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Robson, Leslie Lloyd (1931–1990)

by Richard Ely

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Leslie Lloyd Robson (1931-1990), historian, was born on 24 July 1931 at Ulverstone, Tasmania, son of Tasmanian-born parents George Leslie Robson, farmer, and his wife Laurel Grace, née Revell.  Lloyd grew up on a farm at West Pine, near Penguin, and attended the local primary school and Devonport High School.  Academically gifted, he entered the University of Tasmania (BA Hons, 1953; MA, 1955), where he was editor of the student newspaper Togatus in 1952 and president of the Political Science Society.  A mordant persona and literary ambition were conveyed by a remark in Togatus:  during summer he 'sorted mail, delivered newspapers, put in potatoes, hoed potatoes, dug postholes, wrote two and a half novels'.  His master’s thesis (1955) was on the press and politics in Tasmania in 1856-1871.  Encouraged by the archivist Peter Eldershaw, who gave him the run of the stacks in the Archives Office of Tasmania, Lloyd became 'utterly captivated' by the 'beautiful records of Tasmania’s history'.

In the late 1950s Robson undertook postgraduate study at the University of London.  On 3 August 1957 at the parish church of St Augustine, Wembley Park, he married Margaret Ilona Horden, a medical technologist.  They were later divorced.  Back in Hobart, he investigated prospects for a statistically based analysis of the convict era and made a study of one hundred randomly selected male convicts transported to Van Diemen’s Land between 1841 and 1853.  This was published in 1961 in Papers and Proceedings of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association.  Supervised by W. D. Borrie and Manning Clark at the Australian National University, Canberra (Ph.D., 1963), he studied the origins and character of the convicts transported to New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land in 1787-1852.  This pioneering work was published as The Convict Settlers of Australia (1965).

In 1963 Robson was appointed lecturer in history at the University of Melbourne, where he taught mainly Australian and Imperial history.  His research on enlistment for overseas service in the Australian Imperial Force during World War I resulted in The First A.I.F.: A Study of its Recruitment, 1914-1918 (1970).  Robson described the war itself as 'madness' but enlistment, because it was voluntary, fostered national pride; unfortunately, he argued, national happiness was wrecked.  Although views differed on Robson’s conclusions, the concise and measured analysis of the text won respect.  During his study Robson had received letters from about 250 returned servicemen explaining why they enlisted.  He did not use this material in The First A.I.F., but later he and J. N. I. Dawes did so in Citizen to Soldier (1977).

Robson was promoted to senior lecturer in 1966 and to reader in 1977.  He regularly published original research in historical journals as well as in several edited collections of documentary materials.  Greatly respected as a teacher, he stimulated much thesis research.  To colleagues and students he was unaffectedly courteous; Stuart Macintyre observed that he 'could light up the company of any room he entered'.

Aspiring to write the history of Tasmania, Robson began serious documentary research in England in 1969, assisted by a Nuffield Foundation fellowship.  He flagged his interest in the 1971 Eldershaw lecture and, in 1973, produced a review essay in Papers and Proceedings, THRA, of A. G. L. Shaw’s revised edition of John West’s The History of Tasmania (1852), which incorporated West’s marginal amendments.  Robson provocatively suggested that West often showed better historical judgment in the original edition.

In a Meanjin article in 1978, 'States of the Nation: Tasmania—A Personal Reflection', he sounded many themes to be pursued in his two-volume history of Tasmania.  The contrast between West and Robson is pertinent to appraising Robson’s A History of Tasmania, volume I (1983).  Both historians represented the colony’s early governance as despotic; both often considered treatment of Aborigines and convicts reprehensible.  But while West in 1852 looked forward cautiously to civility and enlightenment—symbolised in the projected new name, Tasmania—Robson declared the colonial-metropolitan relationship to be, by definition, exploitative, becoming increasingly 'intracolonial' in class, cultural, race and occasionally, gender terms.  Robson glimpsed little of fineness in the Vandemonian sink of self-serving and hypocrisy.  Volume I was praised for impressive documentation, especially respecting matters not accessible to West, and it received the Melbourne Age’s 'book of the year' award.  Among academic peers, reception was mixed.

Robson’s A Short History of Tasmania, mainly about the post-Vandemonian period, appeared in 1985.  It offered a conceptually integrated overview of Tasmania as, for too long, outlier of a restless and expansive British society 'suffused with the ideology of Christianity, and increasingly equipped with powerful technology'.  A Short History contained one especially fine chapter, a literary as well as historical triumph, entitled 'Recognition'.  Here Robson developed a regional focus, concentrating mainly on the 1930s and 1940s.  He offered much on folkways and moral economy, especially of north-west Tasmania, home to many small farmers from the second half of the nineteenth century, and once to Robson himself.  Emotion was recollected in tranquillity.

In 1988 Robson retired from his university post.  Next year the Royal Society of Tasmania awarded him its Clive Lord memorial medal.  In the second volume of A History of Tasmania (1991) he played safe.  Formally, it was complete and included the Labor-Green Accord of 1989.  Foreground development was usefully charted, but there was little on underlying command ideas, such as perceived local, national and Imperial 'needs'; small farmers questing for 'stakes' in the land; local imperatives of liberalism, egalitarianism, collectivism and progressivism; and calls for ecological balance.  But Robson, who in his work had consistently targeted vanity and venality in high places, remained recognisably himself; those who despised the Mercury, resented the power of the Legislative Council, and enjoyed disparaging greed and social pretension were gratified.

On 29 March 1976 at the office of the government statist, Melbourne, Robson had married Rosemary Esther Kiss.  Survived by his wife and the son and three daughters of his first marriage, he died of cancer on 22 August 1990 at Fitzroy.  After a funeral at the Uniting (formerly Methodist) Church, Penguin, Tasmania, he was buried in the old cemetery overlooking the town.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Anderson and S. Macintyre, The Life of the Past, 2006
  • Australian Historical Association Bulletin, October 1990, p 82
  • Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), vol 37, no 4, 1990, p 137
  • R. Ely, 'Lloyd's Last Word', Overland, no 129, 1992, p 93

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Citation details

Richard Ely, 'Robson, Leslie Lloyd (1931–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/robson-leslie-lloyd-14462/text25554, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 16 June 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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