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Fyfe, Wallace Vernon (1894–1982)

by Christopher Fyfe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Wallace Vernon Fyfe (1894-1982), surveyor-general, was born on 7 April 1894 in South Melbourne, second of four children of Victorian-born parents Alexander Parker Fyfe, clerk, and his wife Marion, née Howard. In 1897 Vernon moved with his family to Western Australia, first to Coolgardie, then in 1900 to Kalgoorlie, and later to Nannup in the southwest, where he completed his schooling. At 14 he started work in a local store. In 1909 he joined a party surveying a timber-mill railway line and next year was apprenticed to the surveyor Marmaduke Terry, studying for his preliminary examinations by correspondence.

On 18 July 1916 Fyfe enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He attended the Engineer Officers’ Training School, Roseville, Sydney. At St Mary’s Church of England, Busselton, Western Australia, on 19 December 1917 he married Venetia Thompson (d.1977). He sailed for Britain in May 1918, served briefly in France after the Armistice and completed a course at the AIF Survey School, Southampton, England, before being discharged in Perth on 5 September 1919. On 21 October he was registered as a licensed surveyor. Following a brief period of contract surveying in the agricultural districts, in 1921 he joined the Commonwealth Department of the Treasury as a junior land valuer in the Commonwealth-State taxation branch, Perth. In 1926 he was promoted to senior valuer. He studied accountancy, becoming an associate in 1934 and later a fellow of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants.

In 1938 Fyfe transferred briefly to the Treasury, Canberra, as secretary of the new national insurance branch. Appointed surveyor-general of Western Australia on 24 October, he returned to Perth. In 1940, as royal commissioner, he investigated the financial and economic position of the pastoral industry in the leasehold areas of the State. He conducted an Australia-wide survey of land laws, tenures and valuation systems for the Commonwealth Rural Reconstruction Commission in 1944, and updated it with a supplementary report in 1948.

Fyfe had become director of land settlement in Western Australia in 1945. His administration of the War Service Land Settlement Scheme was criticised by a 1948 committee of inquiry; he was removed from his post but was immediately reappointed surveyor-general. Over the next eleven years he encouraged the development of aerial mapping and geodetic surveying, and oversaw a comprehensive survey of the northern Kimberley area and an assessment of land potential in the low-rainfall lands to the south-east. Meticulous and practical, he earned a reputation for completing tasks on time. His staff found him approachable; he often greeted new surveying cadets with an outstretched hand, saying, `My name’s Fyfe—what’s yours?’ He joined in staff socials, nursing a soft drink as he was a lifelong teetotaller.

During the course of his career, Fyfe was chairman of numerous State bodies including the Select Committee of Advice on Manpower (1939-45); Soil Conservation Committee (1939­45); Land Purchase Board (1938-48); Land Settlement Board (1948-56); and Pastoral Industry Debt Adjustment Committee (1941-48). Active in the Institution of Surveyors, Australia, Western Australian Division (fellow 1932; life fellow 1975), he served as president in 1935-38 and helped to establish a memorial to the explorer Alfred Canning. He was a founding board-member (1931) and president (1937-38) of the Western Australian division of the Commonwealth Institute of Valuers. State representative on the National Mapping Council (1945-46, 1948-59), in 1951 he became the first patron of the newly formed Australian Institute of Cartographers (Western Australia).

Fyfe retired on 7 April 1959. Next day his successor commissioned him to conduct a topographical survey and classification of a vast area of country between the Trans-Australian railway and the coast from Balladonia to the South Australian border. He then established himself in a surveying practice. His services to the surveying profession were recognised in 1969 with the naming of Fyfe Hills in Antarctica. Within the community Fyfe held responsibilities in many organisations. He was chairman (1961-66) of the Metropolitan Valuation Appeal Court; a director (1961-73) of the Perth real estate firm Peet & Co. Ltd; president (1967-69) of the Royal Automobile Club of Western Australia; chairman (1972-74) of RAC Insurance Pty Ltd; a State vice-president (1969-70) of the Girl Guides Association of Western Australia; consultant surveyor to the Western Australian Trotting Association; patron (1974-77) of the Trigg Island Surf Life Saving Club; and chairman of the King’s Park Honour Avenue maintenance committee.

Five ft 11 ins (180 cm) tall, with a ramrod-straight back, Fyfe had a commanding stature, a pronounced jaw and an unflinching gaze. He had been a keen rower and, in the 1920s, club champion, captain and president of the Mount Lawley Tennis Club. Forthright, loyal and trustworthy, Fyfe rarely displayed any emotion either in his professional life or at home. He had a remarkable memory for names and details but never voiced an opinion on politics. Survived by his two daughters, he died on 17 January 1982 at Nedlands and was cremated. His unpublished memoir, `Reminiscences of a Surveyor’, edited by Christopher Fyfe, is held by the State Library of Western Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • Road Patrol, June 1974, p 19
  • West Australian, 23 Jan 1982, p 33
  • Eyepiece, Apr 1982, p 1
  • Australian Surveyor, Dec 1982, p 284
  • C. Jeffery, interview with W. V. Fyfe (typescript, 1978-79, State Library of Western Australia)
  • Fyfe papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Christopher Fyfe, 'Fyfe, Wallace Vernon (1894–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fyfe-wallace-vernon-12519/text22527, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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