Australian Dictionary of Biography

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De Berg, Hazel Estelle (1913–1984)

by Graeme Powell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Hazel Estelle De Berg (1913-1984), oral history pioneer, was born on 21 March 1913 at Deniliquin, New South Wales, third child of George Robert Holland, Methodist clergyman, and his wife Ann, née McIntosh, both born in New South Wales. Hazel’s early childhood was spent in a succession of country parsonages. In 1928 the family moved from Kempsey to Sydney, where she was to live for the rest of her life. She attended the Methodist Ladies’ College, Burwood, gaining the Leaving certificate in 1932. Trained as a photographer at Paramount Studios, she later worked in the studio of Noel Rubie. She lived with her parents until her marriage to Woolf (William) de Berg (d.1981) on 15 May 1941 at the Great Synagogue, Sydney. Born in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, de Berg was a company director and a leading figure in the Jewish community. Hazel converted to Judaism before the marriage. By the 1950s, as their three children grew older, she was able to take on new activities, completing a course in radiography, studying Indonesian and providing hospitality to Colombo Plan students.

Hazel de Berg first used a tape recorder in 1957, when she undertook voluntary work for the Blind Book Society. She persuaded Dame Mary Gilmore to make some introductory comments about her book Old Days, Old Ways (1934) and this recording, lasting 1 minute, 26 seconds, marked the beginning of de Berg’s extraordinary career as a recorder of life histories. In the next three years, encouraged by the writers Douglas Stewart and John Thompson, she recorded about seventy poets, as well as novelists and playwrights. In 1960 she turned to artists and, with advice from Hal Missingham and Daniel Thomas, eventually recorded about 250 painters and sculptors.

Although de Berg occasionally spoke of retiring, her recordings gradually became longer and the subject range more diverse. Armed with her tape recorder, she travelled to every State and also to Britain and the United States of America, sometimes making two or three recordings in a day. Writers and artists formed the largest groups, but she also recorded composers, actors, theatre and film directors, architects and scientists, as well as smaller groups of politicians, public servants, journalists and churchmen. Most of her subjects were prominent or rising figures in their fields, but in her later years she also became interested in local history and carried out interviewing projects in Tamworth, Cowra and Young, New South Wales. Over a period of twenty-seven years she recorded 1290 individuals.

The originality of the enterprise attracted attention and de Berg’s work was praised and publicised by many participants. In 1968 she was appointed MBE. She began donating the tapes to the National Library of Australia in 1960 and the library funded the transcriptions and from 1972 paid her an annual grant. By the 1970s she was recognised as the pioneer of oral history in Australia, yet it was not a term that she favoured. She regarded herself not as an interviewer, but as a recorder of the voices, recollections and ideas of Australians of diverse ages, backgrounds and talents. She brought to this work great energy, enthusiasm, charm and perseverance, often managing to record individuals who were notoriously reticent or reclusive. Her practice of excluding her own voice from the tapes has been criticised, while the brevity of the earlier recordings limits their value. Taken as a whole, however, the de Berg tapes provide a unique record of the voices and memories of hundreds of Australians born between 1865 and 1956.

Hazel de Berg died suddenly of myocardial infarction on 3 February 1984 at her Bellevue Hill home and was cremated. She was survived by her two daughters and son. Her collection of recordings forms the basis of the National Library’s oral history collection.

Select Bibliography

  • The Hazel de Berg Recordings from the Oral History Collection of the National Library of Australia (1989)
  • Oral Historical Association of Australia Journal, no 18, 1996, p 29
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 Jan 1968, p 6, 14 June 1972, p 12, 17 Feb 1984, p 12
  • Australian, 24 July 1971, p 9
  • Hazel de Berg papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Graeme Powell, 'De Berg, Hazel Estelle (1913–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/de-berg-hazel-estelle-12410/text22309, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 25 March 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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