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Townsend, George Wilfred Lambert (1896–1962)

by Diane Langmore

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

George Wilfred Lambert Townsend (1896-1962), district officer, was born on 5 April 1896 at Sandgate, Brisbane, son of George Townsend, engineer, and his wife Annie, née Evans, both English born. Moving to Melbourne in 1904 when his father was appointed Commonwealth commissioner of patents, he was educated at Trinity Grammar School, Kew.

After twelve months service in the Australian Military Forces, George enlisted on 7 June 1915 in the Australian Imperial Force and on 10 August embarked with the 7th Reinforcements, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade, for Egypt and Gallipoli. From March 1916 he served in France and Belgium. Having trained from November at the Royal Artillery Cadet School, St John's Wood, London, he was commissioned second lieutenant on 23 April 1917 and posted to the 3rd Brigade, Australian Field Artillery. On 1 August he was promoted lieutenant. His A.I.F. appointment terminated in September 1919.

A chance meeting in February 1921 with Brigadier General Wisdom, administrator of the new Mandated Territory of New Guinea, led Townsend to accept an invitation to become a patrol officer. On arrival at Rabaul he found himself acting as clerk and cashier for the Expropriation Board whence he acquired his lifelong, German-derived nickname, 'Kassa'. After some reluctant months at his desk, he was appointed patrol officer in the Aitape district. Then followed postings to every region of the mandate. He threw himself into the myriad tasks of a kiap, supervising police, labourers and prisoners, signing on labour recruits, collecting taxes and census data, patrolling, exploring, settling disputes and arresting offenders. At Ambunti he hanged men who had violated the prohibition on head-hunting.

On 25 July 1927 at Rabaul he married Mary Lynette Tonge, daughter of an A.I.F. padre. Promoted district officer in 1931, Townsend took charge of the new Sepik district, his favourite region, in 1933. Apart from his routine duties, he led a long exploratory and mapping patrol, planned and supervised the building of the district headquarters and airstrip at Wewak, together with a sub-station at Maprik, and initiated an agricultural policy. He published articles on New Guinea in Blackwood's Magazine and in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society of which body he was made a fellow. In 1940 Townsend was posted to Salamaua from where he supervised the upgrading of Lae airstrip which was completed, ironically, in time for Japanese bombers to use it in 1942.

Refused permission to enlist because he was needed for the 'efficient administration' of the territory, Townsend resigned in October 1941; he was reappointed by the army to set up the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit in which he was promoted captain, then major. In October 1942 he transferred to the propaganda-disseminating Far Eastern Liaison Office. He was renowned for his pidgin broadcasts which concluded, 'Good-bye all-a-boy. Me, Townsend'. Mentioned in dispatches, he retired with the rank of lieutenant-colonel in October 1945 and was appointed O.B.E.

As one who considered the United Nations to be 'the best hope for a peaceful world', he accepted an invitation in 1946 to work for the secretariat in New York as area specialist for the south-west Pacific in the Department of Trusteeship and Information from Non-Self-Governing Territories. He retired in 1956 to Montville, Queensland. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died at Nambour on 9 February 1962 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His autobiography, District Officer, was published posthumously in 1968.

Short and fair, curt in speech, Townsend was remembered by his fellow kiaps as a 'loner' who courted neither popularity nor approval. He loathed red tape and exploited his remoteness from headquarters to take unapproved initiatives. A strong sense of justice governed his actions from his first months in New Guinea, when he deplored the ruthless looting of expropriated German property, to his last, when he saw his World War II service as 'expiation' for the administrative bungling that led to unnecessary casualties during the Japanese invasion. The coast-watcher Eric Feldt wrote that no one doubted Townsend's integrity or his devotion to duty. In his dealings with New Guineans, 'Kassa' was a benevolent paternalist, tough and fair.

Select Bibliography

  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Feb, Mar 1962
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 Jan, 17, 18 Oct 1946
  • Townsend papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Townsend, George Wilfred Lambert (1896–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/townsend-george-wilfred-lambert-8836/text15503, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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