Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Philip Raymond Frith (1900–1976)

by Margaret Lawrie

This article was published:

Philip Raymond Frith (1900-1976), schoolteacher, was born on 8 May 1900 at St Johns Wood, London, foster child of Charles Henry Frith, clerk, and his wife Louisa, née Hill. Little is known of Philip's early life other than that he claimed to have won a scholarship to Dulwich College, London, and to have served as an artilleryman in the British Army late in World War I before working as a physical-education instructor. In 1926 he emigrated to Western Australia where he was employed as a clerk at Busselton. At the local Congregational Church on 9 June 1927 he married 18-year-old Noreen Joyce Connelly; they were to have a daughter before being divorced in 1931. He moved to Queensland and in January 1930 was appointed head teacher of the government school on Mabuiag Island, Torres Strait.

Within months Frith had transformed the previously neglected native-school. Noting his 'genius' for organization and abounding energy, inspectors praised him for his firm but kindly manner, and for the prompt and willing obedience he secured from his pupils. All admired the wealth of material he prepared, 'endeavouring to reproduce in the classroom the larger world beyond the Island': driftwood models of a complete railway system, a main road with congested traffic, Sydney Harbour Bridge, ships, skyscrapers and lighthouses, supplemented by his own crayon drawings and other illustrative matter. In 1934 he was transferred temporarily to the Murray Island school as teacher-superintendent. Next year he established a training school at Mabuiag for advanced pupils from the neighbouring islands, and provided 'refresher' courses for local teachers and branch managers. Besides his school duties, Frith had assumed responsibility for the welfare and well-being of some three hundred Mabuiag Islanders. Acting as far as possible through the 'native' council and police, to whom he offered advice, he gave first aid to the sick, arbitrated in family quarrels or land disputes, and supervised village development, garden culture, sanitation, and the operation of luggers engaged in obtaining trochus and pearl-shell.

From 1940 Frith taught in Aboriginal schools at Cherbourg and Woorabinda settlements, Queensland. In 1944 he was appointed government teacher on remote Saibai Island in Torres Strait. There, as instructed, he opened a small hospital which also served nearby Dauan and Boigu islands. Having taken leave in 1946, he again taught at Mabuiag and was then posted to the primary school at Badu, the most prosperous and developed island in the Strait. In 1947 he reopened the secondary school which drew pupils from all the islands of the group. For the first time in his life, he came to feel a sense of belonging, to the community and to his vocation. In May 1965 he retired to Cairns, Queensland, after he had given 'a lifetime of service for the advancement of Torres Strait Islanders'.

Survived by his wife Frances Annie, née Rooney (who had been the Badu government nurse), and their son and two daughters, Frith died on 13 October 1976 at Cairns and was buried with Anglican rites in Belgian Gardens cemetery, Townsville.

Select Bibliography

  • Chief Protector of Aboriginals (Queensland), Annual Report, 1931, 1935, 1938
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, 23 Nov 1932, 22 Feb 1933
  • Director of Native Affairs (Queensland), Annual Report, 1946-47, 1947-48, 1948-49, 1953-54
  • People (Sydney), 3 June 1953
  • EDU/Mission Schools, Reports of Inspections of Native School at Mabuiag, Departmental records file, B.M., 19 June 1927 (Queensland State Archives)
  • items 52234 of 1931, 45325 of 1932, 29211 of 1934, 59527 of 1935 (Queensland State Archives)
  • Chief Protector of Aboriginals (Queensland), office file, Aboriginals Staff, item 29/1803 and Isls Torres Strait, 1933, 1934, items 34/6293 and 6361 (Queensland State Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Margaret Lawrie, 'Frith, Philip Raymond (1900–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 25 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 May, 1900
London, Middlesex, England


13 October, 1976 (aged 76)
Cairns, Queensland, Australia

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