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Thomas Penberthy Fry (1904–1952)

by Ian Carnell

This article was published:

Thomas Penberthy Fry (1904-1952), lawyer, was born on 19 June 1904 in Brisbane, only son and elder child of James Porter Fry, commercial traveller, and his wife Sarah (Sadie), née Chegwin, both native-born. James was to become an optician, a member (1918-32) of the Legislative Assembly and a lieutenant colonel in the Australian Military Forces. Educated at state and private schools in Brisbane, Thomas entered the University of Queensland (B.A. Hons, 1926; M.A., 1927) where he joined the debating and dramatic societies; he represented (1922-24) the university in Rugby League and in July 1926 refereed a football 'test' between Queensland and New South Wales schoolboys. In 1925 he had been commissioned lieutenant in the Militia.

Travelling to England in 1927, Fry was admitted to Magdalen College, Oxford, (B.C.L., 1929) and played Rugby Union for the university against Cambridge. His study at the Academy of International Law in The Hague led to a diploma in 1928. Next year he moved to Harvard University in the United States of America; noted as 'exceedingly industrious and able', he was awarded a doctorate of juridical science (1931).

Admitted to the Queensland Bar on 9 September 1931, Fry combined a varied practice with part-time teaching in social science at the University of Queensland (1932-35) and external examining for the University of Sydney's law school (1932-34). His 'impatiently restless energy' led him to become chairman of the Queensland Historical Society's editorial committee and president (1935) of the Queensland Soccer Council; Fry was also a founder of the Queensland branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (president 1932-40, 1947-48) and honorary secretary of the Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law. Some felt that he led 'a rather uncoordinated existence'.

In 1936 he was appointed lecturer in his university's new law school. Small staffing meant a heavy workload: Fry taught constitutional and criminal law, Equity, torts, and property and conveyancing. He employed 'a modified case method of teaching and preferred seminars to the traditional lecturing system'; students found him helpful and kind hearted. Visiting London, he married Orma Howard Smith on 25 January 1937 at St Margaret's parish church, Westminster.

Fry had remained in the Militia, served as honorary aide-de-camp to the governor of Queensland, Sir Leslie Wilson, and was mobilized in 1939. Transferred as major to the Australian Imperial Force on 15 June 1940, he performed the duties of judge-advocate, Middle East (1940-42); he was promoted lieutenant colonel in January 1941 and mentioned in dispatches. Back home, from June 1944 he headed a team in the Directorate of Research (and Civil Affairs), consolidating the laws of Papua and New Guinea. He ceased full-time service on 11 September 1946 and that year returned to the University of Queensland as a senior lecturer. Because he 'trod on many toes', his talents did not receive full recognition by the State's legal profession.

In 1948 Fry resigned to take charge of the Sydney-based legal research section, Department of External Territories, where he continued his earlier work on the laws of Papua and New Guinea, and began their revision. His minister from 1951, (Sir) Paul Hasluck, considered him 'a singular man with exceptional gifts', but recognized the degree to which he lacked 'worldly practicality'. They shared a happy and mutually respectful working relationship. Survived by his wife and two daughters, Fry died of a cerebral haemorrhage on 23 September 1952 in Canberra and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hasluck, A Time for Building (Melb, 1976)
  • E. Smith, The Australia Card (Melb, 1989)
  • Australian Law Journal, 16 Oct 1952, p 316
  • University of Queensland Law Journal, 2, Nov 1952, p 86
  • Queenslander , 6 June 1929
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 4 Feb 1932, 8 July 1940, 11 Nov 1942, 31 Jan 1948, 25 Sept 1952
  • s135, staff files (University of Queensland Archives).

Citation details

Ian Carnell, 'Fry, Thomas Penberthy (1904–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 14 June 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

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