Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Champion, Herbert William (1880–1972)

by Ian Stuart

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Herbert William Champion (1880-1972), public servant, was born on 8 August 1880 at Kaiapoi, South Island, New Zealand, son of Charles James Champion, accountant, and his wife Frances Mary, née Stringer. Educated in Christchurch, possibly at Canterbury College, he left home for Sydney about 1897 following a family crisis. He found employment with Burns, Philp & Co. who sent him in 1898 to their store in Port Moresby, British New Guinea. The lieutenant-governor, George Le Hunte, brought him into the public service as assistant government storeman.

When the royal commission on the government of Papua arrived in 1906 Champion was chief clerk in the Treasury. Partly because of a feud with (Sir) Hubert Murray, David Ballantine was dismissed from the service and Champion was made treasurer in his place. His resentment at what he saw as the ruthless disposal of Ballantine did not affect his official loyalty to Murray when he become lieutenant-governor. Murray trusted him absolutely and in 1913 recommended his appointment as government secretary.

Partially deaf from about 1904, Champion was at a serious disadvantage between the erudite Murray and the ebullient M. Staniforth Smith, but he became known for his quiet efficiency. As the chief executive officer he had to devise many of the improvisations demanded by a meagre budget. During World War I, in addition to his normal duties, he acted at times as commissioner of lands, registrar of titles and public curator. He also undertook, partly for recreation, the management of parks and gardens and personally planted and tended many trees which remain an important scenic feature of the city. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1934.

Champion was respected and trusted by the residents of Port Moresby, and he was often embarrassed when individuals sought his help and advice in matters where a conflict of interest could arise between his official position and personal concern. Despite the traditional antipathy between public and private sectors, his friends included both fellow government officers and members of the commercial community. He belonged to and was twice elected president of the Papua Club, the meeting-place of leading businessmen and planters. As chief of the public service he was noted for impartiality in his dealings with subordinates. He found a position in the service for his step-son on the grounds that he was a returned serviceman and thus eligible for preferential treatment but, conscious of possible charges of nepotism, rejected his own sons' applications for government appointments. They were not employed until the lieutenant-governor himself had intervened on their behalf. Champion then scrupulously avoided showing any special treatment towards them.

For nine months after Murray's death in February 1940, Champion acted as lieutenant-governor and was bitterly disappointed when the permanent office went to Leonard Murray. He wished to resign but was prevailed upon to stay. However, both men were virtually deported when a military government was proclaimed on 14 February 1942. Champion said later that he had arrived in Port Moresby with one suitcase and had left with one suitcase forty-four years later. He had collected a fine library in this time and carried out private research on the history of Papuan nomenclature, but all his books and notes were lost during the war. The humiliating end to a career, which he sometimes called 'a long nightmare', encouraged him to forget Papua during his retirement at Chatswood, New South Wales.

In 1902 at Port Moresby, Champion had married Florence (d.1924), née Foran, widow of H. N. Chester. All three sons of the marriage joined the Papuan service and two of them won distinction as explorers. In 1926 Champion married Haidee Wallace. She survived him with their two daughters when he died on 12 May 1972; he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, New Guinea (Syd, 1968)
  • F. West, Hubert Murray (Melb, 1968)
  • J. H. P. Murray, Selected Letters of Hubert Murray, F. West ed (Melb, 1970)
  • I. Stuart, Port Moresby, Yesterday and Today (Syd, 1970)
  • N. D. Oram, Colonial Town to Melanesian City (Canb, 1976)
  • Royal Commission into … Papua, Report, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1907).

Citation details

Ian Stuart, 'Champion, Herbert William (1880–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/champion-herbert-william-5549/text9459, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 October 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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