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Ernest William Pearson Chinnery (1887–1972)

by Francis West

This article was published:

Ernest William Pearson Chinnery (1887-1972), public servant and anthropologist, was born on 5 November 1887 at Waterloo, Victoria, son of John William Chinnery, miner, and his wife Grace Newton, née Pearson, both of whom were Victorian-born. His father joined the Victorian Railways and the boy was educated in the state schools of towns in which he served. Articled briefly to a Melbourne law firm, Chinnery joined the public service of Papua in April 1909 as a clerk in Port Moresby. Seeking the adventure, he won appointment as a patrol officer in July 1910 and was posted as relieving officer to Ioma in the Mambare division. In the Kumusi division for the next three years his work on routine patrols was said to have 'gained the respect and the confidence of the local tribes'; he reputedly underwent a tribal initiation ceremony. He was not on good terms either with local Europeans or with Lieutenant-Governor (Sir) Hubert Murray whom he disliked as something of a humbug. In November 1913 Chinnery was charged with infringing the field-staff regulations and was reduced in rank. In the Rigo district in 1914, a patrol led by him clashed with tribesmen and shot seven; Murray saw the incident as probably unavoidable. By 1917 Chinnery was patrolling into new country in the central division behind Kairuku and into the Kunimaipa valley. There he discovered the source of the Waria River.

In 1915 he sought leave to enlist; it was granted in 1917 and on 9 November he joined the Australian Flying Corps, Australian Imperial Force. Chinnery served in England, was commissioned in October 1918 and in January 1919 was promoted tolieutenant (observer). He had already published anthropological papers.  Granted leaave, he became a research student under A. C. Haddon at Christ's College, Cambridge. His AIF appointment terminated on 1 July 1920 in Melbourne. He joined the research committee of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, lectured to the Royal Geographical Society and in 1920 won its Cuthbert Peek award. Refused appointment as Papuan government anthropologist in 1921 because Murray did not believe him to be suitable, he served New Guinea Copper Mines Ltd as labour adviser until in 1924 he was appointed government anthropologist of the Mandated Territory. In that capacity he published in British anthropological journals six official reports, and a series of papers and notes—all of them, because of his official duties, of the survey rather than the intensive investigation type.

Chinnery became the territory's first director of district services and native affairs in 1932 and thus directed the early extension of control in the newly discovered central highland valleys. He encouraged anthropological reporting by his staff and strongly supported the training of field-officer cadets in anthropology at the University of Sydney. In 1930 and 1934 he represented Australia before the Permanent Mandates Commission in Geneva.

Following a major review of Aboriginal policy in 1937-38, Chinnery was seconded from New Guinea in 1939 to head a new department of native affairs designed to introduce New Guinea methods to the Northern Territory. Living alone in his office, he found much to learn; he also had to cope with the massive problems created by military occupation. When his secondment expired in 1946 he planned to return to anthropology in New Guinea but found no support. He was an Australian adviser at the Trusteeship Council, United Nations, in 1947, and retired to Melbourne.

Chinnery served twice on United Nations missions to Africa but never published the book he had planned. His wife Sarah Johnston, née Neill, whom he had married at Alesbury, Buckinghamshire, England, on 17 April 1919, predeceased him (1970). He died at Prahran on 17 December 1972, survived by four daughters, and was cremated. He belonged to the generation of Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown who so deeply influenced anthropology. He supplied useful contemporary raw material on native society, but his type of work was overtaken by new professional standards.

Select Bibliography

  • E. J. B. Foxcroft, Australian Native Policy (Melb, 1941)
  • C. D. Rowley, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (Canb, 1970)
  • Northern Territory, Annual Report, 1938-39
  • New Guinea, Report on the Administration of the Territory, 1938-39
  • Government Gazette (Commonwealth), 14 Sept 1939
  • D. J. F. Griffiths, The Career of F. E. Williams, Government Anthropologist of Papua, 1922-1943 (M.A. thesis, Australian National University, 1977)
  • Gilbert Murray papers (National Library of Australia)
  • A56, A73, A452 59/6066, 6067, A518 C828/2 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Francis West, 'Chinnery, Ernest William Pearson (1887–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 21 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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