Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Wisdom, Evan Alexander (1869–1945)

by Ronald McNicoll

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

Evan Alexander Wisdom (1869-1945), by unknown photographer, c1916

Evan Alexander Wisdom (1869-1945), by unknown photographer, c1916

Australian War Memorial, P02205.001

Evan Alexander Wisdom (1869-1945), businessman, soldier and administrator, was born on 29 September 1869 at Inverness, Scotland, son of Francis William Wisdom, music-seller, and his wife Mary, née Cameron. He was educated at Inverness and in Edinburgh. As a young man he served in the militia, first in an infantry battalion and then in the Midlothian Coast Artillery.

At the age of 22 he migrated to Western Australia and went as a prospector to Southern Cross on the Yilgarn goldfield. In 1892, as soon as news came of the gold discovery at Coolgardie, Wisdom joined the rush and was one of the first to arrive on the field. He did well, and opened a store. Within a year he joined the rush to Kalgoorlie; there, too, he prospered, acquiring extensive mining interests and establishing the Exchange Hotel. Late in 1894 he went to Scotland where, on 16 April 1895, he married Agnes Bell Jackson in Edinburgh with Presbyterian Free Church forms. They travelled to Western Australia and settled at Claremont, Perth. Wisdom retained his business links with the goldfields.

In October 1901 Wisdom was appointed lieutenant in the Western Australian Mounted Infantry; given command of the Cannington troop, he was promoted captain in 1903; next year he was posted to militia headquarters in Perth. He was brigade major of the Western Australian Infantry Brigade in 1908 and, in spite of militia commitments and business ties, found time for politics. He was mayor of Cottesloe in 1908-13 and member for Claremont in the Legislative Assembly in 1911-17.

On the outbreak of war in 1914 Wisdom had been placed in charge of the Karrakatta training camp. In March 1915 he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force as brigade major of the 5th Infantry Brigade. He served with it throughout most of the Gallipoli campaign. In February 1916, as a lieutenant-colonel, he took command of the 18th Battalion. In June he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. Late that year his battalion was in the bloody battles of Pozières Heights and Flers, France. In December he was promoted brigadier general commanding the 7th Brigade which fought at Lagnicourt in March 1917 and in the 2nd battle of Bullecourt in May. Wisdom was appointed C.B. in June. Late in 1917 the brigade was in Flanders at the battles of Menin Road, Broodseinde and Passchendaele. Meanwhile, his wife had moved to London to do charity work.

In 1918 the 7th Brigade was at Morlancourt in June and at Hamel in July, and took part in the battle of Amiens, the storming of Mont St Quentin and the fighting for the Beaurevoir Line. Wisdom was appointed C.M.G. in January 1919. During the war he had been mentioned in dispatches six times. He spent most of 1919 in England with the Repatriation and Demobilization Department, A.I.F. Returning to Australia in December, he was appointed to the chairmanship of the Central War Gratuities Board in May 1920. A few months later he successfully applied for the post of administrator of the Mandated Territory of New Guinea.

Taking over at Rabaul from Thomas Griffiths on 21 March 1921, during the next few years Wisdom converted the improvised military administration into a professional public service. In accordance with the terms of the League of Nations mandate he did his best to advance the welfare of the native population. He was handicapped at first by attitudes inherited from the German colonial period, and, after 1926, by owners of the expropriated plantations and by German missionaries. Like later administrators, he was troubled by the intransigence of the planters, their occasional maltreatment of workers, and their influence in Australian political circles. In 1930 the fall in copra prices and gold production compelled him to reduce government activities.

Late in 1931 Wisdom took leave to accompany his wife to Sydney where she died in November. Resuming duty early in 1932, he formally opened the Bulolo Gold Dredging Co. in March; gold production rose again and fiscal troubles receded. Wisdom, however, was not to see the benefit: tired and lonely, after eleven years in office he applied for furlough. He left Rabaul in June 1932 and retired in June 1933. Resuming his earlier interests, he became involved in new mining ventures in Western Australia and alternated between the Melbourne Club and Perth where he kept in close touch with old friends on the goldfields. He died without issue on 7 December 1945 in Melbourne and was cremated.

Charles Bean described Wisdom in wartime as 'a level-headed, cautious, experienced leader'. People who knew him in New Guinea saw him as honest, discreet, temperate, shrewd and hardworking, with a sly sense of humour. He will be remembered as a very competent commander in World War I and as an intelligent, just and able administrator during eleven difficult years in New Guinea.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye (ed), Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 2 (Adel, 1913)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The Story of Anzac, vols 1, 2 (Syd, 1921, 1924)
  • C. E. W. Bean, The A.I.F. in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • P. Ryan (ed), Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea (Melb, 1972)
  • Kalgoorlie Miner, 8 Jan 1946.

Citation details

Ronald McNicoll, 'Wisdom, Evan Alexander (1869–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wisdom-evan-alexander-9160/text16173, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 15 November 2018.

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

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2018