Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ralph Abercrombie (1881–1957)

by Robert Hyslop

This article was published:

Ralph Abercrombie (1881-1957), public servant, was born on 19 July 1881 at Mount Duneed, Victoria, ninth child of Andrew Thomson Abercrombie, a schoolteacher from Scotland, and his English wife Mary Anna, née Kenshole. Educated probably at government schools in his father's charge, on 2 September 1896 Ralph became a pupil-teacher at South Melbourne State School. A wish to remain in the city prompted him to transfer to clerical duties in the public service and he joined the Department of the Treasurer in July 1901. At the Victorian Amateur Athletic Association meeting in April 1907 he won the 100-yards (10.1 seconds) and 220-yards (23.2 seconds) championships. On 1 August 1911 he was appointed a receiver of public moneys and paying officer in the Navy Office of the Commonwealth Department of Defence.

Originally second-in-charge to Honorary Fleet Paymaster Albert Martin, director of navy accounts, Abercrombie became acting D.N.A. when Martin departed for London in late 1914. Naval accounting functions expanded markedly during the war. The Naval Board became responsible for a fleet of seventy-four merchant ships, each of which was requisitioned and fitted out to transport troops, horses, stores and—when expedient—commercial cargoes; the board also operated twelve seized enemy vessels in a mercantile role. Claims arising between the Australian government and shipping companies, merchants, ship-fitters and the Imperial authorities were brought to account in the D.N.A.'s office. Abercrombie worked long hours. Though critical of some procedures, a report (September 1918) of the royal commission into navy and defence administration was favourable overall and recommended that Abercrombie be confirmed in his position: the appointment was effected on 1 April 1919.

In 1923 he travelled to England to settle accounts concerning the repatriation of Australian troops. While attached to the Admiralty, he gained experience in Imperial accountancy organization. Appointed O.B.E. in 1935, he joined the Naval Board next year as finance and civil member. On 1 September 1938 he succeeded H. C. Brown as auditor-general for the Commonwealth. During World War II Abercrombie maintained government accounting and administrative standards in the face of daunting shortages of experienced staff. It was not a time for innovation, but in his final report (1946) he recommended an amendment (passed in 1948) to the Audit Act because the Naval Charter Rates Board had refused him access to its papers. The destruction of non-current records during his term was a loss to Australian administrative history. He retired on 18 July 1946.

Tall, slim, quietly spoken, modest and a bachelor, he had seemed remote in the office; away from officialdom, he was a keen golfer, merry companion and cheerful habitué of the billiards-room of the Hotel Canberra. Abercrombie was an associate member of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants and a member of the Naval and Military Club, Melbourne. He died on 3 May 1957 at Hawthorn and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery with the forms of the Churches of Christ. His estate was sworn for probate at £43,898.

Select Bibliography

  • A. W. Jose, The Royal Australian Navy 1914-18 (Syd, 1928)
  • W. Perry, The Naval and Military Club, Melbourne (Melb, 1981)
  • Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1917-19, 4 (105), 1945-46, 4 (55)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 July 1938
  • private information.

Citation details

Robert Hyslop, 'Abercrombie, Ralph (1881–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


19 July, 1881
Mount Duneed, Victoria, Australia


3 May, 1957 (aged 75)
Hawthorn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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