Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Older articles are being reviewed with a view to bringing them into line with contemporary values but the original text will remain available for historical context.

Sir Robert Townley Scott (1841–1922)

by Ian Carnell

This article was published:

Sir Robert Townley Scott (1841-1922), public servant, was born on 30 December 1841 at Dorney, Buckinghamshire, England, son of Robert Scott, bricklayer and later a surveyor and architect, and his wife Sophia, née Yeatman. The family arrived in Brisbane in December 1848 where Scott was educated at private schools. Employed as a supernumerary clerk in the Brisbane General Post Office in 1862, he was permanently appointed to the Queensland civil service as a clerk in 1863. As a relieving postmaster, undertaking inspection work, his 'remarkable capacity for detail work and steadiness and application beyond the ordinary' was noted. His zeal and broad knowledge of departmental operations resulted in a series of promotions. On 9 September 1868 he married London-born Ellen Wright in Brisbane; they had four sons and a daughter.

In 1870 Scott was appointed superintendent of mails. Staff found him 'a man of wide experience; very severe, but very just'. He was closely involved in the rapid expansion of the postal service as Queensland grew. Upon the retirement of the long-serving John McDonnell in 1899, Scott was appointed under secretary and superintendent of telegraphs (departmental head). The Commonwealth Postmaster-General's Department, to which all State postal departments were transferred in March 1901, was the largest of seven new Federal departments. Scott's selection as first secretary of the new department by J. G. Drake produced accusations of State bias. Critics claimed that the Victorian head F. L. Outtrim should have been preferred, though his conservative and autocratic ways hardly made him suitable. As State departmental heads continued as deputy postmasters-general, co-operation with Scott was minimal. He found his department starved of funds for staff and equipment (much of it in poor condition when handed over) and fettered by the authority of Public Service Commissioner D. C. McLachlan over staffing, and by the Department of Home Affairs over accommodation expenditure. Scott's personal abilities were respected: he was appointed I.S.O. in 1903 and was knighted in 1909; his appointment was renewed annually four times after he reached 65 in 1906.

After much public criticism, a royal commission on postal services reported in 1910 on the need for adequate funding and removal of constraints. Scott was slated together with ministers and deputies, but his task had been impossible. He retired finally in December 1910. He was dedicated to his work—'his office has been to him tennis, cricket, fishing, theatre—even at times church'. Scott was described as a 'kindly disciplinarian', 'nimble of limb and agile of mind', with keen dark eyes, white hair and beard.

He died on 3 August 1922 at home in Brisbane and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Congregational forms.

Select Bibliography

  • P. J. Gribble, What Hath God Wrought? (Brisb, 1981)
  • Royal Commission on Postal Services, Parliamentary Papers (Commonwealth), 1910, vols 4, 5
  • I. Carnell, ‘Sir Robert Townley Scott: an assessment’, Canberra Historical Journal, Mar 1988
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Mar 1905, 18 Nov 1909
  • Telegraph (Brisbande), 4 Aug 1922, 1 Feb 1926
  • Brisbane Courier, 5 Aug 1922
  • Queenslander, 12 Aug 1922.

Citation details

Ian Carnell, 'Scott, Sir Robert Townley (1841–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 June 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

Robert Scott, 1900

Robert Scott, 1900

State Library of Queensland, 10897

Life Summary [details]


30 December, 1841
Dorney, Buckinghamshire, England


3 August, 1922 (aged 80)
Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.