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Egbert Thomas Sheaf (1869–1948)

by James Cotton

Egbert Sheaf, n.d.

Egbert Sheaf, n.d.

Egbert Thomas Sheaf was born 18 January 1869 at Woolston, St Mary Extra, Hampshire (now Greater Southampton). His mother was Mary Ann, née Goodall; his father Aaron John was a seaman. Census records of 1891 and 1901 show that Sheaf’s earliest trade was umbrella-maker; by the latter year he was married (from 1894 to Elizabeth Harriet Mew) with one son (Francis Charles Valentine) and living in very modest circumstances. He experienced something of a change in fortunes in the decade to 1911, visiting British Guiana in 1902 and 1905 where he engaged in prospecting for gold. In addition, he travelled to New York. He also became a highly competent photographer. By 1911 he was living in Lytham, Lancs. at a fashionable address and engaged in ‘photographic trades.’ In that year he was a delegate at the 2nd Congress of the Professional Photographers’ Association, meeting in London, where he was listed as representing Kodak, Ltd.

In 1911 Sheaf journeyed with his family first-class to India. According to his own account he worked for Kodak in India; a photographic record exists which demonstrates that he travelled widely not only in India but also in Burma and to China. His work demonstrated a fine mastery of technique and also a keen anthropological interest. Arriving in Melbourne with his family and brother-in-law in March 1913 on the Themistocles, Sheaf took up an interest in rural property at Bamawm, near Rochester, Victoria. He soon returned to India, however, leaving his family to develop and extend several orchard properties in the area. In the years to 1921 he made multiple journeys between Asia and Australia, his travels taking him through Southeast Asia and also to the interior of China. Again he amassed an impressive photographic record of his experiences.

Sheaf then made an important contribution to the initial phases of Australia’s independent diplomacy. He had come to the notice of Prime Minister Billy Hughes by 1918 as a result of his friendship with Dr Thomas E. Green of Bendigo. Green played a major role in preparing the Bendigo electorate for Hughes when, following his departure from the Labor Party after the failure of the 1916 conscription referendum, the prime minister was forced to find a sympathetic electorate for the 1917 elections. Green was Vice-President of the National Federation in Victoria, its Bendigo branch having the largest membership in the state. Through the medium of Percy Deane, Hughes’s secretary and intimate, Green was a persistent advocate of Sheaf’s suitability for government employment.

Hughes was sufficiently impressed with Sheaf’s talents to endeavour in June 1918 to convince his cabinet, by cable from London, to appoint Sheaf as a trade representative in the ‘East’; it was at this time that Hughes was also seeking to locate officials responsible for trade in New York, Paris, and elsewhere. On this occasion Hughes was not successful, but it was clear that Sheaf enjoyed good relations with the prime minister; his time was to come in 1921.

On 31 October 1921 Hughes and the State premiers held a joint conference where, amongst other matters, there was an agreement to appoint three trade commissioners to positions overseas to be jointly funded by the Commonwealth and the States. Earlier in the year, Hughes had arranged for Edward Selby Little to take the post of Trade Commissioner to China. He already had Sheaf in mind for the post in ‘the East’, and at his request Sheaf produced a lengthy memorandum on the responsibilities such an appointee would discharge and the remuneration he could expect. Hughes also arranged for Sheaf to meet the Victorian premier, Harry Lawson, who became acquainted with the details of the scheme. When a further conference with the premiers was convened in January 1922, Hughes arranged for Sheaf to address the meeting, and he evidently impressed the company sufficiently to be appointed Trade Commissioner in the East at a salary of £2333 plus expenses for a term of three years. It later transpired that there had been no applications sought by the Commonwealth for the position, though a number of individuals, including J. B. Suttor, lately NSW commissioner in Japan – but not including Sheaf – had submitted expressions of interest. Sheaf’s bureaucratic responsibilities were not clear and neither was his relationship with Little in Shanghai well defined, but Hughes had his way.

Sheaf was appointed under Letters Patent by the Governor-General on 8 May 1922 as ‘Australian Trade Representative in the East’, though the title ‘Commissioner’ was afterwards substituted. Later in the month, as he had done for Little, the Governor-General wrote to British consular officials in the region advising of Sheaf’s appointment. Australian officials posted to foreign countries were a novelty that encountered some suspicion from British officialdom. Sheaf travelled extensively in the states meeting government officials and business figures before departing for Asia. Though originally envisioning discharging a roving commission in territory from the Gulf to China, Sheaf left E. S. Little with responsibility for most of China, and ultimately set up an office in Robinson Road, Singapore. He also worked with A. A. Markwell who in December 1921 had been dispatched by South Australia as a trade representative for primary produce to the Netherlands Indies, located in Surabaya. His chosen cable address was ‘AUSTRADCOM’, which has been interpreted as the original of ‘AUSTRADE’.

Despite the irregular nature of his appointment, Sheaf was an outstanding student of business conditions in Asia. He submitted lengthy reports to the Minister for Trade and Customs and to the Board of Trade on the prospects in the region for a range of Australian primary products, often illustrated with copious photographs depicting best practice in packing and presentation in markets where American producers were often well ahead of their competitors. He also took the opportunity for further extensive travels during which he continued his photographic endeavours.

Sheaf argued the case for dedicated cold storages in the region from which well-presented Australian produce could be marketed direct. Further, with considerable insight he could see the immense potential that existed in Asia in the ‘native’, as opposed to the expatriate, market, even as he warned that the exploitation of this market required particular attention to packaging and promotion. Sheaf’s voluminous reports can almost be read with profit today for guidance on regional tastes and marketing. Appointed initially for three years, he lost his principal patron when Hughes was replaced as prime minister by Stanley Melbourne Bruce. His reappointment required the unanimous support of the Commonwealth and the states, but amongst the latter only the Western Australian government approved unreservedly the extension of his tenure. Accordingly, Sheaf closed his office in February 1925, though according to his own account he was still receiving many inquiries from Australian businesses months later.

Returning to Australia where he maintained a rural property near Rochester, Sheaf continued his contacts with Deane and Hughes. He remained a frequent visitor to Asia, living for prolonged periods in West Java where he established a household and made a close study of local folkways. He was still writing on market conditions in Asia in the late 1930s. After the death of his first wife in May 1937, Sheaf married Janet Emily May Hart in 1940. Survived by his wife and the son of his first marriage, he died of liver cancer on 25 July 1948 and was interred in Burwood cemetery. He left no property, and an estate valued at £2391, principally in Commonwealth stocks and bonds.

—Don Fitch, The Immortal Part: the story of Edward Little, Australia's first trade commissioner in China (Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2001)
—CP360/9, BUNDLE 1/NN (1918 appointment) (National Archives of Australia)
—CP703/5, NN (applications file) (National Archives of Australia)
—A457, Q306/3 (memorandum to Rodgers) (National Archives of Australia)
—A458, G510/2 (Gov General to British consuls) (National Archives of Australia)
—A11846, 7 (Sheaf appointment file) (National Archives of Australia)
—A458, I510/2, PART 1 (Sheaf trade reports) (National Archives of Australia)
—A2930 (Percy Deane correspondence) (National Archives of Australia)
—W. M. Hughes Papers MS 1538 (National Library of Australia)
—J. N. H. Hume Cook Papers MS 601 (National Library of Australia)
—personal information
—photographs in the author’s possession
—will VPRS 7591/P0002/1418 (Public Record Office Victoria)
—closer settlement loan V/AB/024/02/01 (Public Record Office Victoria)
—Boris Schedvin, Emissaries of Trade Emissaries of trade: a history of the Australian Trade Commissioner Service (Barton: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2008)
—David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise and Fall of Asia 1850-1939 (St Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1999)

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

James Cotton, 'Sheaf, Egbert Thomas (1869–1948)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 June 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

Egbert Sheaf, n.d.

Egbert Sheaf, n.d.

Life Summary [details]


18 January, 1869
Woolston, Hampshire, England


25 July, 1948 (aged 79)
Blackburn, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (liver)

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.

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