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Oxenham, Justinian (1860–1932)

by D. I. McDonald

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Justinian Oxenham (1860-1932), public servant, was born on 23 April 1860 at Warwick, Queensland, son of John Oxenham, solicitor, and his wife Marie Antoinette, née Ransley. Educated at Warwick State School and Brisbane Grammar School (1874-76), in 1878 he joined the Queensland Electric Telegraph Department as a telegraph learner, transferring to administration when it amalgamated with the Postal Department in 1880. On 13 April 1885 he married Annie Elizabeth Robinson in Brisbane. In November 1899 Oxenham was appointed clerk-in-charge, correspondence and record branch. When the department's functions were transferred to the Commonwealth in 1901, he was briefly private secretary to James Drake, postmaster-general, and later acting official secretary. His appointment in July as chief clerk under (Sir) Robert Scott reinforced suspicion of the 'Queensland influence' believed to be wielded in the department by Drake and Scott. In January 1907 Oxenham became the first assistant secretary of the Postmaster General's Department and in May 1911 was appointed secretary.

The establishment of a national postal and telegraphic service was resisted by former senior colonial officers and hampered by parliamentary reluctance to vote funds. Mismanagement exposed by the 1910 royal commission on postal services reflected these constraints and gave ammunition to critics prepared to see the department as 'a ridiculous travesty upon a public enterprise'. Scott was held responsible, Oxenham had the task of correcting defects. He had also to meet the additional demands caused by World War I. As permanent head he extended services, introduced modern technology, improved accommodation, organized regular conferences of senior officers, adopted new accounting procedures (for which he was later criticized) and encouraged junior staff to obtain appropriate technical and professional qualifications. He attended postal conferences in Rome (1906) and Madrid (1920) and negotiated the settlement of war-time accounts with the British government.

When the department was criticized by the 'Economy Commission' (1918-21), Oxenham attacked its proceedings as 'repugnant to all ordinary notions of justice and fair play' and the actions of its chairman, Sir Robert Gibson, as 'baseless and contemptible'. But the commission's reports led to further departmental review and sweeping reform. By then no longer receptive to innovations, Oxenham was persuaded to take early retirement in December 1923.

An outstanding Catholic layman, Oxenham was 'a zealous member and wise leader' of the Society of St Vincent de Paul, president (1925-32) of its Melbourne central council and Kew Conference and a trustee of its boys' orphanage. He was honorary secretary (1924-32) and life member (1932) of the Kew Golf Club.

Leaving an estate sworn for probate at £6790, Oxenham died at home at Kew on 27 March 1932 and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His wife, two sons and four daughters survived him; four children entered religious orders. He was an 'able, orthodox, hard-working, skilled' public servant, who was 'the victim of a bad system' according to Punch; Archbishop Mannix commended his life of practical charity.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Stephenson (compiler), Annals of the Brisbane Grammar School, 1869-1922 (Brisb, 1923)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 July 1901, 30 Nov 1923, 28 Mar 1932
  • Punch (Melbourne), 27 Feb 1913
  • Advocate (Brisbane), 31 Mar, 14 Apr 1932
  • private information.

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Oxenham, Justinian (1860–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/oxenham-justinian-7939/text13817, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 22 October 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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