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Francis West (Frank) Statham (1916–1999)

by Pamela Statham-Drew

This article was published online in 2022

Francis West Statham, by Peter R. Whyte, late 1970s.

Francis West Statham, by Peter R. Whyte, late 1970s.

Photograph privately sourced.

Francis West Statham (1916–1999), engineer and army officer, was born on 25 June 1916 at Toowoomba, Queensland, only child of New South Wales-born Geoffrey Houison Statham, Solomon Islands copra planter, and his Queensland-born wife Jane Rose, née West. Frank was raised on Buki-Buki, Marovo Lagoon, British Solomon Islands Protectorate. After his father died of black-water fever in 1924, his mother managed the plantation for a year. They then relocated to Sydney where Frank attended North Sydney Boys’ High School. Owing to financial constraints, he was apprenticed at fourteen to S. T. Leigh & Co. Pty Ltd, a subsidiary of British Tobacco Company (Australia) Ltd, as a fitter and turner. At the same time he took night classes at Sydney Technical College, graduating with a diploma in mechanical engineering (1939). His paternal grandfather, Edwyn Joseph Statham, had been a civil engineer in the New South Wales government’s Department of Roads and Bridges, which may explain his choice of career.

On 10 May 1938 Statham joined the part-time Citizen Military Forces (CMF) and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Australian Army Ordnance Corps. He transferred to the Australian Imperial Force on 13 November 1939, so becoming one of the early volunteers to serve overseas in World War II. On 9 December that year at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney, he married Hazel Winifred Thompson. A month later, he sailed for the Middle East as captain, commanding the advance party of the 2/1st Army Field Workshop, 6th Division.

Promoted to major in December 1940, Statham was posted as deputy assistant director of ordnance services at headquarters, 9th Division. He served with that division through the withdrawal from Benghazi and the siege of Tobruk, Libya. In late 1942 he returned to Sydney. Now a lieutenant colonel, he was made commander of the 2/1st Armoured Troops Workshop and sent to Western Australia. There he was involved in fortifying the north-west, including the construction of airfields and gun emplacements.

In late 1944 Statham was posted to Lae, New Guinea. He was praised for work as assistant deputy director of mechanical engineering of II Corps (May-June 1945) and the First Army (August-September 1945), and for having developed a repair technique to prolong the life of equipment. In October he returned to Sydney and was transferred to the Reserve of Officers. He was appointed OBE in 1947 for his ‘consistent outstanding display of ability and leadership’ (NA WO373/65). After the war, he would serve part time with the CMF in Victoria (1948 and 1955–61); he was later colonel commandant, Royal Australian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, Western Australia (1976–82).

Resuming his civilian career at British Tobacco in 1945, Statham managed its factory at Morpeth, New South Wales. In the late 1940s he was promoted to chief engineer of the company’s Melbourne operations, but found his skills underutilised. Seeking alternative employment, he became general manager of Standard Steel Co. Pty Ltd. Early in 1953 he was appointed chief plant engineer in the Commonwealth Department of Works. Although based in Melbourne, he supervised the construction of roads, bridges, jetties, and airports across Australia’s territories including on the mainland, Papua and New Guinea, and Cocos (Keeling) Islands. He was a fellow of the Australian Institute of Management (1959) and the Institution of Engineers, Australia (1963).

Statham was promoted to director of works for the Western Australian region in April 1965, and moved to Perth. His primary task was to oversee the planning and construction of HMAS Stirling, the naval base on Garden Island. He would be responsible for many other projects including the Commonwealth Centre taxation building and the Wellington Telephone Exchange, and works at the Royal Australian Air Force Base, Pearce, and at the Campbell and Irwin army barracks, Perth. The naval base, and the causeway connecting it to the mainland, remained a source of personal pride. For periods in 1974 and 1975 he was acting deputy secretary of the department and was called on to coordinate its relief efforts after Cyclone Tracy struck Darwin.

In February 1977 Hazel died of cancer. On 16 September at the parish church of Saint Margaret, Nedlands, Statham married Vivian Bullwinkel, a former army nurse whom he had known for many years. He encouraged her to recount her story as the sole survivor of the massacre of nurses by Japanese forces on Banka Island, Netherlands East Indies (Indonesia), in 1942. In June 1981 he retired, and spent more time with friends at the Weld Club, the Highgate sub-branch of the Returned Services League of Australia, the State branch of the Royal Commonwealth Society, and the Rotary Club of Nedlands. He served on the boards of Princess Margaret Hospital for Children (1975–84) and the State committee of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (1975–78). In 1982 he became the inaugural executive officer of the University of Western Australia’s engineering foundation.

While accompanying Vivian to Canberra for the unveiling of the Australian Service Nurses National Memorial in October 1999, Statham became seriously ill, and was repatriated to Perth. Survived by his ailing wife (d. 2000), and the son and daughter of his first marriage, he died on 3 December 1999 at Bicton, Perth, and was cremated.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Department of Housing and Construction, West Australian Region. Fifty Years of Construction. Perth: The Department, 1981
  • Engineering Heritage Western Australia. ‘Statham, Frank.’ Accessed 20 August 2021. Copy held on ADB file
  • National Archives (UK). WO 373/65/2045
  • National Archives of Australia. A13860, NX225
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Sacks, Margaret A., ed. The Way 79 Who Is Who: Synoptic Biographies of Western Australians. Nedlands, WA: Crawley Publishers, 1980
  • State Library of Western Australia. ACC7878A, Francis West Statham Papers
  • Statham Papers. Private collection

Additional Resources

Citation details

Pamela Statham-Drew, 'Statham, Francis West (Frank) (1916–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2022, accessed online 18 May 2024.

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