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Sir Percy Chatterton (1898–1984)

by Diane Langmore

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Sir Percy Chatterton (1898-1984), missionary and politician, was born on 8 October 1898 at Ashton-upon-Mersey, Chester, England, younger child of Henry Herbert Chatterton, commercial traveller, and his wife Alice, née Macro. He was educated in London at the Stationers’ Company’s School, (1906-12), and at the City of London School, from which he matriculated in 1916. World War I interrupted his studies for a science degree at University College; called up in June 1917 he served as a stretcher-bearer with the Middlesex Regiment in France. Percy returned to university in 1919 but did not complete his degree. From 1921 to 1924 he was master for science and physical training at the Friends School, Penketh, Lancashire.

Closely associated with the Ferme Park Baptist Chapel as a youth, Chatterton had taught Sunday School and formed a Boy Scout troop before experiencing 'a period of doubt common among those who undergo a scientific training'. Although he could claim no sudden conversion, he recovered his faith and, convinced that Christianity needed a 'stiffening of the backbone', applied to the London Missionary Society in 1923. He was accepted for service as a lay missionary teacher in Port Moresby. On 7 June 1924 at Aberdeen, Scotland, he married, with the forms of the United Free Church of Scotland, Christian Ritchie Finlayson, a teacher of domestic science. A fortnight later they embarked for Papua.

From 1924 to 1939 Chatterton ran the LMS school in the Papuan village of Hanuabada, Port Moresby, and his wife taught the infants. His letters to the Papuan Courier revealed his discomfort with racist aspects of the pre-war colonial regime. In 1939 they transferred to Delena, where Chatterton had been appointed district missionary. He was ordained into the Congregational Church in 1943. Returning to Port Moresby in 1957, he ministered at Koki to the migrants from other parts of Papua and New Guinea who were drifting to the town in search of work. In 1962 he played a major part in the transformation of the mission into the country’s first wholly self-governing church, the Papua Ekalesia, and began a two-year secondment to the British and Foreign Bible Society to translate the Bible into Motu.

Reaching retirement age at the end of 1963, Chatterton embarked on a new career in 1964 as a member of the House of Assembly for the Central Special electorate. He was re-elected in 1968, defeating a formidable rival, John Keith McCarthy, for the Port Moresby Open electorate. In parliament he demonstrated the same concern for 'the unfortunate and underprivileged' as during his missionary career. Ahead of his time, he devoted his energies to 'lost causes', warning of the danger of  'economic colonialism', urging that certain occupations be reserved for indigenous employees, fighting for adequate low-cost housing, and advocating the appointment of an ombudsman. Many of his proposals were later adopted. He was more immediately successful in moving for the creation of a National Broadcasting Commission (1970) and the adoption of a Human Rights Ordinance (1972). Retiring from parliament in 1972, he was, that year, appointed OBE and awarded an honorary LL D by the University of Papua New Guinea. In 1974 his memoir, Day That I Have Loved, and his Motu translation of the Bible were published. He had been (1966-73) a regular columnist for Pacific Islands Monthly.

Short and stocky, Chatterton had a remarkably booming voice for his size. His infectious laugh signalled an ever-present sense of humour. Although he could be outspoken, impatient, caustic and controversial, expatriates and Papuans alike respected his wit and his wisdom. He was a passionate advocate for Papua, whose amalgamation with New Guinea he regretted, and a relentless critic of those aspects of Western civilisation that he believed harmful to the Papuan people. Yet he was scathing towards a sentimental attachment to the past. Energetic and alert, he continued to embrace new ideas and experiences but never compromised the personal integrity that had informed his life and work. In 1981 he was appointed KBE. Sir Percy died on 25 November 1984 in Port Moresby; after a state funeral he was buried at Delena. His wife had predeceased him; they had no children.

Select Bibliography

  • U.P.N.G. News, Mar 1972, p 3
  • PNG Post-Courier, 9 Aug 1974, p 9
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Jan 1985, p 30, Feb 1985, p 23
  • Candidates’ papers, Council for World Mission, second series, box 7 (School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London)
  • personal knowledge.

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Citation details

Diane Langmore, 'Chatterton, Sir Percy (1898–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 20 July 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]


8 October, 1898
Ashton-upon-Mersey, Greater Manchester, England


25 November, 1984 (aged 86)
Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea

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