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Phillips, Sir Frederick Beaumont (1890–1957)

by Paul J. Quinlivan

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

Sir Frederick Beaumont Phillips (1890-1957), judge, was born on 20 January 1890 at Ballarat, Victoria, only child of Joseph Beaumont Phillips, clerk, and his wife Charlotte Anna, née Porz, both Victorian born. He was educated at Wesley College and the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1914). The suicide in 1911 of his father, whom he believed was the victim of an injustice, had a profound effect upon him. Phillips was admitted to the Supreme Court of Victoria in 1915 but immediately joined the military forces as assistant censor until he could organize a posting overseas.

Ineligible for active service because of his short stature and a damaged leg, he joined the Australian Army Medical Corps and served briefly in Egypt and in England from October 1917. In January 1918 he transferred to the Australian Flying Corps. He ended the war as a flying officer with observer's wings and a reputation for efficiency and initiative. In April 1919 he was commissioned lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force.

During the war Phillips came to the notice of British officials. After demobilization in Melbourne in 1920, armed with an appointment as special judicial commissioner, he arrived in Honiara, British Solomon Islands Protectorate, to adjudicate on inter-racial land-ownership disputes. Undeterred by the danger of travelling alone he sailed a yacht designed for a one-legged sailor and carried a portable musical instrument, relying on calculated showmanship to gain entry and an audience. He succeeded and, as a result of his work, was appointed judge in the Mandated Territory of New Guinea.

When Phillips arrived in Rabaul in November 1925, however, he found himself stipendiary magistrate instead of judge; a law of September 1924 had abolished all judgeships except that of chief judge. In 1927 he received several short acting appointments as judge and in February 1928, when the law was repealed, he was elevated to the Supreme Court bench. His decisions, especially in land cases, were enlightened in their sympathy for the needs and rights of the native peoples, and were often badly received by the white community. Initially hostile to his authority when he took charge during the Rabaul police strike of 1929 (in the absence of the administrator and chief judge), it eventually commended his handling of the strike. He had drawn on experience gained as a special constable during the Melbourne police strike of 1923. Under his influence thrashing of servants became a hazardous venture and native rights gradually obtained some respect. Phillips took charge again when the Rabaul volcanoes erupted in May 1937, as the administrator, (Sir) Walter McNicoll, was on the mainland. For his organization of the evacuation, Phillips was appointed C.B.E. In April 1938 he became chief judge and in 1940 graduated as master of laws at the University of Melbourne.

During World War II Phillips served from April 1940 with the Royal Australian Air Force as an administrator at home and overseas. He ended the war with the rank of acting group captain. On 11 September 1943 he had married Marie Jean Briton-Smith in London.

In 1946 Phillips returned to New Guinea as senior judge in the newly amalgamated Supreme Court of the territories of Papua and New Guinea, which were now, under legislation of 1945, to be jointly administered. Appointed chief judge in 1949, with his colleague Chief Judge R. T. Gore of Papua and Dr T. P. Fry of the Department of Territories, he supervised the transition to peacetime administration of justice, urging generous war-damage compensation and leniency towards 'collaborators', and faithfulness to the 'sacred trust' of colonial administration. He prided himself on being an innovator and social engineer. On 23 November 1954 he was appointed the first chief justice of Papua and New Guinea. Revelling in travelling on circuit, rather than being confined to the Rabaul court as in pre-war New Guinea, Phillips was everywhere respected and honoured. His apparent opposition to the creation of a Tolai local government council provoked some criticism and his advice, given two days before the Mount Lamington eruption, that the volcano posed no immediate danger, was misguided, but otherwise, according to Pacific Islands Monthly, 'few found anything in “Monty” Phillips to criticize either in his judicial duties or his personal life'.

Appointed K.B.E. in 1956, he retired next January. Sir Beaumont Phillips died of cancer in Melbourne on 6 June 1957 and was cremated with Methodist forms. His wife survived him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Quinlivan, ‘Those crippling criminal circuits’, R. R. Premdas and S. Po Kawin (eds), Decentralization: the Papua New Guinea Experiment (Port Moresby, 1978)
  • I. Downs, The Australian Trusteeship, Papua New Guinea, 1945-75 (Canb, 1980)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Aug, Nov 1940, Oct 1943, June 1957
  • Rabaul Times, 4-25 Jan 1929
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June 1957.

Citation details

Paul J. Quinlivan, 'Phillips, Sir Frederick Beaumont (1890–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/phillips-sir-frederick-beaumont-8034/text14007, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 16 July 2018.

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

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