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Frederick Royden Chalmers (1881–1943)

by Kerry F. Keneally

This article was published:

Frederick Royden Chalmers (1881-1943), farmer, soldier and administrator, was born on 4 January 1881 at Brighton, Tasmania, son of Robert Hamilton Chalmers, farmer, and his wife Emily Louisa, née Walter. After attending school at Brighton, Chalmers farmed with his father at Bagdad. At 18 he went to South Africa as a trooper in the 1st (Tasmanian) Contingent (later Tasmanian Mounted Infantry). Returning in December 1900, he re-embarked in April 1901 with the 4th (Second Imperial Bushmen) Contingent as second lieutenant, and in August was promoted lieutenant. After the war Chalmers remained in Tasmania until 1907 when he joined the Victorian Railways and later worked at Moe as a salesman.

On 4 January 1910 at the Traralgon Catholic Church he married Mary Cecilia Bennett. She died in November 1914 and the following April Chalmers enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force, and was commissioned lieutenant at Broadmeadows next month. He saw service with the 27th Battalion in Egypt, Gallipoli, France and Belgium. Promoted captain in August 1915, he attended a senior-officers' school at Aldershot, England, late in 1916 and was promoted major; he commanded the battalion from October 1917, as lieutenant-colonel from January 1918. He received the Distinguished Service Order in November, temporarily commanded the 7th Infantry Brigade in December, and was mentioned in dispatches and appointed C.M.G. in 1919.

Chalmers returned to Tasmania in charge of troops on the Ormonde, accompanied by his second wife Lenna Annette, née French, whom he had married in London on 26 May 1917. He farmed for several years at Bagdad, then mined on the west coast, in 1931 joining the Siamese Tin Syndicate at St Helens. He was president of the local branch of the Returned Soldiers' and Sailors' Imperial League of Australia and involved in the Boy Scouts movement.

In October 1938 Chalmers was appointed from seventy applicants to succeed R. C. Garsia as administrator of the Australian mandated territory of Nauru. An imposing figure, tall, white-haired and mustachioed, Chalmers looked the typical administrator of the period; his easy manner ensured his popularity. He introduced Berkshire boars to Nauru to improve the native razorback stock, and Gambusia fish to eradicate mosquitoes. In December 1940 when the German raiders Komet and Orion shelled the phosphate installations, Chalmers stormed along the sea-front shouting at the enemy. On the evacuation of the non-native population in February 1942 he elected to stay.

The Japanese landed on 26 August and Australian contact with Nauru ceased: Chalmers did not know of his wife's death on 14 September. He and four other Europeans were interned until the Allied bombing raid of 25 March 1943. During a lull before midnight the Japanese second-in-command took, without orders, the Europeans from their quarters. They were executed, and apparently buried, on the beach, their manner of death remaining unknown until the restoration of Australian administration in 1945. The executioners were tried in 1946 by war crimes tribunals in Rabaul; one was sentenced to death and one to 20 years imprisonment. Chalmers was survived by a son and two daughters from his first marriage and by four daughters from his second. A monument to him and the other victims was erected at Nauru in 1951.

Select Bibliography

  • Reveille (Sydney), 1 Oct 1938
  • Queensland Digger, Jan 1952
  • Examiner (Launceston), 5, 15 Sept 1938
  • Sunday Sun, 6 June 1943
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Sept 1945
  • External Territories, A518 BU 118/12 (National Archives of Australia
  • records, A2663 item 1010/9/118 (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

Kerry F. Keneally, 'Chalmers, Frederick Royden (1881–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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