination with the United States. At the time a supporter of the Munich Agreement and appeasement of the Axis powers, Doidge also stated that if war did come ‘this Dominion would contribute its last shilling, and its last man to the defence of the Motherland’. Unbeknown to the public, Doidge’s political activities were subsidised by Beaverbrook to the tune of several thousand pounds.
An advocate of a coalition government during the Second World War, in May 1940 Doidge demanded the internment of all aliens, the removal of labour barriers to production, the conscription of all men of military age and the sending of 200,000 troops to Britain. In 1943 he supported the Second New Zealand Division’s deployment in Europe rather than the Pacific: ‘What would our men think if they were not allowed to be in at the kill?’ In May 1945, while on a trip to Europe with the leader of the opposition, S. G. Holland, he visited the Belsen concentration camp, an experience that shook him to the core.
A first-rate phrase-maker and audacious debater, broadcaster and publicity director, Doidge was a great asset to the National Party but was frustrated in opposition until 1949. ‘Ambition’, he remarked, ‘is the greatest driving force in life’. He was made minister of external affairs and island territories in the Holland cabinet of 1949, whereupon he was faced with a complex series of situations: a peace settlement with Japan, the war in Korea, and the need for economic stability and progress in South East Asia. Arguing for a ‘soft’ peace with Japan, Doidge stated, ‘It is politically impracticable and militarily unacceptable to attempt to force permanent restrictions of a drastic nature on Japan’. He attended the meeting of Commonwealth foreign ministers in 1950 which discussed (what became) the Colombo Plan for economic aid to Asia, and represented New Zealand in the discussions that led to the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951. Although Doidge accepted the need to involve the United States in guaranteeing the security of New Zealand and Australia, he regretted the exclusion of Britain. Doidge was appointed high commissioner for New Zealand in the United Kingdom in 1951.
His three years in London were successful and personally gratifying. Doidge’s ‘bony nose, lean chin and warm grin of welcome’ beneath a large-domed balding head covered by a Homburg hat, his mouth supporting a cigarette in a long holder, denoted a warm and attractive personality whose keen humour was slyly droll. ‘He would find something good to say of the Devil himself – this generosity of spirit grew with the years.’ The twin summits of his career in London were the Coronation of Elizabeth II and the Commonwealth prime ministers’ conference. Renewing his contacts with Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and with Beaverbrook, he pressed the dual causes of New Zealand – British trade and the Commonwealth connection. He was appointed a KCMG in 1953.
Doidge died of cancer at his residence in London on 26 May 1954; he was survived by his wife. A memorial service was attended by Commonwealth and foreign dignitaries as well as a group of New Zealand farmers and their wives dressed in casual tweeds. His ashes were later interred at St Peter’s Anglican Church, Waihī Beach. He left about £80,000.
Frederick Doidge was sometimes seen as more English than an Englishman, his loyalty to the Crown ‘almost a religion’. He was one of the last of the ‘Empire Citizens’: although born in Australia and spending 30 years of his life in New Zealand, he regarded Britain as ‘Home’ and devoted his career to reviving the old imperial relationship. Although a success on a personal level, political, economic and strategic events increasingly rendered his vision irrelevant.