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DICTIONARY OF AUSTRALIAN BIOGRAPHY
Angus and Robertson--1949
When Plutarch placed in noble array for the contemplation of ages to come his images of heroes and sages, or when Dr Johnson drew that gallery of poets, so many of whom only survive in his portraiture, the writers must have been conscious how little of the real men lay behind those strong or graceful representations, how much that was even faithfully recorded may convey a false impression, how much was inevitably omitted which might contradict every deduction and alter every estimate.
R. MONCTON MILNES, LORD HOUGHTON, Monographs, 1873.
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The first attempt at a dictionary of Australian biography is contained in (Sir) J. Henniker Heaton's Australian Dictionary of Dates and Men of the Time. It was published in 1879 and within its limits was a conscientious piece of work. David Blair in his Cyclopaedia of Australasia, published in 1881, leaned heavily on Heaton and added little to his work, but Philip Mennell's The Dictionary of Australasian Biography from the Inauguration of Responsible Government, which appeared in 1892, had many good qualities and, though not free from errors, is usually reliable. It was a pity, however, that the author restricted himself to the period mentioned, and that one consequently finds no account in his book of Phillip, Macquarie, Macarthur, and many other remarkable men belonging to the early days of Australia. In 1906 Fred Johns of Adelaide began his series of volumes Johns's Notable Australians. Johns was careful and conscientious and seldom fell into error. Towards the end of his life he prepared his comprehensive An Australian Biographical Dictionary, which contains about 3000 biographies. He had not finished it when he died, and it was published posthumously in 1934 without the benefit of his final revision. It is and will remain a very useful publication, but as the average length of each biography is about ninety words, it is evident that in most cases it was not possible to give more than the bare facts. The Australian Encyclopaedia, published in 1925-6, has a large number of accounts of prominent Australians and is especially strong in connexion with men belonging to the early days. These biographies are of great interest.
The present volumes contain 1030 biographies of Australians, or men who were closely connected with Australia, who died before the end of 1942. This date practically closes the first one hundred and fifty years of Australia's history, for although the first fleet arrived in January 1788, the first emigrant ship, the Bellona, did not come until January 1793. Until then Australia had been merely a dumping ground for convicts, but the arrival of free emigrants foreshadowed the founding of a nation. The average length of the biographies is about 640 Words, and they may be roughly classified into the following twelve groups:
1. Army and Navy 10 2. Artists, including architects, actors, and musicians 130 3. Governors and administrators 50 4. Lawyers 69 5. Literary men and women 137 6. Notorieties 17 7. Pioneers, explorers, pastoralists, men of business 161 8. Politicians 174 9. Scholars, philosophers, clergymen 76 10. Scientists, including physicians, surgeons, and engineers 140 11. Social reformers, philanthropists, educationists 53 12. Sporting men (cricketers and athletes) 13 1030 The number of women included is 42.
An investigation into the average age at death of the men and women in each group resulted as follows:
Av. age 1. Scholars, philosophers, clergymen 76 74.5 2. Lawyers 69 71.5 3. Social reformers, philanthropists, educationists 53 70.4 4. Scientists, including physicians, surgeons and engineers 140 70.1 5. Politicians 174 68.8 6. Governors and administrators 50 68.5 7. Pioneers, explorers, pastoralists, men of business 161 68.2 8. Army and navy 10 68.2 9. Sporting men (cricketers and athletes) 13 67.5 10. Literary men and women 137 65.1 11. Artists, including architects, actors and musicians 130 63.9 12. Notorieties 17 55 2 TOTAL 1030 68.0
In three cases, Nos 8, 9, and 12 the figures are valueless because of the small number in each group, and in the last some were executed or met violent deaths. The average ages of the groups are usually what might have been expected. Literary men and artists have often passed through hard times in Australia, in conditions in no way conducive to longevity and it is natural to find them at the bottom of the list.
Of the total of 1030 it was possible to trace the father's occupation in only about 560 cases. It was found that 84 of these were the sons of clergymen, and even if we assume there were no clergymen's sons among the remainder, it means that more than one in every 13 of the 1030 were sons of the parsonage. An article in Munsey's Magazine for September 1907, showed that in the United States nearly one in 12 of Americans who had risen to distinction were clergymen's sons, practically the same as the Australian figures. An investigation made some time ago, the details of which I have been unable to trace, showed I believe, that the sons of clergy headed the list in the English Dictionary of National Biography. Contrary to a popular belief that "clergymen's sons are always the worst" it may be mentioned that three of our most distinguished judges, Sir Samuel Griffith, Mr Justice Higgins, and Sir Samuel Way, were all clergymen's sons. After the clergy came pastoralists and country gentlemen, 49; lawyers, 47; Army officers, 42; merchants (including probably shopkeepers), 38; medical men, farmers, and officials, about 30 each. Teachers had 20, after which the numbers for each occupation rapidly tapered off.
An investigation into the countries of origin showed that approximately:
47 per cent were born in England. 27 " " " " " Australia. 12 " " " " " Scotland. 8 " " " " " Ireland. 1 " " " " " Wales. 5 " " " " " the rest of the world.
Included in the last group were 12 from the United States, 9 from Germany, and 6 from New Zealand. These figures came as a shock, but consideration showed they should have been expected. In the early years all the population of mature years had of course come from Europe, and in the middle of the 19th century there was an immense influx of immigrants. Of distinguished Australians born after the middle of the century a large proportion was still alive on 31 December 1942.
The question of selection was full of difficulties and it was impossible to make set rules. In science, all Fellows of the Royal Society London were included, and preference was given to other men who had added something to the sum of human knowledge; in politics, most premiers of States, all prime ministers of the Commonwealth, and others who had brought forward legislation of importance; in law, most chief justices of States, and all judges of the High Court; in literature all of established reputation, or who had been highly popular, or represented in the best anthologies; in art, most artists whose work had been purchased for the leading Australian national galleries were considered to have claims. But in a large number of cases it was most difficult to decide what should be considered sufficient grounds for inclusion, and I was fortunate in being able to obtain advice from personal friends and others in all the States. It must, however, be understood that these gentlemen are in no way to be considered responsible for any sins of omission or commission. I have frequently had to make almost arbitrary decisions and cannot hope that the course taken was always the right one. It may possibly cause surprise that so many artists and literary men have been included. It will, however, be found that the position is similar in the English Dictionary of National Biography, and there is a good reason for it. Many politicians, men of business, and professional men, who seemed important in their day, are soon completely forgotten; but books persist in living on, if only in public libraries, pictures continue to be exhibited in national galleries, and there is always the possibility of some inquiry arising to which a book of this kind may give the answer. There is, too, another reason. It is notoriously difficult to judge the artistic and literary work of one's own generation, and if too much discrimination is exercised it may be found after a few years that some authors or artists rejected had come to be considered of much more importance than some included.
The term Australian has covered several men and women whose connexion with Australia was comparatively slight. If anyone of distinction was merely born in Australia that in itself was not considered sufficient ground for inclusion. As a general rule it has been thought necessary, as in the case of Samuel Alexander, that he should have stayed long enough in Australia for his life to have been influenced by his education and surroundings. Mrs Humphrey Ward, the novelist, was an exception. She left at five years of age, and the eventual cause of her inclusion was that she was really an Australian of the third generation. Her mother was an Australian, one grandfather spent all his adult life in Australia, and one of her great-grandfathers was William Sorell, one of the ablest governors that ever came to Australia. Her inclusion also gave an opportunity to say a few words about her father, Thomas Arnold, who influenced the early days of education in Tasmania. With regard to people not born in Australia, the endeavour was to omit mere birds of passage. The extreme limit of inclusion may be instanced by the famous actors Joseph Jefferson, G. V. Brooke, and Barry Sullivan. All three were in Australia for fairly long periods and there can be little doubt that the usually high standard of theatrical productions in Australia was based on the foundations laid by these men. Brooke indeed is so much a tradition that he simply could not be omitted. Most of the early governors were included, but when responsible government had been granted the influence of the governors was much lessened, and it was decided to omit later State governors. Most of those who were men of real distinction will be found recorded in the Dictionary of National Biography.
There has been a fairly general impression that the only important productions of Australia have been wool, wheat, and cricketers. I hope this book will help to remove that impression. Too low a place has been allowed in the past to Australian literature, largely because of the undue prominence given to some of the more popular writers. Australian painting has been more and more appreciated of late years, but there is still far too little encouragement given to sculpture, architecture, and music. Some excellent singers and executive musicians have made their mark in the world among whom may be mentioned Melba, Ada Crossley, and William Murdoch; but though some interesting music has been composed little is known of it and comparatively little has been published. A few outstanding scientists have been born here, such as Sir Grafton Elliot Smith, and a few others, such as Sir William Henry Bragg, have come from Europe to Australia and found the conditions favourable to the development of their great ability. There has also been an enormous amount of honest spade work in science done in Australia, much of which has been recorded here. W. J. Farrer did very valuable early work in wheat-breeding; Lawrence Hargrave had much more say in the development of flying than is generally allowed in America and Great Britain; Bertram Dillon Steele's micro-balance has been of great value to science and Grayson was a great pioneer in the ruling of diffraction gratings. James Harrison was a pioneer in refrigeration; J. H. Michell and William Sutherland in their modest unobtrusive way did some remarkable work in mathematics and physics; Charles Ledger, who practically saved quinine for the world, had more than one connexion with Australia and ended his days there; John Ridley and H. V. McKay were responsible for great improvements in harvesting. J. M. Templeton established the non-forfeiture principle in life assurance policies now universally adopted, and Sir Robert Torrens's simplification of the transfer of land has been of great benefit to the public.
I began collecting the materials for this book some twenty years ago. Realizing how quickly records disappear, I felt that a good service would be done if an attempt were made to gather together information likely to be useful to the compilers of the future Australian Dictionary of National Biography. The work was interrupted a great deal, but by 1936 some 17,000 items relating to about 7,000 men, largely clipped from various books of reference and newspapers, had been arranged and indexed. It was difficult, however, to provide for the safe keeping of these records in future years, for though they could be given or bequeathed to the Public Library of some State, a biographical dictionary might be compiled in another State without its editor being aware of the existence of these records. I mentioned this problem when writing to my friend, H. M. Green, librarian of the Fisher Library, Sydney, and he suggested that I should write the dictionary myself. Eventually I decided to do so. I realized that the ideal way of preparing a book of this kind would be to have a strong editor in charge of a staff of experts. But they would have to be paid, and there seemed to be no likelihood of the money being available. I hope Mr Green's confidence in me has not been unjustified. In many cases the biographies will fall short of what might have been desired. I tried to find the best authorities, but, excellent as the Melbourne Public Library is, there were occasional instances when required books or newspapers were not available. In other cases information may have been missed for want of the knowledge of where to look for it. Often after careful search I found that my only authorities were old newspapers, and I owe much to them. Many of the obituary notices in them had evidently been prepared with much care and were excellently done. In recent years, however, there has been a falling off in these biographies, and during the war years it has no doubt been impossible to spare adequate space. It would be well to have biographies of eminent men written soon after their death. Sometimes a pamphlet of thirty or forty pages might give an adequate short account. Such organizations as the Fellowship of Australian Writers would be able to suggest biographers who would do a competent and accurate piece of work. If something of the kind is not done it will become extremely difficult to compile supplementary volumes of this and similar works. I would stress the necessity for accuracy.
In preparing this book, though every endeavour was made to be accurate, hundreds of statements had to be accepted which could not possibly be checked. It was found, too, that frequently an error had been made in an early authority which had been copied in later books, and it was decided that it would be best to work from the earliest authorities. When it was known that biographies of a particular person would be available in the Dictionary of National Biography, Johns's An Australian Biographical Dictionary, or the Australian Encyclopaedia, the biography for this book was written quite independently. Occasionally, when some essential fact could not be traced, recourse was had to these works, but in those cases a direct reference is made to the authority used. Though Heaton's and Mennell's books frequently appear among the authorities cited, they also were used sparingly. I have had to decide between many conflicting statements; on two occasions at least there was a choice of four different dates of birth. All that could be done was to adopt the date for which there appeared to be the best evidence. Though it was many years before Australia was generally accepted as a title, I have used this name from the beginning, and the same applies to Tasmania, though Van Diemen's Land was used until well into the middle of the nineteenth century. In New South Wales premiers were always prime ministers until 1901, but in this work to save confusion the leader of the government in that State has been called premier from the beginning. I have endeavoured to make the book worthy of its subject. It would have been better could I have spent another five years on it, but at seventy-five years of age one realizes there is a time to make an end.
70 Church Street, Hawthorn E.2.,
A work of this kind could not possibly have been completed without much help from librarians and others. I am much indebted to the staff of the Public Library, Melbourne, especially to Mr E. R. Pitt, formerly chief librarian, to the late W. C. Baud, formerly chief librarian, to the late A. B. Foxcroft, assistant-librarian, to Mr C. A. McCallum, the present chief librarian, and indeed to all the staff, including that of the newspaper room. Mr T. Fleming Cooke, formerly librarian of the lending library, and his staff were also often helpful to me. Other librarians were most kind in answering inquiries, in particular Miss Ida Leeson, formerly librarian of the Mitchell Library, Sydney, and Miss M. Flower, formerly of the same library; Mr H. M. Green, formerly librarian of the Fisher Library, University of Sydney; Mr Kenneth Binns, formerly librarian of the National Library at Canberra; Mr Leigh Scott, librarian of the University of Melbourne Library; the late H. Rutherford Purnell, librarian of the Public Library of South Australia; Mr G. H. Pitt, formerly archivist, now librarian of the same institution; Dr J. S. Battye, public librarian of Western Australia; Mr J. D. A. Collier, State librarian, Hobart; and Mr J. H. Hornibrook, honorary secretary of the John Oxley Memorial Library, Brisbane. The late D. J. Mahony, formerly director of the National Museum, Melbourne, his successor, Mr R. T. M. Pescott, other members of the museum staff, including Messrs A. R. Keble, J. Clark, G. Mack, and M. J. C. Malone, and Mr E. H. Penrose, director of the Museum of Applied Science, have obtained information for me relating to scientists. Mr J. S. MacDonald, formerly director of the National Gallery, and Mr Daryl Lindsay, the present director, have both added to my knowledge of Australian artists. In Melbourne many other men and women have helped me in various ways and 1 should like to record my obligations to Mr W. Baragwanath, the late L. V. Biggs, Mr W. Brennan, the late F. Chapman, Mr A. H. Chisholm, the late R. H. Croll, Mr J. F. Foster, Mr J. S. Grierson, Dr C. A. Kellaway, the late A. S. Kenyon, Dr Charles Mackay, Mr J. K. Moir, Mr P. F. Morris, Sir Keith Murdoch, Professor W. A. Osborne, Mr Vance Palmer, the late E. L. Piesse, the late Frank Wilmot, Constable Harrington of Avenel, Mrs J. S. Grierson, Mrs Nettie Palmer, Mrs Dora B. Serle, Mrs Marian Serle, and Lady Scott.
Among residents of Sydney to whom I owe thanks I should like to record Mr C. H. Bertic, Sir William Dixson, Professor A. P. Elkin, Mr W. E. FitzHenry, the late Sir Kelso King, Dr G. Mackaness, the late William Moore, Mr C. Pearl, Dr A. B. Walkorn, and Sir Robert Strachan Wallace. In Adelaide I received help from Mr Travers C. Borrow, Professor J. B. Cleland, Mr B. R. Elliott, Mr H. J. Keyes, and Mr J. A. Somerville; in Brisbane from Professor Alcock, Mr C. Christesen, Mr E. J. Hanson (formerly Speaker of the Legislative Assembly), Mr H. A. Longman, Mr Firmin McKinnon, Professor H. C. Richards, and Professor F. W. Robinson; in Perth from the Rev. Canon P. U. Henn, Sir John Kirwan, and Professor Walter Murdoch, and in Hobart from Professor E. Morris Miller.
I should also like to thank the University of Melbourne which made a grant from its research fund towards the cost of collecting and preserving materials, and the Commonwealth Literary Fund for a similar grant towards the cost of typing the manuscript.
SERLE, Percival (1871-1951),editor and biographer,
(View this painting at the National Library of Australia Web Site)
[NOTE: This biographical note did not form part of the Dictionary of Australian Biography. It just seemed like a good idea to have a biography of the biographer.--Colin Choat]
was born at Elsternwick, Victoria. He worked for twenty years in a life assurance office before becoming chief clerk and accountant at the University of Melbourne. In 1910 he married the artist Dora Beatrice Hake. Moderately successful with investments, he was able to retire in 1920 to pursue his cultural interests, although he ran a second-hand bookshop in the Eastern Market, Melbourne, in the Depression years 1931-36. He was guide-lecturer at the National Gallery of Victoria 1929-38, curator of the Art Museum of the Gallery 1934-36, and member of the council of the Victorian Artists' Society for about forty years. He was also president of the Australian Literature Society 1944-46. Serle's first publication was an edition, with notes, of A Song to David and Other Poems (1923) by Christopher Smart, the eighteenth-century English poet. Serle's meticulous scholarship is evident in A Bibliography of Australasian Poetry and Verse: Australia and New Zealand (1925), a much-needed reference work of Australian literature at that time, to which later bibliographies were indebted. To complement his Bibliography he published, in collaboration with 'Furnley Maurice' and R.H. Croll, An Australasian Anthology (1927), a standard Australian literary work not supplanted until after the Second World War. His most significant work, laboured over for almost twenty years, was his Dictionary of Australian Biography (1949). It comprises more than 1000 biographical sketches of prominent Australians or people connected closely with Australia. In 1944 Serle edited the poems of 'Furnley Maurice' and in 1951 published A Primer of Collecting. Serle brought to all his literary work a rigorous sense of, and passion for, scholarship. A commemorative number of Southerly was published in 1953 and his son, Geoffrey Serle, has written the memoir Percival Serle (1988).
From The Oxford Companion to Australian Literature (Second Edition, 1994).
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