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Lucas, Walter Henry (1869–1954)

by Margaret Steven

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Walter Henry Lucas (1869-1954), Pacific entrepreneur, was born on 15 March 1869 at Wanstead, Essex, England, son of James Roach Lucas, police sergeant, and his wife Eliza Jane, née Ogle. Little is known of his early years but he went to sea and by 1891 was purser of the Australasian United Steam Navigation Co.'s S.S. Palmer. At Townsville, Queensland, on 1 June 1891 he married Margaret Marianne Smith of Fife, Scotland. In 1893 he joined the Australasian New Hebrides Co. as supercargo in the antiquated S.S. Croydon to compete with the French in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) copra trade, which provided him with serviceable yarns and a baptism in ruthlessness. Before the A.N.H. Co. was formally taken over by Burns, Philp & Co. Ltd, in 1896 Lucas joined the S.S. Titus with the task of opening up a regular Australian shipping service to the Solomon Islands and Papua. This challenge to the German Norddeutscher Lloyd Co. depended on a system of standard freight rates that provoked German retaliation in a contract system that excluded the Australian company in 1905.

Manifestly shrewd and inventive in the volatile mercantile rivalry of the Pacific, Lucas, after a period as ship's husband, returned to Sydney in 1901 as Burns Philp's island manager. He brought with him a petition from the white residents of the New Hebrides to be allowed to recruit their own labour and was a member of the deputation that presented it to Prime Minister Barton. Beginning a strong rapport with Atlee Hunt Lucas negotiated a Commonwealth-subsidized mail contract for Burns Philp in 1902, renewed in 1907, offering company land in the New Hebrides to the government to promote settlement there and counter French influence. It was Lucas who selected and escorted the first Australian settlers, accompanied by A. B. Paterson who helped him personally to survey their leases. With Burns Philp seeking an indemnity from the German-owned Jaluit Gesellschaft in 1905, Lucas carried their flag back to the Marshall Islands.

The lanky and generally popular Lucas employed his acute diplomatic instincts in government interests as well as in the service of his firm. When the repatriation of Pacific islanders was decided on in 1906 Atlee Hunt left the operation to Lucas. In 1910 he argued a cogent case to Hunt for the separation of the offices of governor of Fiji and high commissioner for the Western Pacific and for the location of the latter in Australia. A persistent advocate of the monopolistic development of the Pacific with Australian capital, between 1908 and 1911 he organized copra plantation companies in the Solomons of which he was a director and shareholding managing agent.

In 1911-20 as island inspector, the lugubrious-looking troubleshooter, his long-nosed face burdened by a heavy moustache, supervised Burns Philp trade, philosophically accepting recurring attacks of malaria. During the Morocco crisis of 1911 he tinkered with the idea of putting pressure on the French to cede the New Hebrides. In 1912 Burns Philp was appointed Australian agent of the British government for the Solomon Islands; its other agencies, including the Western Pacific High Commission and the government of Tonga, were personally supervised by Lucas. When German New Guinea was surrendered in 1914 Lucas, already in the islands, immediately resumed the trading interrupted in 1905. He gave evidence to the Inter-State Commission in 1916 on shipping, and in August 1919, with Atlee Hunt and (Sir) Hubert Murray, he was a member of a royal commission considering the future government of ex-German New Guinea. In a majority report Hunt and Lucas opposed several of Murray's recommendations, including the amalgamation of mandated New Guinea and Papua.

In May 1920 W. M. Hughes appointed Lucas technical adviser to the government on Pacific islands matters. In January 1921 he was appointed chairman of the Expropriation Board, instituted to liquidate German commercial interests under the reparations provisions of the Treaty of Versailles. Arriving in Rabaul with accountants and plantation supervisors, mostly ex-servicemen, the chairman was hailed as 'Lucas and his Twelve Apostles'. The board, with powers wider than the military or civil administration, managed the assets of German trading companies, including some 300 plantations, examined German claims against the occupation and arranged German repatriation.

Lucas resigned in 1926 and returned to live in Sydney as a company director. He died on 12 June 1954 at Canberra Hospital and was cremated. One son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. West, Hubert Murray (Melb, 1968)
  • K. Buckley and K. Klugman, The History of Burns Philp (Syd, 1981)
  • Pacific Island Monthly, May, July 1954, Jan 1961
  • Australasian, 29 May 1920
  • Punch (Melbourne) 3 June 1920
  • Western Argus, 1 Mar 1921
  • Bulletin, 6 Nov 1929, 30 June 1954
  • Atlee Hunt papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Margaret Steven, 'Lucas, Walter Henry (1869–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lucas-walter-henry-7258/text12577, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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