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Henderson, George Cockburn (1870–1944)

by G. L. Fischer

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

George Cockburn Henderson (1870-1944), by unknown photographer, c1914

George Cockburn Henderson (1870-1944), by unknown photographer, c1914

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B4076

George Cockburn Henderson (1870-1944), historian, was born on 1 May 1870 near Newcastle, New South Wales, eighth of nine children of Richard Henderson, an English coalminer who was a Methodist and illiterate, and his wife Ann, née Robinson. Henderson was educated at Hamilton Public School and Fort Street Model School, Sydney. He became a pupil-teacher and in 1889 went to the Fort Street Training School and next year to the University of Sydney (B.A., 1893). In his final year he won the University medal, (Sir) Francis Anderson's prize and the Frazer scholarship; he was markedly influenced by Professors Anderson, George Wood and (Sir) Mungo MacCallum. He resumed schoolteaching and joined the university's extension lecture staff. Next year the university awarded him the James King of Irrawang travelling scholarship; he studied history and philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1898; M.A., 1901). Henderson enjoyed Oxford life and worked with an East London settlement conducted by Mansfield College. His final second-class honours were unexpectedly disappointing.

On 5 January 1899 at Leicester, Henderson married May Gertrude Sturge, a Quaker writer, and went with her to Sydney as acting professor of history and, next year, of philosophy. In September they returned to England and he resumed extension work. In 1901 in Italy he examined intensively the life of St Francis of Assisi. Next year the University of Adelaide appointed Henderson to the chair of modern history and English language and he began lectures in June. His wife stayed behind; in 1911 they were divorced. Henderson's domestic life blended boarding-houses with the Adelaide Club and he had many friends. However, he experienced periods of acute mental depression.

He taught an English course based on Shakespeare, especially Hamlet, Browning, and T. R. Lounsbury's History of the English Language. Students who split infinitives were sternly treated. He centred his modern European lectures on St Francis and his English constitutional lectures on Cromwell; Burke was used for eighteenth-century American and English affairs. Henderson's innovative 1907 syllabus included Imperial and colonial history; that year he published Sir George Grey, Pioneer of Empire in Southern Lands. Its research had shown him the need for collections of local historical records, so he arranged through Thomas Gill the purchase by the local branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia of S. W. Silver's valuable York Gate library. In 1909 he lectured on early South Australian history and also persuaded (Sir) George Murray to establish the Tinline scholarship to commemorate his mother's family name, the holders to examine the State's history from original records.

Henderson believed that Australian universities should foster interest in Australian history, and undertake a 'systematic and scientific' history of the British Empire. In 1914 he spent a year's leave overseas and as a member of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery board, reported on European archives and record offices; the outcome was the opening in 1920 of the South Australian archives department, the first in Australia.

Through Henderson's interest in continuing adult education, country centres were set up. His lectures were fervently evangelical: 'His voice rings out at once as rich and powerful and under splendid control …' Though no proselytizer, he was convinced of the value of his literary, historical and philosophical views; these advocated a high moral idealism, opposed materialism, and stressed Nature's beauty and bounty. 'His look of cold, Red Indian stoicism' seemed forbidding to some students; others valued his idealism that made them aware of inner resources.

Though not formally religious, Henderson stressed Christian ideals; similarly, he admitted socialism's claims, but disapproved of its methods. While avoiding politics, he criticized the low standard of schoolteachers and their poor conditions. He had declined the government's 1906 offer of the post of director of education. He also raised funds for (Sir) Douglas Mawson's 1911 Antarctic expedition. He supported conscription in 1916-17 and the later formation of an Australian Imperial Association; some of his World War I lectures were published by George Hassell to aid relief and memorial funds.

In 1922 Henderson's enormous teaching load was relieved by the appointment of extra staff, but his health remained precarious. Despair filled him every morning and he endured severe insomnia. On 27 October he married in Adelaide Dr Annie Heloise Abel, an American historian, but his mental state worsened. In June 1923 he was hospitalized; his wife returned home and the marriage was later dissolved. Henderson resigned and was made emeritus professor in 1924.

He returned to New South Wales and soon rediscovered the soothing effect of historical enquiry. In his youth he had written: 'to read order into chaos—this is the secret of happiness and the source of content'. Encouraged by old friends William Ifould and Robert Hawkes, he took up new research on Fiji. He worked in the Mitchell Library and in Europe and made four difficult sea journeys in the tracks of the eighteenth-century European explorers to Fiji. He published Fiji and the Fijians, 1835-1856 (1931), The Journal of Thomas Williams, Missionary in Fiji, 1840-1853 (1931), The Discoverers of the Fiji Islands … (1933), as well as documents on Fiji's constitution and politics. He also lectured in history at the University of Sydney and as research professor in 1937-44 completed 'The history of government in Fiji'; it remains unpublished. Although some of his work has been violently attacked, he was a notable pioneer in the field of Pacific history.

Though he was tended lovingly by nieces and nephews on his small property at Dora Creek near Lake Macquarie, Henderson's last years were depressed. He struggled against this, but he felt that 'his brain was on fire'. He committed suicide in his garden on 9 April 1944 and was buried in Sandgate Methodist cemetery. He had written of Fletcher Christian's death, 'It was probably a release: better dead than live on in a state of undying unrest'. There were no children and the residue of his estate of £14,919 went to the University of Sydney to found the G. C. Henderson research scholarship for work on the South Pacific islands. He is commemorated in the history department of the University of Adelaide by the Henderson room (which includes part of his library) and the Henderson Jubilee Fund—History.

Select Bibliography

  • M. R. Casson, George Cockburn Henderson (Adel, 1964)
  • D. A. Scarr, I, the Very Bayonet (Canb, 1973)
  • Parliamentary Papers (South Australia), 1915 (46)
  • University of Adelaide Gazette, Mar 1960, p 1
  • South Australiana, 6 (1967) no 1, p 3
  • E. Kwan, Making Good Australians: The Work of Three South Australian Educators (MA thesis, University of Adelaide, 1981)
  • Henderson papers (PRG 6, State Records of South Australia)
  • Casson papers (PRG 28, State Records of South Australia).

Citation details

G. L. Fischer, 'Henderson, George Cockburn (1870–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/henderson-george-cockburn-6630/text11421, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 15 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

George Cockburn Henderson (1870-1944), by unknown photographer, c1914

George Cockburn Henderson (1870-1944), by unknown photographer, c1914

State Library of South Australia, SLSA: B4076