Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Scott, Sir Robert Townley (1841–1922)

by Ian Carnell

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

Sir Robert Townley Scott (1841-1922), public servant, was born on 30 December 1841 at Dorney, Buckinghamshire, England, son of Robert Scott, bricklayer and later a surveyor and architect, and his wife Sophia, née Yeatman. The family arrived in Brisbane in December 1848 where Scott was educated at private schools. Employed as a supernumerary clerk in the Brisbane General Post Office in 1862, he was permanently appointed to the Queensland civil service as a clerk in 1863. As a relieving postmaster, undertaking inspection work, his 'remarkable capacity for detail work and steadiness and application beyond the ordinary' was noted. His zeal and broad knowledge of departmental operations resulted in a series of promotions. On 9 September 1868 he married London-born Ellen Wright in Brisbane; they had four sons and a daughter.

In 1870 Scott was appointed superintendent of mails. Staff found him 'a man of wide experience; very severe, but very just'. He was closely involved in the rapid expansion of the postal service as Queensland grew. Upon the retirement of the long-serving John McDonnell in 1899, Scott was appointed under secretary and superintendent of telegraphs (departmental head). The Commonwealth Postmaster-General's Department, to which all State postal departments were transferred in March 1901, was the largest of seven new Federal departments. Scott's selection as first secretary of the new department by J. G. Drake produced accusations of State bias. Critics claimed that the Victorian head F. L. Outtrim should have been preferred, though his conservative and autocratic ways hardly made him suitable. As State departmental heads continued as deputy postmasters-general, co-operation with Scott was minimal. He found his department starved of funds for staff and equipment (much of it in poor condition when handed over) and fettered by the authority of Public Service Commissioner D. C. McLachlan over staffing, and by the Department of Home Affairs over accommodation expenditure. Scott's personal abilities were respected: he was appointed I.S.O. in 1903 and was knighted in 1909; his appointment was renewed annually four times after he reached 65 in 1906.

After much public criticism, a royal commission on postal services reported in 1910 on the need for adequate funding and removal of constraints. Scott was slated together with ministers and deputies, but his task had been impossible. He retired finally in December 1910. He was dedicated to his work—'his office has been to him tennis, cricket, fishing, theatre—even at times church'. Scott was described as a 'kindly disciplinarian', 'nimble of limb and agile of mind', with keen dark eyes, white hair and beard.

He died on 3 August 1922 at home in Brisbane and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Congregational forms.

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Gribble, What Hath God Wrought? (Brisb, 1981)
  • Royal Commission on Postal Services, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1910, vols 4, 5
  • I. Carnell, ‘Sir Robert Townley Scott: an assessment’, Canberra Historical Journal, Mar 1988
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Mar 1905, 18 Nov 1909
  • Telegraph (Brisbande), 4 Aug 1922, 1 Feb 1926
  • Brisbane Courier, 5 Aug 1922
  • Queenslander, 12 Aug 1922.

Citation details

Ian Carnell, 'Scott, Sir Robert Townley (1841–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/scott-sir-robert-townley-8369/text14687, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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