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Booth, Edgar Harold (1893–1963)

by Bruce Mitchell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Edgar Harold Booth (1893-1963), soldier, university lecturer and administrator, was born on 12 February 1893 at Petersham, Sydney, second son of John Booth, a bank clerk from Scotland, and his English-born wife Maud Theresa, née Martyn. Edgar received a good education at Chatswood Public and Fort Street Model schools under A. J. Kilgour, but always resented the fact that his brothers and sister were taught in Britain or at private schools in Sydney. In 1911-13 he studied engineering at the University of Sydney (B.Sc., 1914; D.Sc., 1936) and in March 1915 was appointed an acting-lecturer and demonstrator in physics. He joined the Sydney University Scouts and was commissioned in the Citizen Military Forces in August.

Transferring to the Australian Imperial Force in June 1916, Booth sailed for England with artillery reinforcements on 14 September and saw action in France and Belgium. Promoted lieutenant in March 1917, he commanded a heavy trench mortar battery of the 5th Division. He was awarded the Military Cross for his actions on 6 September: while bombarding a strong position in the Ypres sector, he came under continuous shellfire and was wounded; although forced to move his post, he performed his tasks exactly to schedule. He wrote the unit diary which contains a graphic account of the action.

Returning to Sydney in April 1919, Booth resumed lecturing at the university and became well known for his imaginative and effective teaching. He was proud of his war service and much of his subsequent career had a military flavour. After a persistent courtship he married 19-year-old Jessie Annie (`Kitty') Wilcox of Darling Point at St Mark's Anglican Church on 9 April 1924: the groom was in uniform.

Booth's work as president (1923-25) and as a director in the 1920s of the Sydney University Union showed him to be an energetic and able administrator; he was also president (1928-32) of the Science Teachers' Association of New South Wales. He wrote a successful textbook on physics, co-authored another with Phyllis Nicol and published a number of articles. His major research on geophysical exploration stemmed from his association with the Imperial Geophysical Experimental Survey in 1929-31. Awarded his doctorate in 1936, he was president (1936-37) of the Royal Society of New South Wales. In 1937 (Sir) Robert Wallace chose him to initiate the New England University College at Armidale.

As warden Booth was responsible for all aspects of student and academic administration, and for the close and sometimes difficult relations with the University of Sydney. He proved tireless in promoting the college and identified himself with its future as an independent university. Booth created a distinct atmosphere on campus by insisting that students eat all meals at Booloominbah (even when most of the undergraduates had to be accommodated in the town) and ensured that they learned the arts of formal dining. Strict but friendly, he took seriously his role in loco parentis. His major triumph was to marshal politicians, public servants and local citizens to prevent the army from taking over the college in 1942 for a field-hospital.

Booth annoyed many at the University of Sydney by persistently pushing for autonomy and in early 1945 was embroiled in a nasty dispute over the wording of minutes of a meeting. Soon after the incident he announced his resignation. He probably used his Armidale contacts, especially J. P. Abbott, to secure an appointment as chairman of the International Wool Secretariat and representative of the Australian Wool Board in London. Booth promoted the use of wool by leading fashion designers and was vice-president of the Clothing Institute in Britain. He liked London, though not its weather, and was back in Sydney by 1949, at something of a loose end.

He served terms on the Standards Association of Australia and on the Australian National Research Council, and belonged to the Australian and University clubs, Sydney, and the Junior Carlton Club, London. The University of New England conferred a doctorate of science on him in 1955. Booth was 5 ft 10½ ins (179 cm) tall and solidly built. He liked good food and wine, possessed a ready sense of humour which could incline to the Rabelaisian, but had an authoritarian style and at times lacked tact. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died of cancer on 18 December 1963 at his Vaucluse home and was cremated. His organizing abilities, energy and desire for recognition had done much to ensure the survival of the Armidale college. Norman Carter's portrait of Booth is held by the University of New England.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Mitchell, House on the Hill (Armidale, NSW, 1988)
  • University of New England Union Record, Mar 1964
  • Royal Society of New South Wales, Journal and Proceedings, 97, July 1965, p 222
  • B. Mitchell, 'One Man's War', Armidale and District Historical Society, Journal and Proceedings, 31, Apr 1988
  • war diary, 5th Australian Field Artillery Brigade (Australian War Memorial)
  • University of New England Archives.

Citation details

Bruce Mitchell, 'Booth, Edgar Harold (1893–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/booth-edgar-harold-9542/text16805, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 27 June 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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