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Ivan Francis Champion (1904–1989)

by Chris Ballard

This article was published:

Ivan Francis Champion (1904-1989), patrol officer, naval officer and public servant, was born on 9 March 1904 in Port Moresby, eldest son of New Zealand-born Herbert William Champion, government storekeeper and later government secretary, and his wife Florence Louise May Mary Chester, née Foran. With his two younger brothers and a small band of schoolmates that included Jack Hides, Ivan had a `larrikin’ childhood at the Port Moresby European School (1911-14), before attending Manly Public School, Sydney (1915) and boarding at The Southport School, Queensland (1916-22).

Indifferent scholars, the Champion brothers excelled at sports, with Ivan showing great promise as a swimmer. His headmaster at Southport, James Dixon, instilled in him an enduring fascination with navigation but poor eyesight dashed his ambition, nursed from an early age, to enter the navy. Dissuaded by his father from becoming a patrol officer in impoverished Papua, he started work with the Union Bank in Sydney until a visit by (Sir) Hubert Murray in 1923 enabled him to make a direct and successful appeal for a position. He was taken on as a cadet-clerk and appointed a patrol officer in May 1924. Aged 20, he was almost 5 ft 8 ins (173 cm) tall, well built and very fit. His calmness, application and modesty would see him establish a reputation as perhaps the most exemplary of Murray’s `outside men’.

Champion’s first posting was to the relative quiet of Kerema but in 1925 he was transferred to Kambisi, a new police post run by the assistant resident magistrate Charles Karius. Impressed by Champion’s composure under difficult circumstances, Karius chose him as his assistant for the North-West patrol, an ambitious attempt to cross the island of New Guinea at its widest extent. During the first attempt, from December 1926 to July 1927, Champion’s keen sense of geography and his willingness to rely on local guides enabled him to identify a passage across the Central Range. This was the route they followed on their second, successful, expedition between September 1927 and January 1928—an exceptional patrol, among previously uncontacted communities, conducted without firing a shot in anger. Emulating earlier patrol officers, Champion published his account of the expedition, Across New Guinea (1932), a classic narrative of exploration. On 30 September 1929 at Ela Protestant Church, Port Moresby, he married Elsie May Sutherland Ross.

Between 1928 and 1935 Champion served again at Kambisi and at Ioma, Misima, the Trobriand Islands and Rigo. In April-December 1936 he led the major Bamu-Purari patrol to establish the remote Lake Kutubu patrol post, accompanied by the patrol officer C. T. J. Adamson. Champion was officer-in-charge there from November 1937 to January 1940. Subsequently he was acting resident magistrate at Kikori and then at Misima (1940), Rigo (1941) and Misima again (1941-42).

On 14 February 1942 Champion enlisted in the Militia. Twelve days later he was appointed sub-lieutenant in the Royal Australian Naval Volunteer Reserve, where his navigational skills and knowledge of local waters proved invaluable. As commanding officer of HMAS Laurabada (Murray’s former vessel), he evacuated the survivors of the Rabaul garrison from Jacquinot Bay in April, a risky mission in Japanese-controlled seas. Promoted to lieutenant in June, he assumed command of HMAS Paluma, which surveyed the north-eastern Papuan coastline and landed coastwatchers, including John Keith McCarthy and Basil Fairfax-Ross. For much of the remainder of the war, Champion operated as a pilot and hydrographer over a wide area between Manus and the Torres Strait. His RANVR appointment terminated on 18 October 1945.

Champion returned to the newly amalgamated administration for Papua and New Guinea, serving as district officer for Western District (1945) before being appointed assistant-director (1946) and then acting-director (1949) in the Department of District Services and Native Affairs. He took charge of relief operations in the aftermath of the Mount Lamington volcanic eruption in 1951, and was installed that year as an official member of the Territory’s Legislative Council. Overlooked for the position in which he had been acting, Champion moved to the Native Land Commission as chief commissioner in July 1952; he became senior commissioner of the new Land Titles Commission in 1963.

Leaving the public service in February 1964, Champion commanded the decommissioned Laurabada for private owners, and worked as a contract surveyor along the coasts of Australia and Bangladesh. In retirement he and Elsie lived first in Brisbane and then at Banora Point, New South Wales, before settling in Canberra. Survived by his wife and their daughter, he died on 12 August 1989 at Woden Valley Hospital and was cremated. He was appointed OBE (1953), and awarded two medals for exploration: the Gill memorial medal of the Royal Geographical Society (1938) and the John Lewis gold medal of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (1953).

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sinclair, Last Frontiers (1988)
  • Geographical Journal, vol 96, no 3, 1940, p 190
  • Champion papers (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

Chris Ballard, 'Champion, Ivan Francis (1904–1989)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 March, 1904
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea


12 August, 1989 (aged 85)
Woden, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

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