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Sir Samuel Augustus Pethebridge (1862–1918)

by Granville Allen Mawer

This article was published:

Samuel Augustus Pethebridge (1862-1918), by J. T. Tennent, 1915-18

Samuel Augustus Pethebridge (1862-1918), by J. T. Tennent, 1915-18

Australian War Memorial, H15066

Sir Samuel Augustus Pethebridge (1862-1918), public servant and military administrator, was born on 3 August 1862 at Spring Hill, Brisbane, son of Devon-born Henry Lander Pethebridge, carpenter and sometime superintendent of the Cape Bowling Green lighthouse near Townsville, and his Sydney-born wife Elizabeth Mary, née Symons. He attended state schools in Brisbane and Townsville and had some private tuition but in September 1876 followed his father into the harbours, lighthouses and pilot department of the Queensland Public Service as a junior clerk. He also trained to become the department's electric telegraph operator and in 1885 was promoted clerk. On 25 August 1887 he married Mary Ada Simmonds in Brisbane with Baptist forms.

Major advancement came his way in 1888 with appointment as secretary to the Marine Board, a post he held until 1901. His connexion with the sea was reinforced when in 1893 he was commissioned sub-lieutenant in the Queensland Naval Brigade, a militia force supporting the gunboats of the Queensland Marine Defence Force. Through the brigade he met Captain (Sir) William Creswell, naval commandant of Queensland and later of the Commonwealth. Pethebridge was to reach the rank of commander on his retirement from the brigade in 1903. Following Federation, his naval and administrative qualifications secured for him the appointment of chief clerk in the Department of Defence under the secretary, Captain (Sir) Muirhead Collins. In 1906 Collins went to London and, although he nominally remained secretary until 1910, control of the department passed to Pethebridge. As acting secretary he effected major changes in administration.

In 1905 administrative control of the naval and military forces was vested in two boards of officers. The minister for defence chaired and Pethebridge was secretary to both bodies, unambiguously establishing the principle of ministerial authority. His minister Thomas Playford was to write of him that 'a more honourable man or a more competent officer it has never been my fortune to meet'. Pethebridge was not a public figure, nor a policy innovator. Thirty years in the public service had made its conventions of anonymity and subordination to ministers second nature to him. His only venture into the public arena was a memorandum, officially published in 1908, on the proposed organization of a national guard for land defence. Even this was not a personal initiative. He was merely giving substance to the Deakin government's compulsory military training proposals and brought a purely administrative approach to the task. In any dispute between ministers and the military there was never any doubt about where Pethebridge would perceive his duty to lie. Creswell was opposed to the visit of the American Fleet in 1908, so Deakin appointed Pethebridge to make arrangements for its reception.

His duties were onerous and he was conscientious; Pethebridge's health began to fail. In 1910 he succeeded Collins as secretary but his most vigorous years were already behind him. In 1911 he accompanied Commonwealth ministers to London for the Imperial Conference and was appointed C.M.G. in 1912. At the outbreak of World War I he was returning from abroad. There was a reluctance to displace the acting secretary, Thomas Trumble, who had distinguished himself in the frenzied weeks which preceded the despatch of the Australian Imperial Force; Trumble continued to act for Pethebridge who was offered command of the North-West Pacific Expedition raised to occupy German islands north of the equator.

He accepted the post and was given the military rank of colonel, but before the expedition could sail the British government decided to allow the North Pacific islands to be left in the hands of their Japanese occupiers. Pethebridge suggested that his unit, known as Tropical Force, might be used to relieve the expeditionary force led by Colonel W. Holmes which had captured German New Guinea in the first weeks of the war. This was accepted, and in January 1915 Pethebridge succeeded Holmes as administrator at Rabaul.

Pethebridge's task was an unusual one for an Australian. German New Guinea was occupied territory and under the terms of the capitulation its laws and customs were to continue in force, including some at variance with British practice such as the use of corporal punishment to ensure labour discipline. The restrictions irked Pethebridge but he scrupulously observed the terms which set the bounds of his administration. He could be neither empire builder nor missionary. His role was caretaker of a valuable asset, to be husbanded against the day when Australia might gain legal right of possession.

One of his first tasks was a tour of outposts, which took four months. After April 1915, however, he rarely left Rabaul and his administration settled into the enervating routine of garrison life. Pethebridge's main achievements were economic. Communications throughout the territory and with Australia were consolidated, kidnapping of native labour was stopped and the Australian banking system introduced. The territory's trade was secured for Australia and economic life normalized as far as possible. An important element in the even tenor of his administration was freedom from interference: Trumble and the defence minister (Sir) George Pearce were content to leave matters largely in his hands. Pethebridge's contribution was publicly acknowledged by promotion to brigadier general in 1916 and appointment as K.C.M.G. in 1917.

For a man of his age and health every month in the tropics was a gamble and in January 1917 his luck ran out. He contracted malaria which permanently weakened him and forced him to return to Australia in October. In Melbourne his condition worsened and he died on 25 January 1918, survived by his wife, two sons and a daughter. He was buried with full military honours in Box Hill cemetery.

Pethebridge was a man of distinguished appearance and his official persona was remote and even dour; but those who knew him in his more informal moments, particularly his subordinates at Rabaul, testified to personal warmth and sympathy. He inspired affection as well as respect. His successor at Rabaul, S. S. Mackenzie, later the official historian of the occupation, judged Pethebridge to be the outstanding figure in the military administration of New Guinea, his work providing the administrative basis for its orderly post-war transition from German colony to Australian mandated territory.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Ryan (ed), Encyclopaedia of Papua and New Guinea (Melb, 1972), and for bibliography under Pethebridge
  • Sydney Mail, 15 Dec 1915
  • Rabaul Record, 1 Feb 1917, 1 Feb 1918, 1 Mar 1918
  • Age (Melbourne), 26 Jan 1918.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Granville Allen Mawer, 'Pethebridge, Sir Samuel Augustus (1862–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Samuel Augustus Pethebridge (1862-1918), by J. T. Tennent, 1915-18

Samuel Augustus Pethebridge (1862-1918), by J. T. Tennent, 1915-18

Australian War Memorial, H15066

Life Summary [details]


3 August, 1862
Spring Hill, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia


25 January, 1918 (aged 55)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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