Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Review of the ADB

Eric Richards, 'The Grand Parade:  A Review Essay on Volume 16 and the Supplement to the Australian Dictionary of Biography', Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, no 34, 2006, pp 116-120

The first port-of-call for researchers in Australian history, at home or abroad, is usually the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), the national project set going in 1962 under the leadership of Douglas Pike. The venture is approaching an interesting transition. The sixteenth volume completes the selection through to 1980, and its first entry is Pike, the foundation editor himself. These volumes are now complemented by a supplementary volume of ‘missing persons’ not previously included. The ADB is now also moving into the 1990s and rapidly catching up with our own generation.

The Australians chosen for inclusion in Volume 16 all died between 1960 and 1980, this being the first principle of selection. The entries go from Pike to Zions. They are not a cohort or a generation because their birth dates range from the 1850s to the 1930s: they are mainly people who were in their prime in the middle decades of the last century They form a wonderful panorama of Australian types: many whose lives were clouded by the Depression and by war; some from the Victorian and Edwardian eras; many more who experienced the brighter days of national revival after 1945. These potted biographies are often individual sagas in their own right, human stories of courage, ambition, idealism, skulduggery, crime, corruption, devotion, dutifulness and sheer eccentricity.

Almost all varieties of Australian life are here. As well as the marvellous array of human idiosyncrasies, there are also, on every page, individual windows into Australian life in the mid-twentieth century. It is a kaleidoscope of the ways the world has changed – and also remained much the same. There are, for instance, fewer pastoralists in the latest volume, but more industrialists and financiers. There is a stronger (though far from equal) representation of women, which may reflect editorial selection as much as the realities of the female experience in these decades. The same may be said of Aborigines, now included in larger numbers.

One tends to recollect the decades before 1960 as comprising a somewhat introverted, inward-looking society, conforming to the tight limits of old British White Australia. These serried biographies, perhaps influenced by the liberal selection principles of the editors, show how much the Australian story intersected with the rest of the world, even beyond the imperatives of war. In these pages are many people who reached Australia out of Europe, and even Asia, and who thrived in this otherwise extraordinarily homogeneous society. Given that these were the best years of British Australia, there are surprising numbers of people from more exotic backgrounds: early refugees from the Russian Civil War; a handful of Chinese people who lived through the long years of White Australia; and many survivors of the pogroms as well as of the horrors of the Nazi era.

For the historian of migration there are dozens of stories of overlapping diasporas and interlocking generations. Here, for instance, are examples of the early Italian immigrants (like Elena Rubeo) who later helped the larger succeeding waves of Italians after 1945. There is similarly an echo of the pre-1914 era, with a splendid account of an indentured labourer of the Pacific indenture trade, Peter Santo, who lived to the age of 103, as well as Eddie Saranealis, of Sri Lankan descent, who was recruited into the pearl-fishing business in 1872. There are many brief, eloquent testimonies to the damage done to people by the World Wars, including to those interned in Australia. Most striking is the cluster of East European Jewish narratives, including many astonishing escape stories, that also highlight the remarkable solidarity of Jewish communities in Australia and their apparently disproportionate impact. Volume 16 leaves the impression that Australia was more heterogeneous and interesting than we recollect from conventional accounts. We generally neglect, for instance, the likes of ‘Jim’ Zimin, the Russian pioneer of peanut farming in northern Australia.

Another current running through those stories is that of internal mobility within Australia. Many mid-century careers were evidently conducted across state borders, a fulfilment in some respects of the idea of Federation. Many of these entries also suggest the ladders of social and economic success in mid-century Australia. Hence the large numbers of educators, medical people and librarians reflect the investment poured into those sectors of the literate society, while the space occupied by so many religious careers registers the energy and resources still enthusiastically absorbed by the churches in the twentieth century. Rising beside them were representatives of Australia’s new bureaucratic and industrial sectors, not only the new breed of Canberra public servant, but also innovators. One such was Mervyn Richardson, who developed the quintessential symbol of Australian suburbia, the Victa Motor mower; another was W.G. Walkley, the founder of Ampol, here celebrated for his commercial acumen and his chicanery.  Most of the entries are of the great and the good, but happily not exclusively.

All the entries end in death, the medical details of which are well registered, though not accompanied by systematic data on deceased estates (unlike the UK’s new Oxford Dictionary of National Biography). This is a shame, since it obscures some of the snakes and ladders of social change. Many of the entrants, born before 1930, demonstrate one of the most vital changes that have overtaken modern Australian society, namely the great change in the average size of families. In Volume 16 many of the subjects grew up in families of up to 18 children – in stark contrast to the reduced families of the present generation. Families were bigger and educational opportunities were narrower: the very framework of life was more tightly constrained. 

Similarly, the entries also chart the increasing incidence of divorce, another deep current of social change that began to redound to the benefit of certain lawyers (and the private detective Alfred R. Sleep) who did good business in the divorce trade.  Another current to be observed is the reduced Irish element – after 1910 Australia received far few[er] Irish migrants, and this sea-change is reflected in their strikingly diminished presence in this volume. The ladder of success most obviously favoured the Rhodes Scholars and men who continued to look to England for their graduate education. But some of the stories seem beyond fiction, such as that of Gwendolyne Stevens, the nurse/entrepreneur who administered a psychiatric hospital before searching for uranium in the outback.

The ADB is a national enterprise that is intended to speak of the nation to the widest audience, and its reputation abroad is high. It would be blatantly parochial to concentrate on South Australian themes for special consideration, but the temptation is too great. Some of the entrants from this state were bearers of two of the primary shifts of the mid-twentieth century, namely the onset of cumulative industrialisation, paralleled by the rise of government planning, indeed ‘the age of planning’. Prominent among the latter category are the exemplary figures William Veale and Alexander Ramsay. Public servants easily outnumber our public philanthropists, a notable paucity in modern Australia, partly accounted for by our discouraging taxation regimes. Industrial enterprise in South Australia is registered in lives such as that of James Stobie, whose ubiquitous, ugly and infrangible pole is recollected with affection by his biographer. The wine industry emerges more prominently with such personae as Oscar Seppelt and John Warren, and credit is given to Talbot Smith for persuading the Adelaide Club to consume local wines.

We are reminded of the importance of railways to South Australia during the earlier decades, and also the manner in which inherited wealth gave advantage to certain dynasties in this state. Humbler beginnings are found in the lives of some of the Barwell Boys of the 1920s and that of the stonemason, Frank Walsh, who became premier in the 1960s, while the prolonged strength of rural politicking is encapsulated in the career of Tom Stott. There are inevitably echoes of mid-century dramas, such as the Stuart case, which marked the lives of Rohan Rivett and J.W. Shand, and different sorts of drama in the careers of star sports people, including the legendary Victor Richardson. Some of the intellectual life of South Australia is captured among academics and teachers, including a cool appraisal of A.P. Rowe, who was bent on reforming the University of Adelaide in the 1950s. The sad story of Theodor Strehlow speaks of the tortured relations between institutions and indigenous communities. The life of Herbert Skipper shows how slow South Australia was to develop a comprehensive public library system.

The Supplement volume, edited from Sydney, is essentially a bonus and a corrective for the first 16 volumes. Here are some 500 extra lives, ‘significant contributions’ to Australian life not accommodated in the first parade. These late entrants are extremely miscellaneous, and their previous omission was often simply a matter of historical mischance. But their retrieval also reflects the ‘explosion’ of historical knowledge since 1970; it also demonstrates the changing criteria of significance for inclusion that the new century has embraced. We now have far more women, Aborigines, Pacific islanders, working people, criminals, non-white immigrants, and even transsexuals. The new selection includes an ‘Aboriginal resistance leader’ (a category not recognised in earlier volumes) and black convicts, and Macquarie’s slave, George Jarvis, is here also. As always, editors and historians reflect the currents of their own times, and the Supplement tends to reinforce E.H. Carr’s observation that people of the past only become historical when they achieve notice by the wandering eye of the historian. Thus the Supplement is another wonderful miscellany of Australian lives, while also charting the recent currents running through Australian historiography. And it has much added value by including a comprehensive index to all 17 volumes and the accumulated 11,000 entries.

Here in the index to the Supplement is no common denominator for people whose lives cross four centuries, thus bringing Dirk Hartog and Pieter Nuyts into the grand parade. Certainly, the unending variety and unpredictability of the human life-force is perfectly demonstrated in these lives, often rattling yarns, sad, inspiring, or depressing, from page to page. There are 76 South Australian entrants, their selection sometimes eccentric and serendipitous. Thus, on the first page, are two distinctive South Australian faces, an aristologist and a cameleer (Abbott and Abdullah). George Bates also catches the eye: a Londoner mixed up with the rag-tags of empire among the Kangaroo Island settlers who pre-dated the formal settlement of the colony and who lived through to 1895.

Entries in the ADB commonly incorporate new original research and expose vital realities, such as the astonishing accumulations of wealth by the great pastoralists of old, juxtaposed with awful poverty in other corners of South Australian life. Surprises include David Baker, an American pioneer in the Australian steel industry, and John Egge, a Chinese merchant who worked the Murray River trade in the 1870s and ‘80s, and Albert Del Fabbro, a local proto-fascist who organised contract migrants from Italy. We are reminded of the role of Metters and Spring and the manufacture of the humble stove in the infant stages of the new industrial economy in South Australia, cheek by jowl with Agnes Milne, who inspected Adelaide factories as a true professional. Here, too, is the story of the short-lived explorer John Horrocks, who appears to have been shot by his own camel.

Pioneers of the wine industry are rediscovered, including Léon Mazure, deservedly celebrated for his development of sparkling burgundy. Other sub-cultures are glimpsed, for instance the South Australian underworlds of clairvoyance and socialism, traced in the story of V.E. Kroemer, as well as a Danish pioneer of medical massage (Leschen), a well-published embezzler (Crooks), and several early advocates of Aboriginal rights. Farmers are not neglected: for instance, Richard Smith’s contribution to the development of the stump-jump plough, some of the first irrigationists on the Murray (like Samuel McIntosh) and a casualty of the well-meant schemes of Soldier Settlement in the 1920s (J.W. Probert). Even apple-famed Granny Smith is found a place in the parade, as is Arthur Yates, originator of the Yates Garden Guide.

There is also a moving account of another Smith, Christina, from the Scottish Highlands, whose passionate concern for Aborigines in South Australia can be set in the balance for the role of so many Scots in the assault upon indigenous people, here and elsewhere in Australia. Of the people who recorded life in the early South Australian colony, there is the diarist Mary Thomas, and also Christian Gottlieb Teichelmann, of the Dresden missionaries, who helped transcribe the Kaurna language in the 1830s, now the basis for its latter-day reconstruction.

The final beneficence of the great ADB enterprise was celebrated in mid 2006, when the entire project was deposited onto the internet. All the volumes are now available on line (with added features, including pictures) and without cost, so that the whole stack can now be searched with astonishing facility and efficiency. Thus, if you need to ask specific or peculiar questions (such as places of birth compared with places of death, or which subjects were educated in Kirkaldy or Oodnadatta), the system will respond before you can draw breath.  his, in principle, should make for more imaginative and more precise history and we are therefore further blessed, not merely by the new technology and the generous taxpayer, but also by the hundreds of contributors who freely donate their original research and energies to the ADB. For the genealogist, the new system will be a goldmine; for historians the possibilities of analysis open invitingly – for instance, for systematic prosopographies, and for insights into the way in which we have coped with the afore-mentioned snakes and ladders of Australian life. Most of all, the ADB contains the templates for a thousand biographies, plays, operas, films and novels. It is literally a gift of scholarship to the nation and the world, all the entrants, the authors, and the readers now fully ‘electrified’.
Eric Richards
History Department
Flinders University