Some biographical notes on pre-war New Guinea administrative staff: Philip Selth

I am writing a biography of John Joseph ‘Mangrove’ Murphy (1914-1997), New Guinea Patrol Officer, Coastwatcher, POW, District Commissioner.

As part of my research into John Murphy’s life, I am endeavouring to prepare brief biographies of many of those with whom Murphy worked or in some way had contact. Unfortunately, there are few published biographies of these pioneer men and women. The Australian Dictionary of Biography has entries for men such as Sir John Murray, Ernest Chinnery, Harold Page, Mick Leahy, John Black, Father William Ross, Joan Refshague and Leigh Vial. There are biographies of Dan Leahy and Father Ross*, and James Sinclair gives us tantalising glimpses of many in his books such as Golden Gateway: Lae & the Province of Morobe, Bathurst, 1998. There is the invaluable ABC radio series Taim Bilong Masta: The Australian involvement with Papua New Guinea, made by Tim Bowden and Hank Nelson in 1980 and Hank Nelson’s book based on the radio series, Taim Bilong Masta: The Australian involvement with Papua New Guinea, Sydney, 1982. There is also James Griffin’s edited Papua New Guinea portraits: The expatriate experience, Canberra, 1978.There are other books and articles, but with a few exceptions they provide little biographical information on individual members of the pre WW2 New Guinea Administration. I hope to contribute to the filling of this gap.

The PNGAA has graciously offered to post on its web site my biographies, in the hope that others will come forward with information about their subjects, and correct any errors I may have made.

John Murphy went to New Guinea in June 1936. His first posting was to Salamaua under the “doyen of District Officers”, Ted Taylor. He was immediately set to observe the more experienced staff at work, including Warrant Officer Tom Upson, in charge of the police. One of his first patrols was with John Black to check on the work of the surveyor Max Bergin. In 1938 Murphy attended a six-month course at the University of Sydney with 15 colleagues, among whom were Les Howlett and Lloyd Pursehouse.

Thomas William Upson was born in Enfield, Middlesex, England on 25 January 1902. He was appointed to the New Guinea Administration on 29 January 1929. He was in charge of Police at Madang when war broke out. Upson enlisted in ANGAU at Kainantu, New Guinea on 14 February 1942 as a WO2, and promoted Lieutenant on 4 August 1942. He was present at the execution of Tuya, killer of Les Howlett. Major Upson, Officer in Charge, 1 Australian War Criminals Compound, Manus Island, was discharged on 14 February 1950 when the Navy assumed full responsibility for the control and administration of the compound from 1 March 1950. His duties had included being the hangman for Japanese war criminals. Upson returned to duty with the Territory of Papua-New Guinea Police Force on 4 March 1950. Superintendent of Police Upson, Department of Civil Affairs, retired to Brisbane on 31 August 1957. He died in Brisbane General Hospital on 14 February 1964.

Max Wulfing Bergin, born on 10 August 1900, a qualified surveyor in NSW, commenced in New Guinea as a temporary chainman on 24 April 1931, having previously spent two years in the Federated Malay States as Assistant Superintendent, Topographical Surveys, and then a period with the Revenue Survey Branch in the Malay States. In July 1932 he was appointed as a Surveyor. He married Joan Refshauge in May 1937 in Melbourne. He joined the NGVR in August 1941 (after failing to join the RAAF), and was mobilised on 22 January 1942. He commenced with ANGAU on 14 February 1942, serving, among other postings, on the Rai coast. Bergin enlisted in the AIF on 6 February 1943; Lt Bergin was discharged from ANGAU on 7 January 1946. He joined the Provisional Administration of Papua-New Guinea on 8 May 1946. In May 1947 Bergin, then an officer of the Department of Lands, Mines and Surveys, at Kanakaul, near Kokopo, was charged with having carnal knowledge of a native against the order of nature. Convicted in the Supreme Court in Rabaul by Justice Phillips, Bergin was sentenced on 11 July 1947 to nine months’ imprisonment with hard labour. Justice Phillips (at Bergin’s request) recommended treatment by a psychiatrist. Bergin was formally dismissed from the Provisional Administration that day. Bergin served his sentence in NSW; he was released from the State Penitentiary, Long Bay on 28 January 1948. He was not permitted to return to New Guinea (or Papua). Bergin took up a position as a surveyor on Rarotonga during the 1950s, where he lived until his death in 1983.

Howlett, Leslie (Les) Frederick. The Tasmanian teacher, born 13 December 1923, who the Public Service Inspector thought “has a good physique, gives impression of sternness and would be strict disciplinarian and is a good sound and reliable type”, was appointed a Cadet as of 22 February 1936. Howlett enlisted on 22 January 1940. Captain Howlett was attached to the Far Eastern Liaison Office (FELO), a military propaganda and field intelligence unit established in June 1942 ultimately responsible to the Commander-in-Chief, South West Pacific area (Douglas Macarthur), when he joined Peter Ryan on a patrol into the Wain country. Howlett was injured in a Japanese ambush at Chivasing village in the Markham Valley on 21 June 1943 and subsequently shot through the head by the native Tuya, who was assisting the Japanese. (Tuya was tried for murder, and executed in February 1944.)

Pursehouse, Lloyd (Chook). Born at Goulburn on 4 November 1912 and educated at Canberra Grammar School as a boarder (School Captain 1930), Pursehouse was appointed a Cadet as of 5 September 1935, having been interviewed by the Minister for Territories, Major Charles Marr and found to be “a good type”. Mobilised on 14 February 1942, Pursehouse was stationed at Finschhafen at the time of the fall of Rabaul. He radioed a warning of Japanese carrier based aircraft headed for Lae and Salamaua on 21 January 1942. (The warning was picked up at Lae but not at Salamaua, because the power unit for the radio station was not working.) His position was discovered by the Japanese on 8 March and he signed off over the radio: “This is my last message – I’m off.” He then walked for six weeks through the jungle to safety. After serving with ANGAU, Pursehouse joined “M” Special Unit in May 1943, formally transferring to the AIF on 1 June 1943. He was posted to Arawe and Sio. Lent because of his local knowledge to the 2/17th Battalion pushing up from Finschhafen to Sio, on 17 January 1944 Captain Pursehouse was killed by a Japanese straggler.

I would be grateful for any assistance readers of Una Voce can give me to improve these biographical notes. Please contact me at: PO Box 1682, Lane Cove NSW 1595 Ph: 02 9229 1735 E:

* Mary R. Mennis, Hagen saga: The story of Father William Ross, first American missionary to Papua New Guinea, Boroko, PNG, 1982; John Fowke, Kundi Dan : Dan Leahy’s life among the highlanders of Papua New Guinea , Brisbane, 1995.


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