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Roberts, Sir Stephen Henry (1901–1971)

by D. M. Schreuder

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

Sir Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-1971), historian and university vice-chancellor, was born on 16 February 1901 at Maldon, Victoria, son of Australian-born parents Christopher Roberts, miner, and his wife Doris Elsie Whillemina, née Wagener, who were respectively of Cornish and German descent. Stephen attended Castlemaine High School, Melbourne Teachers' College and (on scholarships) the University of Melbourne (B.A., 1921; M.A., 1923; D.Litt., 1930). He found his métier in the history department of Professor (Sir) Ernest Scott and readily absorbed his rigorous empiricism as well as his distinctive European outlook.

A remarkable student with an exceptional memory and ferocious, focused energy, Roberts graduated with first-class honours, Wyselaskie scholarships in English constitutional history and political economy, and the Dwight prize in sociology. He was appointed assistant-lecturer and tutor in British history. His master's degree involved original research in Australia's pioneering history, which he duly published as History of Australian Land Settlement, 1788-1920 (1924). In 1925 he attended the first conference sponsored by the Institute of Pacific Relations, in Honolulu. Roberts's paper, which concentrated on Australia's role in a changing Pacific, soon broadened into a major publication, Population Problems in the Pacific (London, 1927). A Harbison-Higinbotham research scholarship and a free passage enabled him to undertake research at the University of London (D.Sc., 1929). He arrived in England accompanied by his devoted mother and by his younger brother Frederick (who was to become a geographer and to draw the maps in Stephen's early books). Stephen studied at the London School of Economics. The topic of his dissertation, French colonial policy from the 1870s to the 1920s, came from his distinguished teachers Harold Laski and Lillian Knowles, but also related to Scott's interest in French maritime explorers. With his usual industry and application, Roberts wrote his large and original thesis in record time and did much of the archival work in Paris. His capacity to read French and German languages proved invaluable.

At Christ Church, Paddington, London, on 3 August 1927 Roberts married with Anglican rites Thelma Lilian Beatrice Asche, from Toorak, Melbourne; Oscar Asche was her uncle. After a honeymoon in Germany they came home to Melbourne. Taking up a research fellowship at the university, he worked on the squatting age in Australia. He returned to Paris late in 1928 to investigate the 'Mind of France'. Quite suddenly he received a cable from Scott urging him to apply for the Challis chair of history at the University of Sydney following the suicide of Professor G. A. Wood. Appointed in April 1929 (over Wood's son), he had returned to Australia with a particular love of France. His time in England had not Anglicized him and his early anti-English bias mellowed only slowly as he matured.

Whereas Wood had seen history and the arts as civilizing and morally uplifting agents, Roberts was a utilitarian who aimed to train professionals for work. He was truly Scott's pupil: empirical, research oriented, with a concern for international trends and an ability to place Australia in a wider colonial context. The 'Sydney school' around Roberts was proudly a 'hard school', not merely because of its declared standards of data, but in its overt hostility to what it conceived as romantic or literary approaches to the past.

Roberts concentrated his energies on his own research and writing. He was a diligent, but indifferent, undergraduate teacher, strongly interested in his broader role as an educator. In one remarkable burst of scholarly energy, he published six books in eight years—a mixture of original research monographs and texts of synthesis—starting with his doctoral thesis, a two-volume History of French Colonial Policy (1870-1925) (London, 1929). Having completed his texts for schools, Modern British History (1932), with C. H. Currey, and History of Modern Europe (1933), he turned to international studies, Australia and the Far East (1935), before reverting to domestic history with The Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847 (Melbourne, 1935). Although his work contained far too many textual errors from hasty writing and proof-reading, each book had an enduring impact in its field by providing standard interpretations or formulating major hypotheses for debate. He was rightly seen as the most prolific historian of his generation in Australia; he was also among the most penetrating and international in outlook.

As second Challis professor, Roberts favoured a broad spectrum of history, from ancient to modern, and from Europe to Asia and the Pacific. He also pioneered American studies in the aftermath of World War II. As a member (1938) of the Board of Secondary School Studies, he influenced the design of the school curriculum and shaped history papers that reflected his world view. His History of Modern Europe became a core textbook. He was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales and a member of its Mitchell Library committee.

In the 1930s Roberts was involved with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Sydney group of the Round Table, and the Institute of Pacific Relations. Becoming a leading international analyst, he gave public lectures and wrote extensively on political and diplomatic issues, especially for the Sydney Morning Herald. From 1932 he presented 'Notes on the News' for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. He spent most of 1936 on study leave, mainly in Britain, but with some three months in Germany. His most famous book, The House that Hitler Built (London, 1937), was based on meetings with Nazi leaders, attendance at their awesome rallies and his own teaching knowledge of central European history. He exposed Hitler's Reich, condemned the persecution of the Jews, and warned that Germany was likely to involve the world in war. Aimed at the common reader, the book was translated into a dozen languages and reprinted many times. Roberts's public commentaries and book brought him fame, influence, and wealth: Thelma happily remarked that their home in Wyuna Road, Point Piper, was the real house that Hitler built!

In the late 1930s Roberts repeatedly spoke presciently of the dangers of appeasement. During World War II, as 'Our War Correspondent', he wrote a column (almost daily) for the S.M.H., in addition to weekly articles under his own name. Gradually, his public roles overshadowed his research and he published no major history after the war.

Dean of arts (1942-47) and chairman of the professorial board (1947), Roberts was appointed acting vice-chancellor late in 1946 and confirmed in office in October 1947; he was also university principal from 1955. He soon proved an able administrator and quickly grasped financial issues. Well informed about what went on in the university, he kept control of the purse, believing that money matters were his concern alone. In the face of a rapid increase in student numbers (particularly returned servicemen and women), inadequate financial resources, cramped facilities and the frayed tempers of overworked academic staff, he showed 'a remarkable capacity for long-sighted improvisation'. He chaired (1952-53) the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee when his influence within the higher-education system was at its height.

Roberts invited leaders of commerce, industry and public life to support the university's various foundations. He also welcomed ambassadors and consuls to his university. Although he was an instinctively shy man who rarely left his rooms, except to attend meetings, he was assiduous in accepting invitations to social engagements in the evenings. The result of all his efforts was financial gain and the promotion of the university overseas. He encouraged closer relations with the university colleges and went out of his way to visit them; his wife enthusiastically supported their dramatic societies.

Once the austerity of the postwar years was over, Roberts vigorously pursued the expansion and development of the university. The report (1957) of Sir Keith Murray's Committee on Australian Universities, and consequent funding from the Menzies government, meant that Roberts had to supervise the structural expansion of the university across City Road into Darlington. In the 1960s he also had to cope with student unrest. He took great pride in celebrating the graduation of Charles Perkins, the first Aborigine to complete a degree at the university, and he worked enthusiastically to support the training of Pacific Islanders and Papua New Guineans in the university's medical faculty.

In an age when many academics were from a middle-class background, with an affinity for Oxford and Cambridge, Roberts had distinctly working-class origins. He relied on a scholarship education and a good marriage to advance him professionally and socially. By 1947 he was a member of the Australian Club. The recipient of numerous honours, he was appointed C.M.G. in 1956, commander of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog (1960), the Lebanese National Order of the Cedar (1961), the Greek Order of the Phoenix (1964) and the Italian Order of Merit (1967), and to the Légion d'honneur (1967). In 1965 he was knighted. The universities of New England (1957) and Sydney (1968) in Australia, Bristol (1948) and Durham (1953) in England, and British Columbia (1956) and McGill (1958) in Canada all bestowed honorary doctorates on him. He chaired the New South Wales State Cancer Council from 1952.

By the time he retired in 1967, Sir Stephen had effectively transformed the old, small, elite University of Sydney into a modern institution of over 16,000 students, with new faculties, new research capacity and new esteem. In his own archives he kept notes for a final magnum opus on 'The Mind of France'. It remained one of his few unfinished projects. A 'man who enjoyed life', he was an expert on Australian wines, and an avid stamp collector from boyhood. In his youth Roberts was elegant and handsome; by the time he was vice-chancellor heavy-framed spectacles accentuated his narrow eyes and fleshy features. He took pleasure in foreign travel and attending overseas conferences. He died of hypertensive coronary vascular disease on 19 March 1971 aboard the Marconi, near Port Melbourne, while en route to Europe with Lady Roberts. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, he was cremated.

Roberts was in many ways an uncommon Australian. For all his contemporary prejudices, he brought a new professionalism to a field of study then dominated by amateurs and antiquarians. Equally, his broader international outlook, which linked Australia to the wider world, was prescient for the new nation. Within the fragile intellectual history of Australia he played a robust but since neglected role. (Sir) William Dargie's portrait of Roberts is held by the University of Sydney: it offers an appropriate view of an august figure in Australian society.

Select Bibliography

  • D. R. Wood, Stephen Henry Roberts, Historian and Vice-Chancellor (Syd, 1986)
  • D. M. Schreuder, 'A ''Second Foundation'': S. H. Roberts as Challis Professor 1929-47' in B. Caine et al (eds), History at Sydney, 1891-1991 (Syd, 1992)
  • D. M. Schreuder, 'An Unconventional Founder', in S. Macintyre and J. Thomas (eds), The Discovery of Australian History 1890-1939 (Melb, 1995)
  • W. F. Connell et al, Australia's First, vol 2 (Syd, 1995)
  • G. Walsh, Australia: History and Historians (Canb, 1997)
  • University of Sydney, Gazette, May 1967, p 193
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, 46, no 1, 2000, p 1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Apr 1929, 8 Sept 1932, 5 Mar 1937, 6 July 1949, 2 Jan 1956, 5 Oct 1963, 1 Jan 1965, 31 Aug 1967, 26 Jan 1968, 20 Mar 1971
  • Roberts papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • R. M. Crawford papers (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • E. Scott papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

D. M. Schreuder, 'Roberts, Sir Stephen Henry (1901–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-sir-stephen-henry-11539/text20589, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 28 July 2014.

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

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