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Wollaston, Sir Harry Newton Phillips (1846–1921)

by D. I. McDonald

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

Harry Newton Phillips Wollaston (1846-1921), by unknown photographer, 1901

Harry Newton Phillips Wollaston (1846-1921), by unknown photographer, 1901

National Archives of Australia, A5507, 8/9

Sir Harry Newton Phillips Wollaston (1846-1921), barrister and public servant, was born on 17 January 1846 at Mokine, Western Australia, only son of Henry Newton Wollaston, clergyman, and his wife Susannah, née Sewell. In 1854 the family moved to New Zealand and later to Melbourne. Wollaston was educated at St John's College, Auckland, Nelson College, New Zealand, and the University of Melbourne (LL.B. Hons, 1885; LL.M., 1887; LL.D., 1890). Called to the Victorian Bar in 1885, he was standing counsel (1886-1901) to the Victoria Marine Board.

In July 1863, after having completed the civil service entrance examination, he had joined the Victorian Department of Trade and Customs where his career followed a traditional path of clerk, tide-surveyor and landing waiter. In 1888 he was promoted chief clerk and in 1891 collector of customs and secretary of the department. He was widely acknowledged as being a competent administrator and an authority on customs and marine legislation. In 1891, at the request of Sir John Forrest, he reviewed the Western Australian Department of Customs, recommended major restructuring and prepared draft legislation.

Wollaston next reviewed and consolidated Victoria's multifarious customs Acts and ordinances. He was the author of The Customs Handbook and Merchants' and Importers' Guide (1887), Trade Customs and Marine Law Administered by the Department of Trade and Customs (1892) and Customs Law and Regulations with Notes and References (1904) which was long respected as a textbook. (Sir) George Turner made him a member of the civil service retrenchment committee, and in 1897 he was chairman of a committee to advise Turner on the financial clauses of the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution bill.

Appointed comptroller-general of customs and secretary of the Commonwealth Department of Trade and Customs in 1901, Wollaston worked closely with C. C. Kingston in drafting legislation and the first Commonwealth customs tariff. Next year Kingston entrusted him with the task of drafting a navigation bill which, although praised by Kingston, was rejected by Sir Edmund Barton as being in conflict with government policy. In 1903 Wollaston investigated allegations of irregularities in the distribution of votes in the Queensland electoral division. Having accompanied Sir William Lyne to the 1907 Imperial Shipping Conference, London, Wollaston retired on 6 January 1911 and was succeeded by his son-in-law (Sir) Nicholas C. Lockyer. In 1917-19 Wollaston chaired the Commonwealth Film Censorship Board.

Energetic and hard-working, he was highly regarded for his patience in having 'nursed Ministers through tight places when he knew they had erred'. Aware of the problems confronting Victorian manufacturers, he had interpreted the colony's protectionist tariff with sympathetic understanding, while being critical of 'Border Barbarisms' practised elsewhere. He brought a similar attitude to the administration of Commonwealth customs, although his legalistic interpretation of the tariff created many problems for importers and departmental officers during the early years of Federation. For all that, Melbourne Punch praised him as 'a keen, right-to-the-point, matter-of-fact man of the world' and the Evening Standard avowed that he was able 'to see smuggled opium through a stone wall, or concealed behind a bank of preserved ginger'.

Wollaston was awarded the I.S.O. (1903), and appointed C.M.G. (1907) and K.C.M.G. (1912). On 12 May 1868 he had married with Anglican rites Mary Annie Harker (d.1911) at Trinity Church, East Melbourne; on 30 July 1914 he married Mary Henrietta Havard Price-Dent at St Saviour's parish church, Pimlico, London. Wollaston died on 11 February 1921 at Malvern, Melbourne, and was buried in Boroondara cemetery. His wife, and the son and three daughters of his first marriage, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Smith (ed), Cyclopedia of Victoria, vol 1 (Melb, 1903)
  • I. Bertrand, Film Censorship in Australia (Brisb, 1978)
  • D. I. McDonald, ‘The Former Customs Clerks: Wollaston and Lockyer’, Canberra Historical Journal, no 20, Sept 1987, p 32, and for bibliography
  • Evening Standard, 28 July 1894
  • Punch (Melbourne), 24 Jan 1907, 25 June 1908
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Feb 1921
  • Argus (Melbourne), 15 June 1912.

Citation details

D. I. McDonald, 'Wollaston, Sir Harry Newton Phillips (1846–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/wollaston-sir-harry-newton-phillips-9168/text16189, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 February 2019.

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

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