PORT MORESBY - Bill McGrath, who died on Tuesday after a long illness, went to Papua New Guinea on 16 April 1953 as a 20 year old cadet patrol officer - 66 years ago.
He later transferred to the Royal PNG Constabulary as a police officer before moving to the Lands Department under the renowned Ivan Champion where he was involved with the purchase of land for the Rouna hydro-electric scheme.
He also worked with Champion at the Land Titles Commission and was a consultant and adviser on land matters throughout the Pacific islands.
After leaving the public service he returned to PNG from time to time to advise mineral and petroleum exploration companies on land matters.
Bill wrote and published some books and technical manuals including ‘Notes for the Guidance of Administration Officers Engaged in the Investigation of Rights to Native Land and Purchase of Native Land’ and a bibliography of books written about Papua New Guinea.
This led him to establish the Pacific Book House on the Gold Coast, which became the go-to place for people wanting to obtain books with a PNG or Pacific theme.
Bill was born in Fremantle, Western Australia, and is survived by his wife Pat and two sons from his first marriage.
Early in 2011, Keith Jackson spoke to Bill about books and about his career in PNG and the Pacific, and that interview is reproduced here.
Keith Jackson - Where did your interest in buying and selling books come from?
Bill McGrath - I was working in the State of Hawaii in the 1970's and visited a local bookshop that specialised in books of the Pacific Islands, which gave me the idea that one day I may set up a similar bookshop in Australia.
So how did it get started and in what circumstances?
In Brisbane in 1984, after attending the annual Brisbane Book Fair, I took steps to set up a mail order bookshop based at my home at Broadbeach Waters on the Gold Coast.
Are there any particular problems in dealing with books about the Pacific?
Over several years I managed to source books on the Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea from a variety of distributors not only in Australia but in Hawaii, the US mainland and the UK. Sourcing was made more difficult when some book distributors, particularly the larger book distributors, never did like to deal with a small bookseller even on a prepaid cash order.
Where is your main market?
Presently I am selling mainly to Australians and other expats who are working in Papua New Guinea. Those Australians and other Europeans who work on a fly-in fly-out basis in PNG have sizeable amounts of disposable income and some buy books on PNG. I also sell to PNG university libraries. Unfortunately the PNG government seems to have very little in the way of funds to purchase books for the PNG National Library, PNG Archives, and provincial libraries.
And what kind of books are the most popular?
Mainly exploration and travel, anthropology and books on the Pacific War.
What was your original association with PNG?
After completing an Engineering, Surveying Cadetship in the Public Works Department of Western Australia from 1950-1953, I joined the Administration of the Territory of Papua New Guinea as a Cadet Patrol Officer in April 1953 and served on the headquarters staff at Konedobu.
Then you became a fully fledged kiap?
Yes, in 1955 I was promoted to Patrol Officer and became Officer in Charge at Erave Patrol Post in the Southern Highland Province which had just been established by Patrol Officer's Brand and Battersby. In 1958 I attended a Long Course at ASOPA and in 1959 was appointed as Patrol Officer [Lands] at Konedobu Headquarters. I undertook land buying assignments for the PNG Administration in the Central, New Britain and Northern Districts.
In 1961 I transferred to the Lands Department and remained there until December 1965, I was headhunted to be Director of Lands and Surveys of the US Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands at Saipan. My six-year contract specified that I had to be replaced by a suitably qualified and experienced Ponapean Micronesian was appointed.
So you pursued a career in the Pacific?
I moved to Hawaii in the beginning of 1971 to the position of Land Department Manager in C Brewer and Co Limited, one of the big five Hawaiian landowners and sugar producers. In 1975 I was headhunted by Coopers and Lybrand and appointed by the Fiji Native Land Trust Board as the founding General Manager of the Native Land Development Corporation. I remained there until 1979. Later a Fijian, Ratu Tuki Cakobau, was appointed as General Manager.
In 1980 I accepted a consultancy appointment from the United Nations Development Assistance Program as a Land Consultant to the then New Hebrides Condominium Government and carried on in that role after Vanuatu became an independent nation in 1980.
So where in all of this did you set up Pacific Book House?
In 1984, and then continuing the book business until 1990 when I was appointed Land Supervisor with Chevron Niugini as the operator of the PNG Kutubu Petroleum Development Project. I stayed with Chevron until 1997, then between 1997 and 2007 resumed the business of Pacific Book House.
In 2007 I took a short term assignment with InterOil on the Purari River which 2 years later turned into something a bit longer. Finally, in July 2010, I resumed Pacific Book House and that’s where we are.
Anything else, Bill?
I must say I am most impressed with PNG Attitude and I admire your perseverance in producing such a professional newsletter.