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Carpenter, Sir Walter Randolph (1877–1954)

by H. N. Nelson

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Sir Walter Randolph Carpenter (1877-1954), merchant, was born on 31 October 1877 at Singapore, Straits Settlements, son of John Bolton Carpenter and his English wife Emma Frances, née Griffin. John, a merchant, whaler and sea captain, came from New Haven, Connecticut, United States of America. Restricted by the American Civil War he had made the Straits Settlements his base and been naturalized a British subject. In 1885 he moved his family to Sydney and became a skipper for Burns, Philp & Co. In 1891, while commanding the company's Costa Rica Packet, he was arrested at Ternate in the Dutch East Indies and then involved in the long struggle for compensation.

To help the family, Walter left Forest Lodge Public School at 14 and joined the Sydney office of Burns Philp. After a year at Esperance, Western Australia, about 1896 he moved to the Thursday Island branch. There on 18 December 1899 he married Edith Anderson, daughter of a sugar-planter. That year he left Burns Philp, bought three luggers and set up a family pearl-shelling business, registered as J. B. Carpenter & Sons Ltd in 1901; Walter was managing director at a salary of £300. In 1905 he was chairman of the Torres Shire Council. Leaving his brother William in charge, Carpenter left Thursday Island late in 1908 and rejoined Burns Philp. After a year in Sydney, he went to Fiji and managed Robbie, Kaad Co. Ltd, recently bought by Burns Philp.

In 1914 Carpenter returned to Sydney and in September registered W. R. Carpenter & Co. Ltd: its first shareholders apart from himself, were P. A. Morris and (Sir J.) Maynard Hedstrom, who later founded Morris Hedstrom Ltd, Fiji. When World War I began Carpenter realized the importance of copra in making munitions and for food, and bought it wherever he could find it and raise credit, chartering 'almost anything that would float', including an old sailing ship, to get it to England. He took enormous risks but made huge profits, and was ideally placed to expand into New Guinea after the Australian government had expropriated German property. Under his able management, the company helped to finance, and later took over, the plantations of some Australian ex-servicemen who became heavily indebted when copra prices fell; it became large storekeepers, traders and property owners in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands — in 1922 he had set up W. R. Carpenter & Co. (Solomon Islands) Ltd. Although much abused by some planters and small traders — W.R.C. was said to stand for 'Would Rob Christ' — Carpenters' also earned the gratitude of those who survived on long-term credit and who looked to it to transact all their business.

Carpenter took advantage of the development of the rich Morobe goldfields in New Guinea; he acquired hotels in Wau and Bulolo, set up electrical power plants and cold stores in various centres, operated a small fleet of inter-island steamers, built and equipped a slip in Rabaul, and operated a desiccated coconut factory. In 1933 he established the first air service between Salamaua and Wau with two De Haviland Fox Moths and next year a direct shipping-line between Australia, the Western Pacific and European ports: most of his ships were built in Australia. Between 1924 and 1934 the company never failed to pay an 8 per cent dividend and extended its trading operations into the Gilbert and Ellice Islands. In 1935 Carpenter set up the Southern Pacific Insurance Co. Ltd, next year acquired a controlling interest in Jobson Brown & Joske Ltd of Suva, Fiji, and soon expanded his airline when he successfully tendered for the government-subsidized route between Rabaul and Australia.

Carpenter had strongly advocated devaluation as a solution to trading difficulties. He had long deplored the effects of 'socialist' trends on the Australian economy and as the 1930s progressed he criticized the Commonwealth government's negative attitude to Australian defence, shipping and ship-builders and urgently stressed the need to develop a strong navy: 'We should concentrate on cruisers, with the Singapore Base as the bulwark of our defence'; in 1938 he also advocated compulsory military training. Fearing the worst he gradually transferred most of his capital out of Australia.

A considerable philanthropist, Carpenter subsidized pound for pound the Home for Destitute Children, and in 1935 gave a house at Wollstonecraft worth £15,000 and £5000 in cash to the Commonwealth government for a jubilee maternity hospital. He was knighted in 1936.

On the outbreak of World War II Carpenter's ships and aeroplanes were commandeered by the British and Australian governments. However in 1940 he visited the U.S.A. and managed to purchase two freighters 'under conditions which allow him to operate in the Pacific free of European control'. He then formed a new company in Canada, built a copra-crushing mill near Vancouver and found a healthy North American market. Although his buildings and plantations in New Guinea and the Solomon, Gilbert and Ellice islands were destroyed when Japan entered the war, he did well from the wartime prosperity of Fiji, and later received compensation for war damage. Soon after the war he bought two British ships for the Australian-Canadian run. In November 1941 he had settled permanently in Vancouver and in May 1948 he and his wife took out Canadian citizenship.

In Sydney Sir Walter belonged to the National, Millions and Tattersall's clubs and the Royal Automobile Club of Australia—he enjoyed playing tennis, billiards and 'bad golf', but 'revelled in work'. Bald and bespectacled, he was tall and powerfully built, of 'a merry habit and breezy personality' with 'an admirable habit of laughing at himself'. He was a brilliant manager, farsighted and enterprising, kind to his employees but tough with competitors. Having survived high risks in early trading, he later built up huge internal reserves to cope with fluctuations in marketing conditions.

After several heart attacks, Carpenter died on 1 February 1954 at Killara, while on a visit to Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters; his sons succeeded him as managing directors of W. R. Carpenter & Co. Ltd, and in 1956 bought a controlling interest in Morris Hedstrom Ltd. His estate was valued for probate at £50,387 in New South Wales and $923,481 in Canada.

With Burns Philp and the Colonial Sugar Refining Co., W. R. Carpenter & Co. had been the most tangible signs of Australia's involvement in the south-west Pacific. The extent to which they did good while doing well, or insensitively exploited islands and islanders has largely determined Australia's reputation in the region.

Select Bibliography

  • Journal (Legislative Council, New South Wales), 1894-95, 53, pt 2, 345-437
  • Pacific Islands Monthly, Jan 1936, May 1941, Feb 1954, Dec 1955
  • Rydge's, June 1936
  • J. B. Carpenter papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

H. N. Nelson, 'Carpenter, Sir Walter Randolph (1877–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/carpenter-sir-walter-randolph-5510/text9379, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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