Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Atkinson, Meredith (1883–1929)

by Warren Osmond

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Meredith Atkinson (1883-1929), educationist and publicist, was born on 3 January 1883 at Middleton, Hartlepool, County Durham, England, third son of Meredith Atkinson, blacksmith, and his wife Margaret, née Thompson. He was educated until 18 at the Hartlepool Grammar and Technical School. In 1902-04 he held a King's scholarship at St John's College, Battersea, part of the London Day Training College, then went to Keble College, Oxford (B.A., 1908), where he also gained diplomas in education (1909) and in economics and political science (1911). On 20 December 1910 at the Parish Church, Hartlepool, he married Margaret Freeland (d.1924). In 1911-14 he was an extension lecturer for the University of Durham. During these years he became a disciple of Albert Mansbridge, the originator of the Workers' Educational Association in England.

In March 1914 Atkinson arrived in Sydney with his family to take up his appointment as organizer of tutorial classes at the university, on the recommendation of Mansbridge; from 1916 he was also lecturer in economic history. In 1915-18 he was president of the Workers' Educational Association of New South Wales, worked closely with David Stewart, and regarded himself as a missionary for the movement throughout Australia and New Zealand.

Atkinson's efforts to bridge the gap between the university and the worker were seriously undermined by his passionate campaign for conscription as secretary of the Universal Service League in 1915-16. In December 1916 the central council of the W.E.A. formally dissociated itself from his views. His advocacy had also embarrassed his university colleagues; moreover they accused him of empire-building and shoddy administration, and resented his overt pressure for promotion to professorial rank. His administrative and personal ambition led to conflict with the University Extension Board and the new joint committee for tutorial classes. However, Atkinson attracted attention as a lecturer, orator and polemicist on a wide range of subjects. He organized a conference on trade unionism, and edited its findings as Trade Unionism in Australia (1915).

Atkinson was increasingly criticized by his former conscriptionist colleague (Sir) Mungo MacCallum. Tired and petulant, he resented opposition and, through his friendship with (Sir) W. Harrison Moore, in 1917 was appointed director of tutorial classes with professorial status at the University of Melbourne. Again his attempts to absorb the extension board clashed with both academic and trade union prejudice. Again he was seen as a blatant careerist, this time for his advocacy of sociology as a valid discipline. His most important work, The New Social Order: A Study in Post-War Reconstruction (Sydney) was published in 1919. He also edited Australia: Economic and Political Studies (1920); similar collections of essays by specialists in related subjects became the most common genre for sociological writing about Australia.

After World War I Atkinson became a pacifist and internationalist. In 1921 he took leave 'for private purposes', went to England, and resigned from the university and the W.E.A. on 1 January 1922. In February he visited the Soviet Union as an honorary famine commissioner. Later that year, with financial backing from Herbert Brookes, he acquired a controlling interest in Stead's Review and returned to Melbourne as editor. As a businessman Atkinson was incompetent, and the journal's circulation and finances quickly ran down. Before leaving for England he had floated a company styled Quick Gears Pty Ltd, which failed; he and his co-directors were sued in the Supreme Court for fraudulent misrepresentation, but were acquitted in 1924. He ventured into private publishing as Meredith Atkinson Press; Stead's Review collapsed in 1926 and he went to London.

Atkinson became literary secretary for the New Health Society and was lecturer on economics for the University of Cambridge's board of extra-mural studies. He contributed to the revived Stead's Review, the Nineteenth Century and After and other journals. Never robust and always inclined to overwork, he died in London on 13 May 1929 of aortic valve disease. He was survived by his second wife Isobel Marion, grand-daughter of Professor Charles Badham, whom he had married in Melbourne on 21 March 1925, and by two sons and a daughter of his first marriage.

A man of great charm and stormy temperament and intellect, Atkinson played an important role in the early establishment of the W.E.A. in Australia and in the advocacy of sociology as a recognized discipline in universities. He remained an outsider in academic circles.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Heaton, ‘Personalities 1913-1922’, Highway, 1 Oct 1923
  • F. Alexander, ‘Sydney University and the W.E.A. 1913-1919’, Australian Quarterly, Dec 1955
  • Punch (Melbourne), 16 May 1918
  • Table Talk, 22 Nov 1923
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 16 May 1929, p 18
  • A. Wesson, Formal Adult Education in Victoria 1890-1950 (M.Ed. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1971)
  • T. Rowse, Australian Liberals' Theories of Consensus and National Character (M.A. thesis, Flinders University, 1976)
  • F. W. Eggleston, Confidential notes: Journalists and Press Barons (Australian National University Library)
  • correspondence file, 1917 (University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

Warren Osmond, 'Atkinson, Meredith (1883–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/atkinson-meredith-5081/text8477, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 September 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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