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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Irvine, Robert Francis (1861–1941)

by B. J. McFarlane

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

Robert Francis Irvine (1861-1941), economist, was born on 30 July 1861 at Scatsta, Shetland Islands, Scotland, son of William Irvine, farmer, and his wife Joan, née Sandison. The family migrated to New Zealand when he was a child. He was educated at Canterbury College (B.A., 1883; M.A., N.Z., 1884) where he won a senior scholarship in 1881 and the Bowen prize for an essay on 'The influence of Latin civilization on the modern world'. In 1883-84 and 1888-89 he was on the staff of Christ's College, Christchurch. In between he toured England and Germany, acting as overseas correspondent for the Wellington Evening Post.

Irvine came to New South Wales and in 1892-93 was headmaster of Moore College Grammar School, Liverpool. A widower, he married Florence Julia Herborn (d.1938) at Liverpool on 30 December 1890. By early 1894 he was headmaster of Springwood College in the Blue Mountains. Irvine moved in literary and artistic circles: with Arthur Adams, Christopher Brennan, George Lambert and Thea Proctor, among others, he planned the ill-fated Australian Magazine in 1897 and in 1906 founded the Casual Club as a conversation group.

Originally intended as a minister of the kirk, Irvine broke with religion. On 26 March 1897 he was appointed examiner and inspecting officer to the Public Service Board and from July 1900 secretary to the board of examiners for the public service. He was a member of the board in 1910-12. As special commissioner appointed by Premier W. A. Holman he visited Europe and the United States of America; his Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Question of the Housing of Workmen in Europe and America was published in 1913 and used by A. B. Piddington in his inquiry into the basic wage in 1920.

From 1907 Irvine had lectured on economics at the University of Sydney, organized courses and invited prominent businessmen such as (Sir) George Allard and (Sir) Henry Braddon to lecture on special subjects. In 1912 he became the first professor of economics and built up the Sydney department which became a separate faculty in 1920. Widely read, he was described by an ex-student F. A. Bland as a 'magnificent instructor', who inspired his students 'with zeal for the Truth and zeal for the service of the commonweal'. He was a member of the University Extension Board and lectured widely at other universities, to town planning associations, tax-reform groups, primary producers and labour groups (including the Industrial Workers of the World). Among his controversial publications were The Place of the Social Sciences in a Modern University (1914), The Veil of Money (1916) and The Roots of our Discontent (London, 1922), in which he praised the role of labour and criticized Australian businessmen and orthodox economists on such questions as methodology, wages, depression and monetary policy. Sometimes in the 1920s Irvine adopted a syndicalist position on the organization of industry, a viewpoint which became much more uncompromising in a series of articles in the Sunday Times on the 'Financial system' (November 1920-January 1921 and July-August 1921), the 'Wages system' (March 1921) and the 'Industrial system' (April-June 1921). The post-war wave of anti-socialist hysteria that swept Australia probably contributed to his removal from the university.

Already unpopular in some university circles because of his radical political views, Irvine was forced to resign in 1922 when his adultery was brought to the attention of the university authorities. He became a private consultant on finance and economics and a director of the Primary Producers' Bank of Australia (until government support was withdrawn in 1931-32). In 1929-32 he sketched proposals for a credit policy to assist the revival of Australia's agricultural sector. In December 1930 Irvine opposed Professor (Sir) Douglas Copland at the Federal basic wage hearing. He also ghosted a radical version of E. G. Theodore's plan for reviving the Australian economy (16 January 1931), but his efforts were thwarted.

Irvine completed his last major work, The Midas Delusion, in 1933. Another version (1935) was written for a Canadian publisher and largely endorsed Major Douglas's credit proposals. Irvine acknowledged here his intellectual debt to F. A. Soddy and stated his belief that 'the intrusion into the economics field of engineers, scientific men or humanists pure and simple is all to the good [and] it is particularly good for the economist who is apt to claim a too-exclusive knowledge, and to magnify over-much his office as expert'.

From 1933 Irvine lived quietly at Paddington; he died on 1 July 1941 at 215a George Street, Sydney, and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. His two sons and a daughter survived him. His eldest son had served overseas with the Australian Imperial Force in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • B. McFarlane, Professor Irvine's Economics in Australian Labour History, 1913-1933 (Canb, 1966)
  • L. J. Louis and I. Turner (eds), The Depression of the 1930s (Melb, 1968)
  • F. H. G. Gruen, Surveys of Australian Economics, vol 2 (Syd, 1979)
  • A. Clark, Christopher Brennan (Melb, 1980)
  • J. Mackinolty, The Wasted Years? (Syd, 1981)
  • Scottish Australasian, 27 Aug 1920
  • Hermes (Sydney), Nov 1922, p xxviii, 183
  • New Outlook (Sydney), 15 Nov 1922
  • Economics (Sydney), 1972
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 2 July 1941
  • University of Sydney, Senate minutes, and registrar's records (University of Sydney Archives).

Citation details

B. J. McFarlane, 'Irvine, Robert Francis (1861–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 20 September 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 9

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