Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Ellis, Malcolm Henry (1890–1969)

by B. H. Fletcher

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Malcolm Henry Ellis (1890-1969), journalist and historian, was born on 21 August 1890 at Narine station, near Dirranbandi, Queensland, eldest of seven children of Thomas James Ellis, an Irish-born storekeeper and bookkeeper, and his wife Constance Jane, née Ruegg, from England. In the 1890s depression the family led an itinerant existence in northern Queensland. Yet, decades later, in a series of Bulletin articles, Malcolm wrote of his early upbringing with warmth and affection, describing ungrudgingly the privations he had experienced. He formed a strong attachment to outback Queensland and relished life in the bush. Elsewhere, he recounted his experiences with the Aborigines, referring especially to the lack of 'distinction between white and black'. He developed resilience and independence, as well as a 'sense of intense curiosity' and a capacity to observe detail. In addition, he found stability and happiness in a close-knit family circle. From his father he derived a love of adventure and a toughness of spirit; from his mother came a regard for learning, and an appreciation of English manners and culture.

Constance's 'yearning for culture' brought the family to Mount Morgan in October 1899. Life was still harsh, but it was settled. Malcolm mixed with the miners and helped his father to prospect for gold. He attended school, initially under a cane-wielding headmaster, then in a more humane atmosphere at Red Hill. In January 1904 he won a bursary to Brisbane Grammar School where he boarded and was taught by dedicated masters who, he wrote, 'might have been selected by a committee consisting of Arnold of Rugby, Rudyard Kipling and Dean Farrar'. An able student, he edited the school magazine. In 1907 he took up a cadetship with the Brisbane Daily Mail, partly because there was no university in Queensland, partly because he could not afford to read privately for the Bar.

Ellis excelled as a journalist and by the age of 19 had been appointed chief of the parliamentary staff. He transferred to the Brisbane Courier in 1910. At St Luke's Anglican Church, Brisbane, on 25 April 1914 he married 27-year-old Melicent Jane (Jean) Ayscough. Next year he returned to the Mail as leader-writer and commercial editor. Rejected for active service because a childhood accident had blinded him in one eye, he undertook 'special duties' before spending eighteen months travelling in the outback and New Caledonia. In 1918 he was appointed to the executive of a war propaganda committee. One year earlier he had managed the National Party's Senate campaign for Queensland and over the next four years helped to spearhead the opposition to the abolition of the Legislative Council. A staunch critic of the Labor Party, he attacked it for disloyalty during the war and in 1918 published A Handbook for Nationalists.

By 1919 Ellis had established a reputation as a versatile writer and a man of strongly conservative views. Widely known in political circles, he included W. M. Hughes among his close contacts. In December 1920 Ellis joined the Daily Telegraph in Sydney as chief political correspondent and a member of the editorial board, winning renown for his leaders on commerce and finance. He assisted the Australian Meat Council and was commissioned by a number of newspapers to visit New Guinea, Papua and the Northern Territory: one outcome was a series of 'sizzling articles' attacking aspects of the administration in all three regions. Subsequently, Federal government officials sought his advice when preparing a constitution for the Northern Territory. Fond of adventure, Ellis led the Daily Telegraph expedition that made the first return crossing of Australia by car; he recorded his adventures in The Long Lead (London, 1927).

Sent to London in 1926 to take charge of the Telegraph office, Ellis reported on the Imperial Conference and League of Nations sessions. He set out in February 1927 to drive a British car to India—in order to test it for Australian conditions—and reached Delhi where bad weather thwarted progress. Travelling by sea to Sydney and to the Telegraph, he wrote of his exploits in Express to Hindustan (London, 1929). In October 1928, disillusioned by the state of the press, he became director of the Electrical and Radio Development Association. After it folded in 1931, he engaged in freelance work until 1933 when he joined the senior staff of the Bulletin. There he remained until retiring in 1965.

His capacity to produce a 3000-word article on any subject within twenty-four hours enabled him to make a substantial contribution to the Bulletin's columns. He refined his vigorous, hard-hitting style, and spoke out against communism, strengthening his political contacts who included (Sir) Robert Menzies. During World War II Ellis won acclaim for his column, 'The Service Man', which appeared under the pseudonym 'Ek Dum'. Drawing on radio reports and his knowledge of the terrains, he described military campaigns so realistically that he was assumed to have been present. In the postwar years his column became a vehicle for warnings about the spread of communism that formed the basis of his books, Socialisation in Ten Years (1947) and The Garden Path (1949). The first dealt with the issue of nationalization of the banks and the second with the growing hold of communism over the labour movement—a subject he had earlier explored in The Red Road (1932). A solitary and secretive man who usually wore a suit and tie, Ellis was tall and 'chubby-faced', with a 'slightly stuttery voice'. He enjoyed fishing and boating. Divorced in 1939, he married Gwendoline Mary Wheeler on 20 July 1946 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney.

Ellis was noted as an historian as well as a journalist. Some of his work reflected his interest in manufacturing and rural industry: The Beef Shorthorn in Australia (1932), The Torch (1957), Metal Manufacturers Ltd (1966) and A Saga of Coal (1969). It was, however, his biographies of Lachlan Macquarie (1947), Francis Greenway (1949) and John Macarthur (1955) that brought him to the fore. In 1942 he was awarded the S. H. Prior prize by the Bulletin for his John Murtagh Macrossan lectures at the University of Queensland on Macquarie; in 1948 the University of Melbourne awarded him the Harbison-Higinbotham research scholarship for Macquarie. He was appointed C.M.G. in 1956. From the 1920s his overall, but unfulfilled, objective was to produce a history of New South Wales to the mid-nineteenth century based on primary sources and the lives of great men. He undertook research for biographies of William Bligh and W. C. Wentworth: although he received a Commonwealth Literary Fund grant of £1000 in 1965, he published neither.

Bringing to history the qualities that marked his work as a journalist, Ellis was forthright, colourful and lively in his writing. He had a remarkable grasp of detail and was a meticulous researcher who assiduously combed the available material. At a time when there were few scholarly studies of Australian history his books stood out as major pieces of original research. For all that, Ellis could not avoid identifying himself too closely with his central figures. He viewed the past through their eyes, fought their battles and denigrated their opponents. His work possessed great strengths, but detachment was not among them.

Nor could one expect otherwise given his personal characteristics. He relished and sometimes created controversy. Strong-willed, assertive and principled, he could not be deflected once he had made up his mind. Inevitably, he conflicted with others, revealing a capacity to be vituperative and savagely outspoken. He accused Marjorie Barnard of having improperly read his manuscript of Macquarie before she published Macquarie's World (Melbourne, 1946). In 1949 he resigned from the Australian Journalists' Association when he concluded that it had come under communist influence. He also resigned his fellowship, vice-presidency and membership of the Royal Australian Historical Society in April 1954, following an acrimonious controversy centring around his attempts to infuse new blood into the council. After longstanding, unpleasant disputes, in January 1962 he ceased to be period editor of volume 1 and a member of the editorial board of the Australian Dictionary of Biography; he resigned from its national committee in June 1963. There were underlying clashes of personality, and differences of opinion both as to how work should proceed and the selection of authors. Two years later he severed connexions with the Australasian Pioneers' Club, to which he had given much since 1953 as historical adviser, honorary librarian and president.

Such episodes isolated Ellis from organizations to which he had a great deal to contribute. A formidable critic and reviewer, he clashed with leading historians and was severe in his strictures on anything that he thought inaccurate. Contrariwise, he could also be helpful and he commanded respect. He belonged to the Australian Club (from 1947), served on the humanities advisory panel at the University of New South Wales in the 1950s and became an honorary member (1964) of the Australian Humanities Research Council. On 21 October 1966 he was among the recipients of the first honorary doctorates conferred by the University of Newcastle. The vice-chancellor, Professor James Auchmuty, praised him for contributing more than any other historian to 'knowledge of our country in the first half century of its existence'. This comment was open to debate, but Ellis was certainly among the foremost biographers of his day in Australia. Survived by his wife and by the daughter of his first marriage, he died on 18 January 1969 at Mosman and was cremated with Anglican rites.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Rolfe, The Journalistic Javelin (Syd, 1979)
  • Australian Humanities Research Council, Annual Report, 1968-69
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Jan 1929, 27 Aug 1941, 10 Aug 1948, 30 Oct 1965, 15 Aug 1966
  • Bulletin, 15, 22 June 1963, 9 Jan, 9 Oct 1965, 25 Mar 1967, 1 Feb 1969
  • Angus and Robertson papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • M. H. Ellis papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Australian Limited Editions Society records (National Library of Australia)
  • U. Ellis papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Sir John Latham papers (National Library of Australia)
  • G. Mackaness papers (National Library of Australia)
  • H. de Berg, interview with M. H. Ellis (transcript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • M. H. Ellis collection on communism (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Ellis, Malcolm Henry (1890–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ellis-malcolm-henry-10116/text17855, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 19 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014