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Taylor, Harold Burfield (1890–1966)

by Richard E. Reid

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Harold Burfield Taylor (1890-1966), by unknown photographer, 1941

Harold Burfield Taylor (1890-1966), by unknown photographer, 1941

Australian War Memorial, 005512

Harold Burfield Taylor (1890-1966), chemist and army officer, was born on 10 August 1890 at Enfield, Sydney, third child of Ernest Burfield Taylor, a civil servant from England, and his native-born wife Louisa Henrietta, née Chowne. Harold was educated at Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1912; D.Sc., 1925). From his undergraduate years he retained two abiding interests—'the pursuit of chemistry and military science'. He served in the Sydney University Scouts (Militia) and was commissioned on 16 February 1913. In June 1915 he became assistant government analyst in the New South Wales Department of Public Health.

Appointed second lieutenant, Australian Imperial Force, on 16 September that year, Taylor joined the 19th Battalion in Egypt in January 1916. In March he was sent to France, where he proved a brave and resourceful leader. He was promoted lieutenant in June and captain in February 1917. On 15 April his company helped to stem a German attack at Lagnicourt. While under heavy machine-gun fire, he 'moved up and down' the position, encouraging his men. He was awarded the Military Cross. With a small party, he captured Daisy Wood, east of Ypres, Belgium, on 9 October; for his example, courage and initiative, he won a Bar to his M.C.

When Taylor's A.I.F. appointment terminated in Sydney on 30 April 1919, he returned to his work as an analyst. In 1927 he was elected a fellow of the (Royal) Australian Chemical Institute. He came to public notice for his research on the preservation of milk, and in 1930 was promoted second government analyst. After resuming his Militia service in 1920, he rose to lieutenant colonel in 1927 and commanded a number of battalions from 1926 until the outbreak of World War II. In October 1939 he was promoted temporary brigadier and given the 5th Brigade. Seconded to the A.I.F. on 1 July 1940, he was placed in command of the 22nd Brigade, 8th Division. At St Matthew's Church of England, Manly, on 23 October that year he married Nellie Birkenhead Starling; they had no children.

Arriving in Singapore ahead of his brigade on 7 February 1941, Taylor soon fell out with his divisional commander, Major General H. G. Bennett. Both were men of strong opinions and obstinate temperament. Much of the burden of the 8th Division's resistance to the Japanese advance in Malaya and Singapore fell on Taylor's brigade. As the Japanese swept across Singapore Island in early February 1942, Bennett made 'disparaging remarks' about the way Taylor handled the defence of his sector and about the men in the 22nd. By 12 February Taylor was exhausted and Bennett relieved him of command. Taylor later wrote bitterly of his relations with Bennett, and considered him prey to vanity and personal ambition. Others thought that Taylor's removal from command reflected no official discredit on the 'thorny brigadier'.

Following the surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942, Taylor spent his initial period of captivity at Changi, where he helped to set up classes in basic education and advanced courses in languages, science and law. The scheme collapsed when most of the prisoners of war were dispatched to work-camps in Asia. Taylor was later described, somewhat grandiloquently, as the 'Chancellor of Changi'. In August the Japanese sent him and other senior officers to Formosa (Taiwan), whence he was removed to Mukden camp, Manchuria. There he remained until the war ended. Imprisonment took its toll: he was not deemed fit to transfer to the Retired List until 9 January 1946.

Back in Sydney Taylor was appointed government analyst in March 1946. The work of his laboratory staff was wide-ranging: they analysed adulterated food, checked that water was fit for human consumption and even monitored the quality of ink used in post offices. Taylor sat on several committees, one of which set the standard quality for a regular loaf of bread. It was his testimony at trials involving poisoning that brought him greatest prominence. Newspapers relished accounts of how he personally tasted liquids for evidence that they contained strychnine or cyanide. As one account put it, he 'lives as next-door neighbour to death'. Taylor retired from the public service in September 1954, but continued to work as a consultant. His recreations included fishing, golf and tennis. Survived by his wife, he died on 15 March 1966 at the Repatriation General Hospital, Concord, and was cremated. Alec Hill, who had served under him in the Militia, remembered him as 'quiet, unflappable and firm, with a fine bearing and a sense of humour'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1917 (Syd, 1933)
  • L. Wigmore, The Japanese Thrust (Canb, 1957)
  • People (Sydney), 22 Nov 1950
  • Royal Australian Chemical Institute, Proceedings, 33, no 8, Aug 1966, p 200
  • Stand-To (Canberra), 10, no 6, Oct-Dec 1966, p 37
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Apr 1928, 26 May 1949, 9 Sept 1951
  • H. B. Taylor diary, 1 July 1940-30 Nov 1941 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Richard E. Reid, 'Taylor, Harold Burfield (1890–1966)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/taylor-harold-burfield-11828/text21165, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 1 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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