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Walter Richard (Dickie) Humphries (1890–1951)

by D. C. Lewis

This article was published:

Walter Richard (Dickie) Humphries (1890?-1951), civil servant, was born probably on 16 October 1890, either at Streatham, London, or Purow, Cape Province, South Africa, son of Henry Horan Humphries, stockbroker. On 6 August 1912 Richard was appointed to the Papuan service as a patrol officer. As one of (Sir) Hubert Murray's 'outside men', he carried out his instructions punctiliously and self-effacingly, setting a pattern for the younger field officers who followed him. In 1916-17 he served as acting assistant resident magistrate on the Lakekamu goldfields. From July to September 1917 he took part in a major overland patrol which travelled from Lakekamu station, Nepa, in the south, to Ioma, in the northern Mambare Division, and explored the country of the warlike Kukukuku people en route. At St Mary's Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, on 22 January 1919 he married Ethel Frances Puxley, a civil servant.

Between 1918 and 1941 Dickie Humphries served in turn at Misima and Abau, and as resident magistrate of the Gulf, Delta, Northern and Central divisions. He undertook numerous patrols, some attended with risk, while from 1927 raising his two daughters after his wife had died of blackwater fever. On 6 November 1932 at St Peter's Anglican Church, Wanigela, he married Myra Blanche Hain. In 1935 he conducted an inquiry at Kikori into the deaths of tribesmen who had attacked Jack Hides's and James O'Malley's Strickland-Purari patrol. He served on the Papuan Executive Council in 1941-42 and 1949-51.

Humphries was articulate and had a literary bent. He wrote humorous and instructive articles for 'southern' newspapers, some serious verse for the Papuan Courier, patrol and district reports, and vocabularies of Papuan languages. His Patrolling in Papua (London, 1923) was part of an impressive publishing tradition that included the work of such field officers as Wilfred Beaver, Charles Monckton, Hides and Ivan Champion. Cool and brave under threat, Humphries was compact and nimble, his athleticism and vigour matched by an emotional disposition and an uncompromising morality. As a desk officer, he demonstrated the same meticulous competence and energy he had shown in the field. He did not spare his subordinates and could be harsh. Much respected, he was sometimes feared.

In December 1942 Humphries was appointed captain in the Citizen Military Forces and posted to the Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit. Given responsibility for the army's radio station in Port Moresby, he was promoted major (May 1944). In May 1943 he had presided at the trial of 'renegade' Papuans in the Northern Division who had collaborated with Japanese forces; twenty-two of the accused Papuans were executed, to the anger of the people of Higaturu.

Transferring to the Reserve of Officers in July 1945, Humphries served in the administration of the Territory of Papua and New Guinea, from 1950 as director of native labour. During a final tour of inspection before his retirement he was killed at Higaturu with over 3000 villagers and 34 Europeans (including one of his daughters, her husband and their two children) in the eruption of Mount Lamington on 21 January 1951. His wife survived him, as did the other daughter of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sinclair, Last Frontiers (Gold Coast, Qld, 1988)
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Feb 1951
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10, 17 May 1943, 13 May 1978
  • private information.

Citation details

D. C. Lewis, 'Humphries, Walter Richard (Dickie) (1890–1951)', 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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