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Price, Sir Archibald Grenfell (1892–1977)

by R. L. Heathcote

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Archibald Grenfell Price (1892-1977), by unknown photographer

Archibald Grenfell Price (1892-1977), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23355934

Sir Archibald Grenfell Price (1892-1977), geographer, historian and educationist, was born on 28 January 1892 in North Adelaide, second and only surviving son of South Australian-born parents Henry Archibald Price, banker and businessman, and his wife Elizabeth Jane, née Harris. The death of his father in 1895 led to a close and lasting relationship with his mother and to an important formative relationship with his uncle, Captain Walter Goalen, R.N., who took him exploring along the Fleurieu Peninsula. Archie was sent to the Queen's School, North Adelaide, and the Collegiate School of St Peter, but failed the entrance examination for the University of Adelaide. He was successfully coached for Magdalen College, Oxford (B.A. Hons, 1914; Dip.Ed., 1915; M.A., 1919), and represented Magdalen in cricket, tennis, hockey, lacrosse and rowing. In holidays he explored England with his mother. During 1914 he was a student-teacher at Sherbourne School, Dorset. That year he tried to enlist in the British Army, but was rejected because of poor eyesight.

Returning to Adelaide, Price again volunteered (for the Australian Imperial Force) and was again turned down. He joined the staff of St Peter's College in 1916, coached (1916-24) its athletic team and became a housemaster (1921). On 20 January 1917 at the school chapel he married with Anglican rites Kitty Pauline Hayward, daughter of an Adelaide solicitor; she was to become his lifelong confidante and associate researcher. His first two books, A Causal Geography of the World (1918) and South Australians and their Environment (1921), were in part the product of his teaching experience. He was elected a fellow (1921) of the Royal Geographical Society, London. In 1925 he was appointed founding master of St Mark's College, University of Adelaide, a post he was to hold until 1957.

Wider recognition as a scholar came with his studies of the history and historical geography of European settlement in South Australia, The Foundation and Settlement of South Australia 1829-1845 (1924) and Founders & Pioneers of South Australia (1929). The former received commendatory reviews in Britain and the latter helped to earn him (in 1932) the first doctorate of letters from the University of Adelaide. In his view, previous studies had paid insufficient attention to the economic and physical factors influencing South Australia's development; he also thought that early colonists had misunderstood the vagaries of a Mediterranean climate and adopted unsuitable methods of agricultural production. Both books remained standard references on the history of South Australia until the late 1950s and on its historical geography until the early 1970s. A member of the editorial board of The Centenary History of South Australia (1936), he contributed three chapters to that book and collaborated on a fourth. He wrote a history of Elder, Smith & Co. Ltd, The First Hundred Years (1940), Australia Comes of Age (Melbourne, 1945), and A History of St Mark's College (1968). The Skies Remember (Sydney, 1969) commemorated (Sir) Keith and (Sir) Ross Smith's flight from England to Australia.

Price's geographical interests broadened in the 1920s, partly through co-operation with the leading British geographer L. Dudley Stamp on a school text, The World: a General Geography (London, 1929). He contributed a paper to the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science on South Australia's efforts to control the Murray River (1925) and published The History and Problems of the Northern Territory (1930). With a developing interest in the tropics, he travelled in Java, the Straits Settlements, Burma and Ceylon in 1929. He also served (1924-62) on and presided (1937-38) over the council of the South Australian branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia.

In 1932 Price was granted a Rockefeller travelling fellowship to study 'the adaptation of white settlers to tropical conditions in the Caribbean'. Extensive travel in the United States of America gathering primary sources, and careful field investigations in the Caribbean itself, were combined with previous experience in Australia and Asia to enable him to produce White Settlers in the Tropics (New York, 1939). The book was a widely acclaimed, scholarly and generally optimistic appraisal of the successes and failures of European settlements in the wet tropics. He attributed the failures to administrative incompetence, inappropriate development policies, the ravages of disease and acceptance of inadequate living standards. The successes seemed to be the result of care in maintaining health and fitness by diet, exercise and physical work. He dismissed simplistic explanations based on racial characteristics as unproven and emphasized the need to control tropical diseases, an idea to which he was to return in The Importance of Disease in History (1964).

The theme of European exploration and settlement of diverse physical environments was a continuous thread throughout Price's research. His controversial essay, 'The Social Challenge'—in Northern Australia: Task for a Nation (Sydney, 1954)—advocated the purchase by Australia of Dutch New Guinea (Irian Jaya) as a buffer against encroachment from the embryonic nation Indonesia. In The Challenge of New Guinea (Sydney, 1965) he assessed Australian efforts in colonizing the Territory of Papua and New Guinea. His interest in the travels of James Cook and Sir Douglas Mawson led to his edited version of Cook's journals, The Explorations of Captain James Cook in the Pacific (New York, 1957), and The Winning of Australian Antarctica (Sydney, 1962), based on Mawson's papers. He also published The Western Invasions of the Pacific and its Continents (Oxford, 1963) and Island Continent (Sydney, 1972).

Historical research and experience in the Northern Territory had led Price to an interest in archaeology and a concern for Aboriginal Australians. Under the auspices of the R.G.S.A., he led (1938) an 'inconclusive' expedition to examine supposed remains of the explorer Ludwig Leichhardt. In 1951-52 he encouraged students from St Mark's College to assist with the investigation of an Aboriginal archaeological site at Fromms Landing on the Murray River. His pamphlet, What of our Aborigines? (1944), revealed his knowledge of the mistreatment of Aborigines. White Settlers and Native Peoples (Melbourne, 1949) dealt with racial contacts between English-speaking White settlers and indigenous peoples in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and gave a pessimistic view of past contacts and future relationships.

Price's life was intimately linked to education, initially as a teacher, then as an administrator, and finally through his connection with libraries at State and Commonwealth levels. He served on the council of St Peter's College (1933-72) and on that of the University of Adelaide (1925-62), where he was a part-time lecturer (1949-57) in geography and dean (1951-52) of the faculty of arts. Appointed by the South Australian government in 1936 to inquire into the State's library system, he wrote a report that led to the widening of public library services and he was a founding member (1940-72) of the Libraries Board of South Australia. Chairman (1953-71) of the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund, he anticipated in 1956 the implementation of the public lending rights scheme for authors. As chairman (1960-71) of the council of the National Library of Australia, he had the honour in 1970 of showing the new library building to Queen Elizabeth II. In 1956 he had helped to found, and for some years held various offices in, the Australian Humanities Research Council.

In the 1930s Price had been alarmed by inflation and the spread of communism. Responding to what he saw as militant socialism during the Depression, he was active in the formation of the Emergency Committee of South Australia and chaired its first meeting in April 1931 at St Mark's College. The committee supported strict monetary policies and was seen as 'an anti-socialist organisation' with links to the United Australia Party. In 1933 Price was appointed C.M.G. For six nights a week between October 1939 and May 1941 he gave a series of radio broadcasts on contemporary events, including commentaries on the ebb and flow of the fight against fascism. Revealingly, he had predicted dangers from Japanese expansionism as early as 1925. In 1941 he stood as the U.A.P. candidate at a by-election for the House of Representatives seat of Boothby. His election on 24 May enabled the Menzies government to retain power for a few more months. The loss of his seat at the 1943 election was a personal relief, yet he valued the insights he had gained, and subsequently took advantage of the contacts he had made in Canberra.

Although he came from a conservative background, Price had a strong sense of justice for all. As a junior master he helped to form the South Australian Assistant Masters' Association which successfully negotiated for better pay and conditions. In later years he tried to persuade Federal politicians to improve conditions for Aborigines in the Northern Territory. Raised in an Anglican family, he maintained strong links with the Church of England throughout his life. He was a lay preacher, a church warden (1940-50) of St Peter's Cathedral and a member (1942-57) of the Adelaide synod; he represented (1945-52) the diocese at the general synod, and sat on the Leigh trust which managed property of the Church in Adelaide.

Price's broad-ranging intellect, and his experience and interpretation of a wide variety of physical environments and their modifications by human endeavours around the world, led to the recognition of his multi-faceted contribution to Australian society. He received the John Lewis gold medal (1949) of the South Australian branch of the R.G.S.A. and the Redmond Barry award (1973) of the Library Association of Australia. Knighted in 1963 for his services to education, he was made an honorary fellow of the American Geographical Society in 1973. Recognition had its rewards, but appears not to have affected the modesty of a man who described himself as 'a good second-class brain'. Not surprisingly, Archie was variously described by contemporaries as 'an all-rounder of an uncommon kind', as 'a Renaissance man . . . at home in several fields of knowledge' and as one who 'possessed . . . kindly wisdom'. His final years were troubled by a hip operation which was only partially successful, and he gave up most of his public engagements in 1972.

Of a 'Pickwickian appearance', Price had apparently limitless enthusiasm and humour. He was a gracious host, a correct but forceful committee-man, a supporter of colleagues and students, and a chain-smoker. His inspiration and zest were such that a former student likened working with him to 'being on the tail of a comet'. Well known in Canberra and a regular visitor to that city, he was acquainted with Arthur Calwell, Harold Holt and E. G. Whitlam. Menzies claimed him as 'a good friend' and professed to be an 'admirer'. Sir Grenfell retained, however, staunch ties to Adelaide, where he lived in the suburb of Gilberton. He belonged to the Adelaide, Commonwealth (in Canberra) and Australasian Pioneers' (in Sydney) clubs, and enjoyed fishing and shooting. Survived by his wife, and their daughter and two sons, he died on 20 July 1977 in North Adelaide and was cremated. His elder son Charles (b.1920) became a noted demographer.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Gale and G. H. Lawton (eds), Settlement and Encounter (Melb, 1969)
  • C. Kerr, Archie, the Biography of Sir Archibald Grenfell Price (Melb, 1983)
  • Geographers: Biobibliographical Studies, 6, 1982, p 90
  • Archibald Grenfell Price papers (State Library of South Australia).

Citation details

R. L. Heathcote, 'Price, Sir Archibald Grenfell (1892–1977)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/price-sir-archibald-grenfell-11458/text20427, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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