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Fenbury, David Maxwell (1916–1976)

by Ian Downs

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

David Maxwell Fenbury (1916-1976), public servant, was born on 24 March 1916 at Subiaco, Perth, third child of David Percival Fienberg, railway official, and his wife Beatrice Amelia, née Conroy, both Australian born. David was to register his change of name to Fenbury by deed poll in 1960. After attending the Christian Brothers' Aquinas College, he entered the University of Western Australia (B.A., 1937) where he edited (1936-37) the Pelican. On 28 September 1937 he was appointed a cadet patrol officer in the Australian administration of the mandated Territory of New Guinea. From his posts in New Britain and the Aitape sub-district, he wrote reports and observations that revealed a wider outlook than was generally expected from a junior officer.

Granted leave to enlist, on 29 October 1941 Fenbury joined the Australian Imperial Force; he was commissioned lieutenant in November 1942 and posted to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit. In 1942-45 he led soldiers and Papua New Guinea police on guerrilla operations, and reconnaissance and fighting patrols, in Japanese-held territory. He was promoted captain, awarded the Military Cross and mentioned in despatches. In 1946 he was seconded to the British Colonial Service with which he spent fourteen months, in East Africa and at the Colonial Office, London; he had first-hand experience of the Tanganyikan native authority system. After his A.I.F. appointment terminated on 3 June 1947, he was appointed to lecture at the Australian School of Pacific Administration, Sydney. On 15 May 1948 at St Mark's Anglican Church, East Brighton, Melbourne, he married Joan Marion Brazier (d.1964).

In 1949 Fenbury became senior native authorities officer in the Department of District Services and Native Affairs, responsible for introducing a native local government policy to the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. Basing himself at Rabaul, he created a model for the Australian administration of Papua New Guinea: his initial instructions to his officers encompassed a broad area of local government, including village courts, to prepare the people for self-government. He developed the Tolai Cocoa Project by using the political machinery of local government councils to finance and control economic development. Councils were also established at Hanuabada, Port Moresby, and on Baluan Island in the Manus group where the New Way cargo cult of Paliau Maloat was absorbed.

Fenbury's approach aroused opposition from the minister for territories (Sir) Paul Hasluck who advocated a policy of uniform political gradualism. Like many of the country's expatriates, Hasluck also opposed the proposal for local courts. In 1955 Fenbury was recalled to operate from Port Moresby. There was a rapid expansion of local government, but council activity was restricted to an Australian shire model that excluded local courts and economic development.

That year, having successfully appealed against the appointment of another officer, Fenbury was made a district commissioner with responsibility for policy and planning in the new Department of the Administrator. He found it difficult to accept the attitudes of those who did not share his sense of priorities. In 1956-58 he served as the Australian government's nominee (as area specialist) to the secretariat of the Trusteeship Council of the United Nations, New York. On his return, he was appointed executive-officer for district services in the Department of the Administrator and in 1962 was promoted to head the department. On 30 March 1966 he married Helen Mary Sheils in a civil ceremony in Port Moresby.

Openly critical of government policy and practice, particularly the rejection of local courts, Fenbury expressed his views in official submissions, in seminars and journal articles, and through pseudonymous contributions and letters to newspapers. In July 1969 he was surprised to learn that he had been removed from the politically sensitive headship of the Department of the Administrator and appointed secretary of the new Department of Social Development and Home Affairs, a position which he occupied until his retirement on 26 March 1973.

Fenbury had the rare ability to inspire fresh ideas and the administrative competence to carry them out. His certainty in the correctness of his judgement made it difficult for him to compromise with those in high places who did not share his vision. His contribution to the Australian trusteeship of Papua New Guinea was immense. In 1974 he accepted a visiting fellowship at the Australian National University, Canberra, where he began work on his book, Practice without Policy (1978). He died on 14 May 1976 from injuries received when he was hit by a bus at Leederville, Perth, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. His wife, and the son and daughter of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, A Time for Building (Melb, 1976)
  • I. Downs, The Australian Trusteeship Papua New Guinea 1945-75 (Canb, 1980)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, July 1976
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Aug 1971, 18 May 1976
  • Post-Courier, 16 Jan, 26-28 Mar 1973, 17 May 1976
  • West Australian, 17 May 1976
  • Fenbury papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ian Downs, 'Fenbury, David Maxwell (1916–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fenbury-david-maxwell-10164/text17955, published in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 21 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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