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Sellheim, Philip Frederic (1832–1899)

by G. C. Bolton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

Philip Frederic Sellheim (1832-1899), pastoralist and mining official, was born on 28 September 1832 at Konradsdorf, Hesse-Darmstadt, Germany, son of Heinrich Sellheim and his wife Marian Emma Sophia, née Schaefer. His family had been small farmers and artisans since the tenth century. Educated by tutors and at the Polytechnic Academy of Darmstadt, he matriculated at Giessen and Berlin, then studied sheep-breeding at the Royal Veterinary Academy of Berlin and the Agricultural Academy at Proskau in Upper Silesia.

Emigrating to Queensland in 1855, Sellheim managed Banana station on the Dawson River for four years before joining George Dalrymple's 1859 expedition to North Queensland. In January 1861 he and C. W. Toussaint took up Strathmore, the first pastoral lease in the Kennedy district, on which Sellheim ran sheep for five years. He was naturalized at Bowen on 19 August 1862 and on 6 June 1865, at Sydney, he married Laura Theresa Morisset, sister of an ex-police officer settled near by; she died in 1878 leaving a daughter and two sons, the eldest of whom became a major-general.

Rachel Henning described Sellheim as 'rather a gentlemanly German … [who] says “apenhalt” before every word he utters. “Do you grow any apen-apen-apenhalt apenhalt pumpkins in your garden, Miss Henning?” ' Though popular, he fared no better than most sheep-owners. In 1865 his shearers struck when he reduced wages from 5s. to 4s. a score because of hard times. The men lost when he was supported by other squatters. He and his partner William Stuart were finally forced off the run in 1866 by the difficulties of pioneering a remote region infested with spear grass, and in 1867-70 he managed Valley of Lagoons station for W. J. Scott.

Sellheim was appointed to the Queensland public service on 22 July 1874; in October he became warden in charge of the new, remote and turbulent Palmer goldfield, which attracted at its height about 15,000 European diggers and 20,000 Chinese, with much racial and social tension. He spent much time hunting Chinese who evaded buying miners' rights; but with three assistants and a handful of police he maintained law and order. 'I suppose you think you are God Almighty' one recalcitrant miner told him. 'No, I am not that', replied Sellheim, 'but I am his first mate in these parts'.

His success in the Palmer earned him promotion to Charters Towers in June 1880, and Gympie in January 1888. These appointments coincided with the rise of the earliest trade unions, and Sellheim arbitrated successfully between employers and employees. In April 1892 he became under-secretary for mines, serving under W. O. Hodgkinson and Robert Philp. Both as warden and under-secretary Sellheim continually advocated more orderly and systematic development of Queensland's mining resources and abandonment of the wasteful and cut-throat practices which were all too common. In 1890 he persuaded the Gympie mine-owners to form a co-operative for the drainage of mines, the first example in Queensland of any co-ordination among managements for the common good.

Sellheim's great achievement was the 1898 Mining Act, framed from the findings of a royal commission of 1897. Besides reforming safety conditions, it improved the security of mining tenures and safeguarded the rights of both the big investor and the miner. Sellheim remained under-secretary until his death at New Farm, Brisbane, on 12 October 1899. In later life a heavily built man with an immense pair of moustaches, his deliberate manner was supplemented by his great sagacity and insight into the mining industry, and he was one of Queensland's most honest and effective civil servants in the nineteenth century.

Select Bibliography

  • Alcazar Press, Queensland, 1900 (Brisb, nd)
  • G. C. Bolton, A Thousand Miles Away (Brisb, 1963)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1897, 4, 453-67
  • Brisbane Courier, 13 Oct 1899.

Citation details

G. C. Bolton, 'Sellheim, Philip Frederic (1832–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sellheim-philip-frederic-4555/text7471, published in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 2 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (MUP), 1976

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