Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Tucker, Thomas George (1859–1946)

by K. J. McKay

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Thomas George Tucker (1859-1946), by unknown photographer, 1896

Thomas George Tucker (1859-1946), by unknown photographer, 1896

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1283

Thomas George Tucker (1859-1946), classical scholar, was born on 29 March 1859 at Burnham, Buckinghamshire, England, son of Charles Tucker, agent, and his wife Elizabeth, née Rolfe. He was educated at Northampton Grammar School, the Royal Grammar School at Lancaster and at St John's College, Cambridge (B.A., 1882; M.A., 1885; Litt.D., 1890), where he was Brown's medallist (1879, 1880), Craven scholar (1881), senior classic and chancellor's medallist and fellow (1882). Plagued by bronchitis, he travelled abroad and in 1883 became founding professor of classics and English at the new Auckland University College, New Zealand. During his first week there, he narrowly survived a boating accident in which his only professorial colleague drowned.

In 1885 Tucker was appointed professor of classical philology at the University of Melbourne after the resignation of Herbert Strong. His inaugural lecture on 'The place of the classics in a liberal education' prompted much discussion. In 1892 Tucker represented Melbourne at the tercentenary of the University of Dublin and received an honorary D.Litt. He served as president of the professorial board (1902) and dean of the faculty of arts (1904-13). His reputation as a lecturer of great ability extended into the public domain where he was much in demand, whether by the Beefsteak Club, the Socialist Hall, the Pleasant Sunday Afternoon or the Medical Students' Society. He was a trustee of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria. Accounted the 'literary oracle of Melbourne' in the 1890s, he exercised considerable influence through his Saturday leaders in the Argus. In 1890-91, with (Sir) Walter Baldwin Spencer, he edited the Australasian Critic which, although it fell victim to declining sales in the depression, was a monument to the idealism and community of thought among the younger professors.

Appearing before the royal commission on the University of Melbourne in 1902, Tucker gave evidence which provided a valuable record of his views on education. The university faced a financial crisis through embezzlement by its accountant and, when the chair of modern languages became frozen on Edward Morris's death, Tucker undertook an honorary lectureship in English for almost two years.

Tucker's literary output was prodigious. In classical scholarship his reputation rested securely on his editions and commentaries on Aeschylus: Supplices (1889), Choephori (1901), Seven Against Thebes (1908). In his day his Aeschylean editions were ranked for dramatic insight and lucidity with Sir Richard Jebb's famous editions of Sophocles. Tucker's translations of Agamemnon, Prometheus Bound and Persians were published in 1935. He also produced works on Thucydides's Book VIII (1892), Aristotle's Poetics (1899), Plato's Republic (1900) and Aristophanes's Frogs (1906), while his elegant lecture on Sappho (1914) enjoyed an extraordinary vogue. Among Tucker's general works were Life in Ancient Athens (1907) and Life in the Roman World of Nero and St Paul (1910); his lively and imaginative Latin grammar (1907) was often reprinted.

A lifelong interest in linguistic evolution was apparent in Tucker's Introduction to the Natural History of Language (1908) and in A Concise Etymological Dictionary of Latin (1931) on which he had worked for many years. Some scholars, however, regretted that he did not devote his time to completing his Aeschylus. His literary interests and knowledge were reflected in The Foreign Debt of English Literature (1907) and in books on Shakespeare and on literary appreciation. Tucker also published textbooks on English literature and grammar, one with (Sir) Walter Murdoch, another with (Sir) Robert Wallace. His numerous papers and lectures were also published, some of the latter in Things Worth Thinking About (1890) and Platform Monologues (1914).

Of Tucker's role as an arbiter of public taste, Edmund Morris Miller wrote appreciatively, yet Geoffrey Dutton dismissed him as an enemy of modernity. (Sir) Walter Murdoch wrote to Alfred Deakin: 'Classical scholars—who have a way of claiming a monopoly of literary taste—have certain well-defined limitations and Tucker, as you say, is probably cut off from enjoyment of all literature in which the individual note is sounded'. D. H. Rankin balanced earlier eulogies of Tucker as 'a living library' and 'a temple of the Muses' against perceptible austerities in his style and thought.

In 1919 Tucker retired, as emeritus professor. Next year he was appointed C.M.G.; family tradition maintains that he declined a knighthood. For reasons of health, he lived in Sydney, but retained contact with university life, filling in for Professors William Woodhouse and John Michie at the universities of Sydney and Queensland. George Robertson, of Angus & Robertson, employed him, among other literary advisers, to read manuscripts and 'lick them into shape' for publication. Although many authors resented this 'tuckering', Robertson valued it highly and Charles Bean, for one, ultimately applauded his conscientiousness and sense of style. While Tucker failed to detect the significance of the early work of Christopher Brennan, he was enthusiastic about Frank Dalby Davison's Man-Shy.

On 9 November 1882 Tucker had married Annie Mary Muckalt (d.1933) in St Paul's parish church, Shireshead, Lancashire. On 9 January 1934 in Melbourne he married Anne Sophie Henrietta, née Hamilton (d.1941), widow of Theyre à Beckett Weigall. His stepdaughter, Joan Lindsay, has left an affectionate portrait of him: 'Tall slim surprisingly upright even in old age and always something of a dandy, gloves and a light cane, a broad brimmed fedora hat, patent leather shoes, large pearl tiepin and an unusually high white collar … were typical accessories of his wardrobe. The lean craggy face with its gingery grey moustache and bright blue eyes was … vivacious and … full of personal charm'. Tucker died at Stope Cove, Devon, England, on 24 January 1946, survived by the two daughters and son of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Joan Lindsay, Time Without Clocks (Melb, 1962)
  • Walter Murdoch and Alfred Deakin on ‘Books and Men’, ed J. A. La Nauze and E. Nurser (Melb, 1974)
  • A. W. Barker (ed), Dear Robertson (Syd, 1982)
  • D. McCarthy, Gallipoli to the Somme (Syd, 1983)
  • G. Dutton, Snow on the Saltbush (Melb, 1984)
  • Royal Commission on the University of Melbourne, Minutes of evidence, Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1903, 2 (20), p 15, Final report, 1904, 2 (13), pp 97, 138
  • Alma Mater (University of Melbourne), 1, no 9 (1896), p 14, 7, no 4 (1902), p 161
  • Melbourne University Magazine, 24, no 2 (1930), p 27
  • Classical Association of Victoria, Iris, 1987, no 1, p 3
  • Table Talk, 1 Sept 1893, 29 May 1896
  • Age (Melbourne), 3 Jan 1953
  • University of Melbourne Archives.

Citation details

K. J. McKay, 'Tucker, Thomas George (1859–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tucker-thomas-george-8869/text15573, published in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 26 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Thomas George Tucker (1859-1946), by unknown photographer, 1896

Thomas George Tucker (1859-1946), by unknown photographer, 1896

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/1283