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The ADB’s Story

7. Working Parties: Recollections of the South Australian Working Party

John Tregenza

At the very beginning, 1960 to 1961, before I came back to Adelaide, Douglas Pike himself seems to have played an important role in the establishment of the SA Working Party and was probably responsible for the appointment of his good friend Harold Finnis as chairman—a position Finnis held through the first 14 years or so of the working party’s life. Finnis much admired Paradise of Dissent and would have almost unquestioningly supported Pike’s suggestions for the first two volumes. Gerald Fischer says that he remembers Douglas coming in to the South Australian Archives (he is not sure whether this was before or after he became general editor) and going through every card in the distinctive Biographical Index, which had been compiled by George Pitt and then John McLellan. He also remembers Douglas saying that it was unequalled in Australia as a resource of its kind and regretting that it did not have counterparts elsewhere.

For the period up to 1850, we were, therefore, rather unexercised as a working party because Douglas had thoroughly prepared the ground, and because Sir Grenfell Price, who might have contested Pike’s and Finnis’s views, never (at least after I joined the working party in 1963) attended meetings, although year after year he was sent agendas and minutes and continued to be listed as a member in the first three published volumes. John Playford, who succeeded Finnis as chairman in 1975, has just drawn my attention to the pages in Colin Kerr’s biography of Grenfell Price, which describe the towering row that Price and Pike had over the former’s article on George Fife Angas, which led to Price abandoning any claim to the article he had revised, and also articles submitted on Charles Sturt and Governor Hindmarsh, and withdrawing his offer to write on John Howard Angus. Evidently, Price resigned from the working party, but his resignation was not accepted—hence the anomaly. The published articles on George Fife Angas and John Hindmarsh are unsigned and cite books by both Price and Pike.


John Tregenza (1931–99) was a member of the SA Working Party from 1963 to 1990 and wrote four ADB entries

State Library of South Australia, 1980, B63412


Harold Finnis was a public service administrator and chair of the SA Working Party, 1959–75

State Library of South Australia, n.d.

In Grenfell Price’s absence it was very much a Finnis working party at the time I joined it in 1963. Finnis was well over six feet tall, a hale and authoritative seventy-four, with a deep, carrying voice and the aura of a decided member of the Adelaide establishment for several decades past, president of the Pioneers’ Association, president of the Historical Division of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia (SA branch), chairman of the Botanic Gardens Board, member of the Board of the Public Library and member of the Adelaide Club. He was a courtly man. Pat Stretton, who stood in for Ken Inglis for a couple of meetings in 1961, when she was still Pat Gibson and a tutor in the history department, vividly remembers him asking her permission to remove his coat when the temperature was about 40ºC. His most memorable and often used phrase as chairman was ‘But does he measure up?’ When he decided that the explorer Horricks did not measure up that was fatal to Horricks’ chances of inclusion.

As I recollect, we selected names by a series of stages. The editorial office in Canberra drew up a basic list of names for consideration with the barest of biographical details, drawing on the valuable Biographical Register that Laurie Fitzhardinge had been building up at the ANU, supplemented in South Australia’s case at least by, I imagine, Douglas Pike’s own additions, including names selected from the Biographical Index in the South Australian Archives. The working party would go through this list and make amendments. It would then be circulated (via the editorial office probably) to individuals and societies and institutions for further suggestions. These would then be considered and the Working Party would reduce the number of names to the quota allowed for South Australia according to the size of the population in the relevant era. We would also recommend lengths of articles and names of authors.

As time passed, and I became involved in supervising honours and postgraduate theses in the history department at Adelaide, I was able to make a more positive contribution in recommending names of people whose importance had only recently been revealed by the new research of students and also authors. When Jim Main (senior lecturer, 1966, and reader, 1967–84, in history at Flinders University) joined the working party, he was able to tap the research at Flinders in the same way. In the Finnis era we all agreed that we should value originality and innovation as distinct from wealth and established position in the community as criteria for determining inclusion and length of articles.

A significant change in the working party took place when Finnis retired in 1975. He was replaced as chairman with John Playford. Several new members joined the working party—including Ron Gibbs, a teacher, author of a good one-volume history of South Australia for schools, and first president of the new Historical Society of South Australia (then in his thirties); and Helen Jones, who was beginning a PhD thesis on the emancipation of women in South Australia.

This reconstituted working party went through the preliminary lists prepared by the Finnis working party for the 1891–1939 period and made some substantial changes. Ironically, one of the major changes was to reduce the numbers of Labor politicians and union leaders. The Finnis list had incorporated many Labor names suggested years before by John Playford himself in a letter he had written in response to a circulated preliminary list.


South Australian Working Party, 2013. Left to right: Prue McDonald, Paul Sendziuk, Roger André, Bernard Whimpress, Peter Howell (chair), David Hilliard, Catherine Kevin, Bernard O’Neil, Peter Donovan, Judith Raftery

Photographer: Chris Thomson, ADB archives.

At that time Playford was positively to the left in his politics. When he became chairman of the working party he had moved to the ‘right of centre’ and now persuasively argued against many of the names he had formerly recommended. (He has just reminded me of this in a telephone call.) Finnis, although by no means a Labor man, had made a point of trying to be even-handed with political inclusions. The new working party also disagreed with the Finnis working party’s weighting on clergy—especially Lutheran clergy—Finnis holding a strong conviction that the Lutherans’ significance in South Australia was out of all proportion to their numbers.

These perceptions and weightings changed with time, new research, and a new and younger membership.

John Tregenza was a member of the SA Working Party between 1963 and 1986 and was a ‘living witness’ with Harold Finnis (chair of the SA Working Party, 1959–75) to the National Committee meetings of 1960.

John Tregenza to Keith Hancock (29 June 1986), box 69, Q31, ADBA, ANUA.

The New South Wales Working Party

Beverley Kingston

When Frank Crowley sent me to deputise for him at a meeting of the NSW Working Party of the ADB sometime in 1970, I was quite familiar with the project. There was a lot of ADB talk and work in the history department at Monash, where I had been a postgraduate student during the 1960s. From behind his pipe, Geoff Serle oversaw the Victorian entries, and Duncan Waterson was busy with what became his Biographical Register of the Queensland Parliament, 1860–1929 (1972). I happily contributed information to Waterson’s database as I worked through the 1860s Queensland newspapers for my PhD thesis on Queensland land legislation and politics. And I had already prepared a couple of entries on obscure Queensland pastoralists for Volume 4 of the ADB, published in 1972.


The NSW Working Party, 2009. Left to right: Barrie Dyster, Ross Curnow, Andrew Moore, Stephen Garton, Chris Cunneen, Jill Roe, Murray Goot, Nancy Cushing, Bridget Griffen-Foley, Jack Carmody

By courtesy of Jill Roe

In 1970 the NSW Working Party met in the office of the state librarian, Gordon Richardson, with its marvellous stained-glass windows and its view across the Botanic Gardens to Sydney Harbour. Over the years we have met in other rooms in the library depending on availability, and until recently were back in that handsome old room, no longer the state librarian’s office, but a meeting room named in honour of Jean Garling, a major benefactor of the library. As I recall, there were no formalities at my first meeting. I introduced myself, said I had been sent by Crowley, and spent the next few meetings quietly listening and learning as fast as I could. At the midpoint of the afternoon, tea and coffee and a plate of Arnotts mixed creams were carried in by Richardson’s secretary and placed in front of us on the long table. I was greatly in awe of Richardson, a craggy, grizzled Scot, and the group of professors and senior historians like Bede Nairn and Ken Cable who made up the working party. I was probably about half the age of most of them. At first the only other woman was Hazel King, who rarely came because we had moved out of her period. Soon the average age went down somewhat with the arrival of Heather Radi from the University of Sydney, Gerry Walsh from the Australian Defence Force Academy, and the deputy general editor, Chris Cunneen, who began coming with Bede from Canberra to help with the rather complex business of keeping track of the long NSW list.

We were working our way through a thick, stencilled and stapled list of names for possible inclusion in Volumes 3–6 (those who flourished in 1851–90) and were more than halfway through the alphabet. The list, as I recall, was heavy on politicians whose names were mostly unfamiliar to me, though there was a fair selection of writers, artists and other cultural figures about whom I felt more confident. Sportsmen seemed to feature prominently, although this may have been mainly because Nairn and Cable discussed them so enthusiastically. Ken’s views on churchmen, of whom there also seemed to be a great many, were rarely questioned.

My arrival was fortuitous, not only because I was a late-nineteenth-century historian, unlike some of the earlier colonial history specialists who no longer had a great deal to contribute, but also because I was, by then, already working seriously on women in Australian history and Volumes 7–12 (those who flourished in 1891–1939), on which we soon began work, covered the early feminist movement.

It was at about this stage that the NSW section of the ADB began to move from the fairly well-known and well-researched colonial period into the relatively under-researched early twentieth century in New South Wales. Nairn, of course, had the 1890s and the early labour movement thoroughly covered—too thoroughly it seemed sometimes. Heather Radi and I took up the challenge of adding more women to the list; we were excited by the possibilities of the new social history for broadening the ADB’s scope. As well, Heather began to remedy the lack of systematic biographical material on NSW politicians, especially the non-labour ones, for the period after 1900, and recruited Peter Spearritt and Elizabeth Hinton to help her compile the Biographical Register of the New South Wales Parliament, 1901–1970 (1979). With her help we were able to make better decisions about which of the dozens of minor politicians we could cross out and replace with interesting and significant characters from other walks of life.


NSW State Librarian, Gordon Richardson, was a founding member of the NSW Working Party and its chair in 1968-73

State Library of New South Wales, n.d.

Gordon Richardson retired not long after I joined the working party and was succeeded by Russell Doust both as state librarian and as chair of the working party, so the library continued to host our meetings. Russell saw us through Volumes 6–10. By Volume 11 he had retired and was followed by Alison Crook, who assiduously attended meetings though she sometimes left Nairn to chair them. Her successor, Dagmar Schmidmaier, decided she would prefer Alan Ventress, then Mitchell librarian, to deputise for her at meetings, and somehow in 1996 I found myself in the chair. This would not have worked except that Chris Cunneen, who had retired from his position as deputy general editor in Canberra, moved to Sydney and became our record-keeper, chief research organiser and go-between with Canberra. All I had to do was to keep the business moving at a good pace, make sure all issues were canvassed and points of view aired, and sometimes push for a decision.

All these years we have continued to benefit from the hospitality of the State library. This means that we are alerted to the arrival of significant new collections at the library, also to significant research being done by other scholars, many of whom may be potential authors. We hope that the library itself gains something from its links with the research enterprise that the ADB represents. Meetings in the library—long ago seen as neutral ground in the battle between Malcolm Ellis and academe—now mean that working party members can organise precious research time for themselves in the Mitchell Library in conjunction with meetings if they so wish. We have also had substantial and much appreciated assistance from library staff members appointed to deputise for the state librarian, first Margy Burn, who would come to meetings pushing a trolley of reference works when we were drawing up lists for the period 1940–80, then Warwick Hirst, and now Linda West, who books the room, emails the agenda to members and organises the much appreciated afternoon tea.

With the various restructurings of the Editorial Board, there were fewer nominal members of the working party; at its largest in 1988 there were 22 names on the list. For some years now there have been 15 or 16 members, most attending regularly, all hardworking. Meetings have become more frequent in recent years. There used to be months, occasionally a whole year, when nothing needed to be done, but these days more of the work that was once done in the central office in Canberra falls to the working parties. Besides, it seems as if members of the working party appreciate an excuse to escape to the Mitchell Library from time to time.


Margy Burn in her office at the State Library of New South Wales, 1993. Margy has continued to promote the ADB in her role as assistant director-general of Australian Collections & Reader Services at the National Library of Australia

By courtesy of Margy Burn

Our meetings have always been enjoyable, though the reasons for this may have changed over time. For all of us they are a continuing learning experience. A huge amount of information and a great many stories pass over the table. Once almost entirely made up of academic historians and heavily weighted towards the professoriate, the working party has become more diverse in the past decade or so and the informal exchange of gossip between disciplines and institutions can be fascinating. We now have specialists in political science, industrial relations, public administration, law, and Jack Carmody, who covers both medicine and music. Gavin Souter, our expert since the late 1980s on Sydney newspapers and journalists, and memorably, the history of Mosman, retired, and was replaced with media historian Bridget Griffen-Foley, whose internet skills and address book became invaluable. Where once Bruce Mitchell and Greg McMinn came from Armidale and Newcastle respectively to broaden our outlook, Nancy Cushing now keeps a close eye on Newcastle and the north and does her best to prevent us from becoming complacent about the kind of women we include, while Glenn Mitchell constantly amazes us with his knowledge of Wollongong people and popular culture. Not everyone enjoys biography, though for those who have stayed with the ADB it has often proved a useful adjunct to their professional research.

Since we completed Volumes 7–12 (1891–1939), something of a pattern has developed for the work on each new period. First it is essential to draw up an initial list of necessary, likely and possible inclusions. This begins with a careful combing of Who’s Who in Australia for NSW names, then the ADB’s Biographical Register, other dictionaries, companions, encyclopedias and lists of obituaries. We also ask for advice from professional groups, industry representatives and experts in fields in which we think we need help.

The preliminary list is sometimes twice as long as, or even longer than, the number of names we have been allocated. This list is then sifted, applying an unofficial series of criteria. I think of the sifting as applying a series of different grids, a bit like the coin-sorting machine I knew from my childhood in the bank where my father worked. Other members of the working party have different views of the sifting process. Some are articulated, some instinctive.

We have had substantial discussions from time to time on, for example, the desirability of including famous criminals or celebrities who are household names but significant for no other reason. People who have died young often spark discussion. Is their achievement really significant, how will it compare with their peers who live a longer life, or has it been inflated by the manner or time of their death? The different screening criteria applied by the different members of the working party mean, however, that those who are placed on the list are usually considered from a number of different points of view.

Most members of the working party now have an automatic reaction to an unfamiliar name encountered in their daily lives and these names are raised subsequently. Have we considered this person? Should we be considering this person? So we do. We are no longer worried about finding suitable women for inclusion. They are much more visible these days, though they do tend to live longer and may be forgotten by the time they actually die. But we do keep a close eye on people whose lives have been significant but markedly less flamboyant than the new media celebrities, in business and banking, for example, and have been greatly helped by Barrie Dyster’s devotion to entrepreneurs and industrialists. From time to time, we pause to ponder the main developments in the demography of the period on which we are working to ask if we are reflecting the patterns of immigration, changing employment, cultural shifts and so on.

As the list is reduced to something like the number allocated, there are further levels of refinement. It has been most interesting to sit down with a list of a dozen or 20 artists, writers, solicitors, politicians, even historians, and try to rank them in order of significance for inclusion. There are often several versions of the same occupational story—the careers of minor politicians or headmistresses, for example, can be fairly repetitive and they cannot all be included. A choice has to be made. Sometimes it is that little extra interesting detail—a noteworthy marriage or a twist in an earlier career. Sometimes it is because better sources exist, or because there is an author known to us who is also willing and able: having a suitable and reliable author to hand can make an immense difference. Occasionally the choice is invidious or seems random or unfair, but there is not enough space to include everyone.

Other State working parties may think New South Wales is being precious about this. Most of them do not have the luxury of this kind of choice. When we were compiling the lists for the supplement volume it became clear that by the time the small States had covered their core list of premiers, chief justices, church leaders and major community figures, they did not have many more spaces to play with. Our core list is not so different in size from Tasmania’s or South Australia’s, but it constitutes a much smaller proportion of our allocation. New South Wales can afford more variety than other States because we have a larger population and therefore a longer list. Once we have covered the essential and the obvious, we have more space for quirky or unusual people. People who become significant in the arts and cultural life especially have tended to gravitate to Sydney, so there may be a need for some negotiation about whether we include these names or send them back to their State or Territory of origin, and then over the choice of author. All this will undoubtedly change as the online version of the ADB becomes more significant and allocation of space less of a consideration.

One of the most debated questions is the number of words to allocate to any particular person. The assumption is that word length is a measure of worth or significance; however, it is also the case that a person with a complicated story, many changes of occupation or country, a war record, or a complex set of ideas to expound, requires more words than an arguably more significant or influential character who has had an otherwise straightforward life. A morally upright teacher who has never married, or a dedicated scientist who has had an admirable career with a single big discovery, rarely requires more than 500 words. A villain with many aliases, complex personal arrangements and a sticky end needs many more words to set out the facts.


First meeting of ADB Supplement steering committee, 2000. From left: Beverley Kingston, Chris Cunneen (editor), Jill Roe, Stephen Garton

By courtesy of Chris Cunneen

When I first joined the working party in 1970, a majority of the authors were academic historians or postgraduate research students who could be found through the universities. Leonie Kramer, then Professor of Australian Literature at the University of Sydney, was frequently sent a list of literary figures and asked to suggest authors. We still call on the expertise of people who are supervising research to suggest authors. We also have a ‘stable’ of skilled biographers with expertise in different fields who can be relied on to research and write an entry within their field, but fewer of the authors are now academic historians. The working party has become more sensitive to developments in the research and publishing that now occur outside an academic framework. Sometimes it can be a case of finding a trusted author to counteract what has been judged to be a bad popular biography. Sometimes we find that there is a biography but it is obscure or specialised. Then it seems a good idea to encourage the author to produce a succinct piece that may reach a different or wider readership. Occasionally authors have found themselves with a subject that develops into a larger project. Sometimes the work involved in researching and writing an entry seems a lot to ask of an author, but the level of commitment and professionalism demonstrated by authors is a constant source of admiration and gratitude (and for asking them to undertake yet another entry).

In addition to its official business of drawing up lists of names and suggesting authors, the NSW Working Party takes a keen interest in all matters affecting the ADB. Editorial policy, administrative developments in the central office at the ANU, the treatment of the ADB in reviews, and feedback from the public generally are often discussed informally at meetings. There are some vocal advocates of the ADB among the members. Those of us who have closer links with Canberra and the ANU are frequently quizzed and occasionally asked to raise matters at Editorial Board meetings.

The NSW Working Party enthusiastically urged adoption of the latest technology when it was first proposed to issue the ADB as a CD-ROM. A little later, as has been told elsewhere, Alan Ventress, who, as Mitchell librarian was keenly aware of the way in which information technology was transforming the library, initiated a discussion at a working party meeting that led, eventually, to putting the ADB online. And the supplement volume was driven from within the NSW Working Party. There is a sense in which the (relatively) selfless commitment of the NSW Working Party (though I am sure this is true of all working parties) to the highest values of scholarship and collaborative research has helped to sustain the ADB, especially through its more trying times.

Beverley Kingston taught history at the University of New South Wales for 30 years and is currently an honorary research fellow in the School of History at the UNSW. She has been a member of the NSW Working Party since 1974, its chair since July 1994 and has served on the Editorial Board since August 1996.

Recollections of the New South Wales Working Party

Russell Doust

When I became State Librarian of New South Wales in early 1973, I ‘inherited’ from my predecessor, Gordon Richardson, the chairmanship of the ADB’s NSW Working Party. This was not prescribed in any book of rules (unlike, for instance, membership of the NSW Geographic Names Board or the NSW Council of the National Trust of Australia, both of which named the state librarian or his nominee in the enabling legislation). Richardson had been chair of the working party almost from the beginning, as far as I can infer from the list of members in Volume 7, taking over after a year or two from the first chairman, Bede Nairn.

Neither Richardson nor I were professional historians, although Richardson had written a well-regarded MA thesis (University of Sydney) on the records of the NSW colonial secretary, while I had (in about 1969) submitted my thesis for the degree of master of librarianship to the University of New South Wales on ‘The Administration of Official Archives in New South Wales 1870–1960’. I do not know where the working party first met, but I suspect that it had always been in the State library (formerly the Public Library of New South Wales). Apart from any other considerations, this might well have been a reason for the choice of Richardson as chairman in place of Nairn. Perhaps the only comment I should make about my own chairmanship of the working party is that I seemed to be accepted for what I was—landlord, whose institution provided space and tea and coffee for meetings. My knowledge of Australian history was not great because it was not taught in my University of Sydney undergraduate days, but I did know about controlling and guiding a committee and, for the whole of my chairmanship, I was guided by Chris Cunneen, who was both a member of the working party and the close link with the ADB office in Canberra.

I never proposed a possible ‘biographee’ to the working party, nor did I ever contribute an entry. Richardson, on the other hand, wrote six entries for the ADB. Perhaps he had more time to write, whereas I was committed to a program of pulling the library a little further into the later 1900s in a period when, to say the least, the then heavy hand of the Public Service Board was not always on my side!

What I gained, personally, from the NSW Working Party was an acquaintance with real historians, whose friendship and cooperation in general were to stand me in good stead. Who were these people? In no particular order, I see these names: J. M. Bennett; Ken Cable; Frank Crowley; Chris Cunneen; Rae (Justice) Else-Mitchell (later president of the Library Council of New South Wales, and a good if formidable friend to a new State librarian); Frank Farrell; Brian Fletcher; Hazel King; Beverley Kingston; W. G. Minn; Bruce Mansfield; Bruce Mitchell; Heather Radi; John Ryan; Gerry Walsh; John Manning Ward (later vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney); Baiba Irving (later Mitchell librarian); Barry Andrews.

There was remarkably little change in the membership of the working party from 1973 until my retirement in 1987. My two immediate successors as State librarian, Alison Crook and Dagmar Schmidmaier, also chaired the working party. I believe that if the NSW Working Party gains something from the State library, it is equally true that the library gains, too; it is a good deal more, on both sides, than just tea and biscuits.


Russell Doust, n.d.

State Library of New South Wales

Russell Doust was the NSW State librarian and chair of the NSW Working Party from 1973 until 1987.

The Queensland Working Party

Spencer Routh

Speech notes for presentation of ADB Medal, 11 December 2003

I remember very well how much had to be done when the Queensland Working Party was re-formed in 1975; there were lots of late-night meetings, and lots of speed-reading in between. It is sad that neither of our two fine leaders is here now: Denis Murphy, labor politician, historian and biographer, and Paul Wilson, State archivist, both died from cancer.

I have a tiny story about each. Denis was the chairman of the working party. He proposed that we include a political cartoonist in the ADB. None of us had heard of this person; discussion was sceptical. ‘OK’ said Denis, ‘Seeing there’s not a consensus, we’ll have a vote. Those in favour say Aye’. ‘Aye’, said Denis, I think alone. ‘Those against?’ ‘No’, we chorused. ‘The Ayes have it: I’ve learnt a lot from Jack Egerton’.1 As we held him in such admiration and affection, we let him get away with it.

I wrote my first ADB entry on the Queensland jockey and horse trainer Walter Blacklock. It was full of the names of horses and horseraces. Jim Gibbney, the Queensland desk editor in Canberra, was a lovely bloke, but he had no interest whatever in horseracing. After editing the entry, Jim sent me a message: ‘Spencer, you must get your man out of the stables for at least a couple of sentences’. I was shattered, particularly as I was about to get on a plane to go on long leave overseas. I shoved the whole mess into the hands of Paul Wilson, who was then the secretary of the Queensland Working Party. I will read you the couple of sentences that conclude my article on Blacklock: ‘Small, sturdy and jovial, with a sweeping white moustache, he remained always the quintessential horseman. He failed to learn to drive a motor car, purchased in 1923, which he would try to stop by pulling on the steering wheel and shouting “Whoa”’.

It is still the best conclusion to any of my articles, but I wrote not a word. Paul found someone who had known Blacklock 50 years before, interviewed him, and wrote those sentences. It is a good example of the friendly cooperation that helps hold the ADB project together.

I have been lucky that the conveners of the working party since Denis—Ross Johnston and Pat Buckridge—have not been running personal agendas: they have just wanted to get out a good dictionary of biography.


The Queensland Working Party, 2012. Left to right: Darryl Bennet, Brian Stevenson, Libby Connors (front), Jennifer Harrison, Pat Buckridge (chair), Spencer Routh and Geoff Ginn

By courtesy of Cathy Jenkins

I owe debts to many more people. Jennifer Harrison was a paid research assistant for the ADB for many years. She also gave many more hours of unpaid service to the project each year. She was my constant educator and sounding board: ‘Jenny, Canberra says the date of this Irish immigrant ship is wrong, and yet to me the source seems so reliable’, I would say to her. ‘Don’t worry, Spencer, you’re right. For a while archives had a couple of lists mislabelled. I’ll show you how to explain it’, she would reply. ‘Jenny, this tombstone could be magic for me if only it weren’t so weathered. I just can’t read it’. ‘Don’t worry, Spencer, you can trust the published transcription. Those people checked them by X-ray crystallography’. I might have exaggerated that last bit a little, but you get the general theme. She was a great workmate for years.

I will leave anonymous a great crowd of Queensland librarians and archivists who have contributed to the ADB: they could fill this room.

I use mention of librarians to lead on to the three parts of my life with the ADB: helping select subjects; helping select authors; writing articles. Denis Murphy encouraged us to range across all fields, but he also gave us a portfolio. Mine was primary production and sport. My present colleagues might say firmly, ‘And how faithful he has been’. But I have taken these fields very broadly.

Many years before the ‘smart State’ was invented, we were going through the accomplishments of the Department of Primary Industries, checking entomology newsletters for obituaries and the like, to find the scientists who had helped lead Queensland primary production—not always successfully. We included the scientists who introduced the cane toad. At times you look out for representatives—such as the best shearer: Jackie Howe. Often the search is led by events. You look for a couple of people most influential in the switch from British breeds of beef cattle in northern Australia to tropical breeds; a key figure in the transformation of the port of Gladstone; and so on.

We also get suggestions from various sources, with the most fragmentary information attached. For example, for the supplement volume, Abdul Wade, Afghan camel driver, was on a list of potential inclusions. All we had for him were a few sentences from Geoffrey Bolton’s book on north Queensland. So you ask yourself, ‘But is he the best Afghan camel driver?’ So you speed-read books on Afghans in Australia, and books on camels in Australia, and discover that you do, indeed, have the ‘Lindsay Fox’ of camel transport in Australia—and it is going to be a beaut article.

So you are involved in a mad career of preparation that includes Afghan camel drivers and Aboriginal boxers and State auditors and archbishops and businessmen and so on. A supervisor in the John Oxley Library is entitled to ask, ‘What is this surprising bump for a week’s stack retrieval figures?’ And get the answer, ‘Spencer Routh, preparing for an ADB working party meeting’.

Some of the people here tonight are here partly because they have helped me—and others—as consultants. It is sad John Kerr isn’t here. His books on the sugar industry helped me so much. The specialists we consult about inclusions are always extraordinarily helpful. You go to them at times with some names and notes and they say: ‘Doubtful about him. The action came mainly from the minister, or from people lower in the organisation’. Next name: ‘Thank goodness you’ve got her’. Next: ‘It’s a good one but put this extra theme into your notes for him.’ They are part of the friendly network that upholds the ADB.

The second theme about my work is helping to recruit authors. A lot of what I have already said applies here also. At times the author is really obvious. But at other times you do bibliographical work, follow some other leads, write a letter with some photocopies of biographical information included, and wait, while saying a little prayer. At times, there are failures. At others times there are great successes. I remember, for example, a phone call in answer to my letter from a senior (in age as well as status) scientist. For between five and 10 minutes, I listened to the essence of an authoritative article. When the old scientist drew breath, I could only say, ‘If we’d invited anyone else, you’d have sued’.

I have a confession at this point. If I’m not confident that a potential author is as well informed as that scientist, I often send them a little starter kit, containing a few sample articles, obituaries and the like. And I have a deep confession about some authors who have received overwhelmingly useful starter kits. They might have thought ‘How generous!’; but I was thinking, ‘This subject must be included. I can’t for the life of me think of anyone else to write this article; if I don’t recruit this person, I’m going to have to write the article myself’. So, some of the generosity has been pretty calculated.

My third work theme: my own ADB entries. For most people here I do not have to describe the long slog of research work, and the contrasting joy of ingenious hypothesis that turns out right. But a couple of comments. I am usually writing up people in fields not dealt with in history honours courses. So I try hard to help the desk editors in Canberra with references for the sources for each statement, and why I have included some sentences. For example, when I say in my text that a Scottish migrant stud breeder imported shorthorn bulls from Scotland, I need to let the desk editor know that in about 1910 there was a great controversy between devotees of a traditional style of beast, and those favouring a new style being developed in Scotland. You could caricature it as basically a contest between cattle that could walk a long way to water, and beef you could actually eat. So I have to educate the editor about the importance of this development so that they will leave it in the entry.

More recently, Chris Cunneen asked me to write up an Illawarra dairy-cattle breeder for the supplement volume. I tactfully asked Chris whether he had a primary industry background—even perhaps a family background in dairying. Chris didn’t literally reply that he knew milk had its origin in plastic containers in Woolworths, but I knew the sort of notes I had to write to accompany the article.

My final story about writing for the ADB concerns the buck-jump rider and tent showman Lance Skuthorp. I volunteered for this article because I thought it was going to be easy. There were a couple of editions of a book about him, there was a chapter in another book, and a number of feature articles in popular magazines. The more research I did, though, the more detailed corrections I had to make and big myths dispel. Eventually the article appeared. I waited and watched. Some more of the standard rehashes about Skuthorp appeared. But in 1993 a good coffee-table book about stockmen, including pages on the Skuthorp family, and a detailed page on Lance, were published. It was—I was about to say ‘extensively plagiarised’—let us just say, it was written with ‘sustained close attention’ to the ADB article. And no acknowledgment! Was I angry? No. I was delighted. Because in the end we are not in this for the pleasures of cooperation, or the joys of detective work, but to make good introductions to some of the people who have made Australia.

NB: ADB editors have greatly appreciated Spencer’s extensively footnoted entries.


Spencer Routh (b. 1935)

Spencer Routh has been a stalwart of the ADB’s Queensland Working Party since he joined it in 1975. He has consistently worked to ensure that representation of Queenslanders—in particular, cattlemen and other primary producers, horseracing identities and sportspeople—is balanced yet comprehensive. This is no accident: Denis Murphy as chairman of the working party (1974–84) allocated ‘portfolios’ to individual members, a system that his successors have continued; Routh, assigned these particular occupations, has been doing justice to them ever since. Routh’s knowledge of his subjects is legendary. Over the years many Queensland authors have received copious bibliographies, elusive references and treasured snippets in the mail; Routh calls them ‘starter kits’.

A graduate of the University of Queensland (BA Hons, 1958), Routh was appointed the university library’s first reference librarian in 1959, a position he held until his retirement in 1997. He played a major role in developing the library’s research collections; in 2005, the university conferred on him an honorary DLitt. His wide knowledge of Queensland university students and their academic interests meant that he could quickly identify appropriate authors for ADB entries. His enthusiasm and helpfulness invariably prompted a positive response from his nominees. Awarded an ADB Medal in 2003, Routh resigned from the Queensland Working Party in 2013.

Source: ‘Our Man in the Library: Spencer Routh: Library Legend’, UQL News (22 December 2005), pp. 1–2.


Spencer Routh, 1986

ADB archives


Michael Roe (b. 1931)

After gaining a PhD from the ANU in 1960, Michael Roe took up a post in the history department at the University of Tasmania. In 1965 he published Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835–1851. Appointed professor of history in 1975, he was a stalwart of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association and much of his work reflects his interest in Tasmanian history and personalities. Other significant books included Nine Australian Progressives: Vitalism in Bourgeois Social Thought, 1890–1960 (1984) and Australia, Britain and Migration, 1915–1940: A Study of Desperate Hopes (1995).

In 1960, immediately after his arrival in Tasmania, Roe joined the ADB’s Tasmanian Working Party. From the outset, he carried the administrative burden. Chairman throughout the preparation of Volumes 11–18 (and the supplement volume), he served as section editor for Volumes 13–18 and as a member of the Editorial Board for Volumes 8–18. He resigned in 2012, for health reasons. Roe has written 33 entries for the ADB, on individuals as diverse as doctors, photographers, clergymen, educationists, thinkers, journalists, writers, rebels, Aboriginal leaders, and his beloved eccentrics.

Sources: Interview with Professor Michael Roe, Limina: A Journal of Historical and Cultural Studies 2 (1996) pp. 86-91. David Walker and Michael Bennett (eds.), Intellect and Emotion: Perspectives on Australian History: Essays in Honour of Michael Roe (1998).


Michael Roe, 2012

Photographer: Brian Wimborne, ADB archives


Wendy Birman (b. 1926)

A graduate of the University of Western Australia (BA, 1947), Wendy Birman became a qualified librarian. In 1968 she joined the ADB’s WA Working Party, serving as chairman in 1982–96. She gave up library work in 1973 to pursue historical research and, as the ADB’s local research assistant from 1977 to 1996, she built up an unrivalled knowledge of source materials. Interested in the history of exploration in northern Australia, she co-authored, with Geoffrey Bolton, a biography of the explorer Augustus Gregory in 1972 and wrote herself Gregory of Rainworth: A Man in His Time (1979). With Michael White, she wrote The Apprenticeship Training System in Western Australia (1981), a history of the teacher-training system in that State. She has written 57 entries for the ADB.

One other important association in Birman’s life was the Library Board of Western Australia, of which she was a member for a decade from 1982, and chairman, 1988–92. In that role she did much to promote the development of Western Australia’s major archival repositories: the State Records Office of Western Australia and the J. S. Battye Library. She championed the State library’s use of emerging electronic technologies and encouraged full engagement with the online world. A prominent member of Perth PEN Centre since its formation in 1984, she has served as State president and delegate to international conferences.

Sources: John Ritchie to Wendy Birman, 22 November 1996 in response to her letter of resignation, 14 November 1996. University of West Australian Graduates Association, 50th Reunion of the Graduates of 1947 (Perth: UWA Graduates Association, 1997).


Wendy Birman, 2009

Photographer: Peter Fitzpatrick, ADB archives


Cameron Hazlehurst (b. 1941)

Cameron Hazlehurst’s background as a historian and biographer, combined with experience as a senior Commonwealth public servant, were good attributes for a chair of the ADB’s Commonwealth Working Party. Prior to 1989, Donald McDonald (1923–90) was largely responsible for compiling the Commonwealth list; he contributed 27 entries himself. That year, Hazlehurst, then a senior fellow in the Research School of Social Sciences, ANU, brought together a group of Canberrans to form the working party. He served as chairman (and as a member of the Editorial Board) until 1999. The first issue he had to deal with was the title: Gough Whitlam wrote to him in January 1990 arguing that the word ‘Commonwealth’ should never be used except in ‘the Commonwealth of Australia’ and that the working party should have been called the ‘federal working party’ to prevent confusion with the (British) Commonwealth.

As chairman, Hazlehurst continually asked for a larger quota and a higher average word allocation, in order to do justice to Members of Parliament and public servants. He also advocated that all cabinet ministers and heads of government departments should be included in the ADB, thereby enabling prosopographical work on cabinet and the public service. He wrote 11 entries on a range of subjects, including Whitlam’s father, H. F. (Fred) Whitlam, Gilbert Bogle and Margaret Chandler (more famous in death than in life), and cycling champion Russell Mockridge, plus a film director, deep-sea diver, governor and politician, soldier, aviator and statistician.

Sources: ‘Commonwealth Working Party Correspondence’, including K. S. Inglis to Cameron Hazlehurst (20 January 1989), and E. G. Whitlam to Cameron Hazlehurst (2 January 1990), box 135, Q31, ADBA, ANUA.


Cameron Hazlehurst in his office in the Coombs Building at the ANU, 1980s

By courtesy of Cameron Hazlehurst


Maurice (Bunny) Austin (1916–1985), Alec Hill (1916–2008) and Frank Brown (1906–2000)

In 1963–65, when he was a research fellow at the ADB, the military historian Gavin Long convened an active ADB armed services ‘working group’. The Armed Services Working Party, formed in 1974, was responsible for preparing lists for volumes covering the period 1891–1939. Because of the impact of World War I on Australian history, 560 entries, or 14 per cent of the total, had been allocated to the lives of servicemen. On completing the task in 1976, the section editor, Bob O’Neill, wrote that it was a ‘major effort’ that ‘fatigued everyone along the way’. For the list to be realised as entries, an indispensable source were the individual service records, held by the services themselves in repositories such as the Central Army Records Office. The ADB was greatly assisted by a group of retired army officers and historians, including Brigadier Maurice Austin, Captain Alec Hill and Lieutenant Colonel Frank Brown, in gathering this material.

‘Bunny’ Austin DSO OBE was an army officer (1938–71), who worked from 1971 to 1982 as army historian, researching and publishing works on Australian military history from 1788 to Federation. A consultant to the ADB and a founding member of the Armed Services Working Party, he transcribed—by hand—armed services personal files; after 1982 he had permission to continue accessing the records on behalf of the ADB.

Alec Hill AM MBE ED, educated at Sydney Grammar School, University of Sydney (BA, 1938) and Balliol College, Oxford (BA 1948; MA, 1952), taught at Sydney Grammar from 1938 to 1966, interrupted by World War II, in which he saw service in the Middle East and New Guinea. In 1966 he was appointed a lecturer in history at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, where he influenced a new generation of soldiers and military historians, including David Horner (chairman of the working party since 1994), Peter Pederson and Chris Clark, all of whom later wrote for the ADB. Associated with the ADB for more than 30 years, Hill was a founding member of the Armed Services Working Party and chairman in 1982–94. He wrote 38 entries, many on prominent generals. His biography of General Sir Harry Chauvel, the commander of the Desert Mounted Corps in World War I, published in 1978, emphasised the role of leadership.

Frank Brown, a former lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Royal Engineers, was employed by the ADB as a research assistant from 1971 to 2000. His work, often involving time voluntarily spent far in excess of his reimbursement, was undertaken chiefly at the Australian War Memorial, where he was given special access to service records and war diaries. Brown’s careful, well-organised notes were of immense benefit to ADB editors for more than 25 years, until he resigned from the working party at the age of eighty-seven. Bob O’Neill noted in 1974 that his notes were valuable, going ‘further than the subjects’ military records in many cases’. One opens any armed service subject’s file compiled before the late 1990s and sees Brown’s handwritten notes adorning the pages.

Source: A. J. Sweeting, ‘Long, Gavin Merrick (1901–1968)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 15 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2000), pp. 43–4. A. J. Hill, ‘Austin, Maurice (Bunny) (1916–1985)’, ADB, vol. 17, pp. 119–21.


Gordon Briscoe (b. 1938) and Frances Peters-Little (b. 1958)

Gordon Briscoe and Frances Peters-Little are two Aboriginal historians who have been critical of the ADB not only for failing to identify and include enough Indigenous subjects, but also for not extending its editorial practices to take into account Indigenous conventions of narration and remembrance. Briscoe is descended from the Mardudjara and Pitjantjatjara peoples of Central Australia. From the 1960s he has been active in Aboriginal affairs, helping to establish, in 1971, the Aboriginal legal and medical services in Redfern, Sydney. At ANU (BA Hons, 1986; MA, 1991; PhD, 1996), he was the first Indigenous scholar to be awarded a PhD in history. Peters-Little is the daughter of singers Jimmy Little and Marjorie Rose Peters. A documentary filmmaker, she attended the University of Technology, Sydney (BA, Communications, 1991), and ANU (MPhil, 2002) and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, working on a biography of her father.

In an attempt to address the criticisms, an Indigenous Working Party (IWP) was formed in 2004, with Peters-Little as chairwoman and including members Nick Brown, Dawn Casey, Ann Curthoys, Ann McGrath, Margo Neale, Kaye Price, Peter Read and Tim Rowse. Early in 2006 McGrath and Neale resigned and Robin McNamee and Aileen Blackburn were invited to join in their stead. The working party was initially asked to review the lists of Indigenous Australians, already prepared for Volumes 16 and 17 by the State working parties, and to nominate authors. It was also asked to begin collecting names for subjects who died between 1991 and 2000 for inclusion in Volumes 19 and 20. The general editor, Di Langmore, suggested that they decide on 40 names. It soon became obvious that research assistance was needed because everyone was ‘over-committed’. To that end, in 2006, the working party decided to seek a grant from the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies.

More generally, the IWP was meant to advise the general editor on means of ensuring that editorial policy and practice respected the sensitivities of Indigenous families whose deceased kin were included in the ADB. In relation to conventions regarding authorship, it took the view that there was no point in laying down general prescriptions about the ADB’s editorial policies because Indigenous Australians were not homogeneous in their views on such matters.

At the end of 2008, Peters-Little, Rowse, Curthoys and Casey resigned for various reasons, mostly to do with relocation. Owing to the loss of key personnel and also as a protest at not having the same functionality as other working parties, the IWP, now chaired by Samantha Faulkner, decided to disband and to recommend to the Editorial Board that an Indigenous advisory board be established with new terms of reference and governance. In 2013 the ADB began to develop a relationship with Yuraki, the History, Politics and Culture node of the National Indigenous Research and Knowledges Network (NIRAKN) of more than 40 members who are all Indigenous academics from across Australia. The node was led by Aboriginal historians Professor John Maynard and Dr Jaky Troy.


Gordon Briscoe

By courtesy of Ann McGrath

Source: ADB Indigenous Working Party, NCB/ADB files. Gordon Briscoe, Racial Folly: A Twentieth-Century Aboriginal Family (Canberra: ANU E Press, 2010).


John Poynter (b. 1929)

A graduate of the University of Melbourne (BA, 1951; PhD, 1961), John Poynter won a Rhodes Scholarship, which took him to Magdalen College, Oxford (MA, 1953). Returning to the University of Melbourne, he was dean of Trinity College before becoming Ernest Scott professor of history (1966–75) and deputy vice-chancellor (1975–90). He was a member of the ADB’s National Committee and of the Editorial Board (1974–98) and chairman of the Victorian Working Party and section editor (1978–90). For a dozen years, he read all the Victorian entries, writing erudite comments on the ‘blues’ that were returned to Canberra. As an ADB author, he has maintained an association that extends back to the 1960s: the first of his 17 entries, on Alfred Felton, was published in Volume 4 in 1972. Many of his subsequent articles, including a 5000-word entry on the Baillieu family and long entries on other significant figures such as the Grimwades, Alexander Leeper, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, Dame Mabel Brookes and Sir Charles Lowe, were major contributions. Most are Victorian subjects; all are characterised by solid research and elegant prose. Poynter developed his article on Leeper into a full biography, Doubts and Certainties: A Life of Alexander Leeper (1997).

His shorter entries, such as on Helena Rubinstein and Sir Kenneth Wheare, involved insight leavened by dry humour and sometimes firsthand knowledge of a subject. For instance, he used to tell the story that

the girl who assisted Miss Crouch at the Coleraine school was my step-grandmother … She said that Helena [Rubinstein] suggested that she go to Melbourne with her and start a beauty salon. My step-grandmother turned the offer down. She didn’t think there was any money to be made in face cream.

From 1976 to 1987, Poynter was chairman of the ADB’s publisher, Melbourne University Press. Since 1995 he has been a professorial fellow at the Australian Centre, University of Melbourne. He was awarded an ADB Medal in 2004.

Source: John Poynter, interviewed by Ann Turner (22–23 July 1999 and 28 February 2002), NLA.


John Poynter, 2009

Photographer: Peter Fitzpatrick, ADB archives

1 Jack Egerton (1918–98) was a trade union organiser and member of the Australian Labor Party.

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