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Fitch, Algernon Sydney (1881–1972)

by D. C. Lewis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Algernon Sydney Fitch (1881-1972), shipmaster and businessman, was born on 30 January 1881 in London, son of Dr Robert Owen Fitch, chemist, and his wife Jemima Susannah, née London. Indentured as a cadet on a windjammer, he served on a hospital ship in the South African War before joining the Hooghly Pilot Service at Calcutta. In 1914 he settled at Bagdad, Tasmania, as an apple-orchardist. Despite three years in the Royal Naval Reserve, he joined the Australian Imperial Force in October 1916, but was discharged as medically unfit the following April.

As a member of a syndicate salvaging a wreck off King Island in Bass Strait, he became master of its elderly steamer, Queenscliffe, in 1919. When the wreck proved beyond recovery the syndicate, now styled Steamships Pty Ltd, permitted Fitch to take his ship to Papua where a war-created shipping shortage might make her profitable. Because of his perseverance in an unpromising trade and his skill in navigating hazardous waters, the company began a regular shipping service along the south coast. A store, mainly for urban Papuans, was soon opened in Port Moresby; it was expanded in 1925 and a branch was opened at Samarai in 1927.

When Fitch arrived in Papua the planting and business community was violently hostile to the pro-Papuan policy of (Sir) Hubert Murray. In April 1920 Fitch alleged in the Sydney Morning Herald that the Catholic Murray had favoured the Catholic mission by exempting its imports from duty. After chairing a meeting of a Citizens' Association on 28 September, he cabled to the King suggesting that white settlers in Papua might rebel. His cable was repudiated by most of the dissidents and was ridiculed by Murray's supporters.

Shunned by the élite in the Papua Club because of his connexion with the 'native' trade, he abandoned politics henceforth, stuck to business and prospered. By the late 1930s his Steamships Trading Co. (renamed in 1924) had become second in Papua only to Burns Philp Ltd in trading and to the British New Guinea Development Co. in plantations. The Depression ruined most planters and the company was able to pick up cheaply several largely developed estates. It established subsidiaries including the Coral Sea Insurance Co. Ltd (1924), and in 1937-38 two very profitable rubber companies.

Fitch was evacuated in 1942 with other civilians in the face of the Japanese advance in New Guinea. With the formation of the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit, he was permitted to return to Papua to keep his company's rubber plantations in production. Trading in the company's stores started again in November 1945. War damage compensation payments and a new share issue in 1946 facilitated a quick recovery and in November that year Fitch was able to retire.

Bluff, hard-working and pragmatic, Fitch attracted the loyalty of subordinates. After the missions, he was the first employer to appoint Papuans as masters on his coastal boats. He lived his long retirement at Kirribilli, Sydney, gambled on the stock exchange, travelled overseas and joined both the Royal Automobile Club and the Royal Sydney Yacht Squadron. He died in Sydney on 30 May 1972 and was cremated.

His first wife was a divorcee Jessie Elaine Goodeve, née Crovett, whom he had married in Sydney on 27 May 1930. On 4 July 1951 he married another divorcee Celia Josephine Smith, née McKenzie. Both marriages were civil ceremonies and were childless but there was a stepchild in each. His estate was valued for probate at $271,177.

Select Bibliography

  • F. West, Hubert Murray (Melb, 1968)
  • Second Waigani Seminar, The History of Melanesia (Canb and Port Moresby, 1968)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, July 1972
  • Papuan Courier, 1, 8, 15 Oct 1920
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Apr 1920.

Citation details

D. C. Lewis, 'Fitch, Algernon Sydney (1881–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fitch-algernon-sydney-6178/text10619, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 19 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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