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Roth, Henry Ling (1855–1925)

by Helga M. Griffin

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Henry Ling Roth (1855-1925), anthropologist, author and museum-curator, was born on 3 February 1855 in London, son of Mathias Roth (d.1891), physician, and his English wife Anna Maria, née Collins. Mathias was born in the Austrian Empire and was educated at the universities of Vienna and Pavia, where he graduated in medicine in 1839. After involvement with leading Hungarian nationalists during the insurrection of 1848, Mathias moved to England and practised in London (till 1872) and Brighton; he was naturalized in 1855. He reputedly introduced to England physical culture for educational purposes, especially for the prevention and alleviation of physical deformities on which he published widely.

Henry Ling was educated at University College School, London, then studied natural science and philosophy in Germany. At 20 he visited British Guiana, then attended 'the great book fair at Leipzig' on his way to Russia where in 1876-77 he bought timber and tried to learn Russian; in 1878 he published his observations on the country and its people.

Ling Roth preceded his brothers Reuter Emerich and Walter Edmund to Australia, commissioned by English businessmen to investigate the Queensland sugar industry. He arrived at Mackay in 1878 and became closely associated with such local notables as John Mackay who with John Ewen Davidson gave maps, journals and somewhat inaccurate information which he used in his later publication, The Discovery and Settlement of Port Mackay, Queensland (1908). In 1880 he published his encouraging findings in A Report on the Sugar Industry of Queensland with a sanguine aside about conflicts in the Melanesian labour trade being caused by selfish white workers. Roth published two papers on sugar for the Royal Society of New South Wales (1881, 1883) and consolidated his observations in The Sugar Industry in Queensland (1883). These works are seen by historians of the sugar industry as a valuable contribution. Roth was honorary secretary of the Mackay Planters' Association in 1881-84, was on the committee of the school of arts and tried in vain with W. T. Paget and others to persuade the Queensland government to link up the sugar estates with public railways.

Roth had been elected a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute in 1882. After leaving Australia in 1884, he settled in 1888 'in business' at Halifax, Yorkshire, England. In his spare time he prepared numerous manuscripts for publication and reorganized the chaotic Bankfield Museum as part-time curator from June 1890 and full-time keeper from 1912. He turned the museum into a model teaching establishment which drew crowds of students. His most notable publications include works based on information provided by others and remain standard texts: The Tasmanian Aborigines (1890), which was republished in 1899 in what Roth rejoiced as near 'absolute completeness' on the subject; The Natives of Sarawak and British North Borneo (1896); and Great Benin: Its Customs, Art and Horrors (1903), which was based on records of his brother F. Norman who was medical officer to the Benin punitive expedition. He published numerous papers for the Royal Anthropological Institute, The Bankfield Museum Notes, and in 1916 privately printed Sketches and Reminiscences from Queensland, Russia and Elsewhere.

Roth's compassionate, encyclopaedic work on the Tasmanian Aborigines—the basic source until 1966—has a preface by E. B. Tylor, the founder of British anthropology. While the work shares a contemporary reference to levels of civilization, Roth's inherent position, however, was that Aborigines were basically 'as able as the bulk of humanity' and shared 'the basic dispositions of human nature'. More correctly an ethnographer than anthropologist, Ling Roth was an affectionate, tolerant man whose opinion on things social was much valued. He retired in poor health in 1924 and died at Leeds on 12 May 1925, survived by his wife Nancy Harriette, née Haigh, whom he had married on 8 June 1893 at Halifax, and two sons.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Musgrave, Bibliography of Australian Entomology 1775-1930 (Syd, 1932)
  • F. Boase (ed), Modern English Biography, vol 3 (Lond, 1965)
  • Nature (London), no 2900, 115, 30 May 1925
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Man, 57, July 1925, and for list of publications
  • Who Was Who, 1951-60, for his son
  • H. L. Roth, newsclippings, 1878-1884 and papers on North Queensland exploration (held by Royal Commonwealth Society, London)
  • United Empire, 16, no 6, June 1925
  • Times (London), 19 May 1925.

Citation details

Helga M. Griffin, 'Roth, Henry Ling (1855–1925)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roth-henry-ling-8278/text14505, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 August 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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