Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Thomas Grahamslaw (1901–1973)

by H. N. Nelson

This article was published:

Thomas Grahamslaw (1901-1973), public servant and soldier, was born on 3 March 1901 at Townsville, Queensland, only son and eldest of six children of James Gray Grahamslaw, a tinsmith from Scotland, and his native-born wife Annie, née Meldon. Educated at state schools in North Queensland, in 1911 he followed his parents to Papua where his father had found work as a plumber. Thomas was sent to the new, one-teacher school for White children in Port Moresby, but left at 14 to become a grocer's-boy in the British New Guinea Development Co. Ltd's store. In 1916, after many government officers had enlisted for service in World War I, he joined the Territory's public service as a cadet clerk on £1 a week.

In a civil service of fewer than 140 people, Grahamslaw was given numerous responsibilities. As acting-collector of customs at Daru from 1924, he was the only member of his department in the Western Division; subsequently based on Woodlark Island, he was also mining registrar, inspector of native labour and gaoler. On 15 April 1939 at the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary, Port Moresby, he married May McLean, a schoolteacher; they were later divorced.

When the Japanese threatened Papua in early 1942, Grahamslaw was collector of customs and postmaster at Samarai. Ordered to Port Moresby on the suspension of civil administration in February, he saw Australian soldiers and airmen looting the town. In that month he enlisted in the Militia. He was posted to the Papuan (later Australian New Guinea) Administrative Unit, commissioned and appointed district officer of the Northern District. At Buna when the Japanese landed in July, he was soon behind enemy lines as their forces advanced through Kokoda. To bring help to stranded troops, airmen and missionaries, he made an extraordinary lone walk across Papua to Abau on the south coast.

Grahamslaw instructed Australian troops before they fought on the Kokoda Track, reconnoitred difficult country and helped to organize Papuan carriers, whom he praised for their dedication and fortitude. The Japanese were progressively cleared from the Northern District. Promoted temporary major, he reopened administration headquarters at Higaturu in October, and began re-establishing government control and services. He continued to recruit labourers for the army and worked with American divisions moving into combat. In his reminiscences of his A.N.G.A.U. service (Pacific Islands Monthly, March-May 1971) he left a poignant description of the hangings of twenty-two Papuans convicted of crimes during the Japanese occupation. He was appointed O.B.E. (1943) for his part in the Papuan campaign.

Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in January 1943, Grahamslaw took over the Lakekamu District early next year and patrolled the Goilala country. From mid-1944 he commanded the Southern Region, and was responsible for the administration of virtually all Papua and of New Guinea south of the Markham River. He was promoted temporary lieutenant colonel in January 1945 (substantive in September). In October he handed control to the first postwar administrator (Sir) Keith Murray and ceased full-time duty on 4 February 1946.

After the war Grahamslaw was superintendent of stores (1945) in Port Moresby, assistant-collector of customs (1949) and chief collector (from 1955). He served as a member of the Legislative Council in 1955-60 and was appointed to the Executive Council in 1960. One of the few 'deskmen' to have the respect of field-staff, he was the 'popular old-time public servant' to the press and, affectionately, 'Uncle Tom' to his subordinates. Grahamslaw was fluent in several local languages and had a deep concern for the people of Papua. Of middle height and strongly built, he had played tennis and cricket as a young man, and belonged to the Port Moresby Golf Club for thirty years. In 1961 he retired to New South Wales. On 25 October that year he married a widow Mary Emilie Chase, née Williams, at the Congregational Church, Vaucluse, Sydney. Survived by her, he died on 16 December 1973 at Gosford and was cremated with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Tudor (ed), Pacific Islands Year Book and Who's Who (Syd, 1968)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Feb 1974
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Dec 1973
  • Grahamslaw papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'Grahamslaw, Thomas (1901–1973)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 14 April 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]


3 March, 1901
Townsville, Queensland, Australia


16 December, 1973 (aged 72)
Gosford, New South Wales, Australia

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