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Frederick (Fred) Alexander (1899–1996)

by Wendy Birman

This article was published online in 2021

Frederick Alexander (1899–1996), historian, was born on 12 April 1899 at Blackflat (Glen Waverley), Victoria, second surviving son of Victorian-born parents Ebenezer Alexander, teacher, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Craig. Mary, who had also been a teacher before her marriage, suffered poor health in the ten years before her death in 1918. To accommodate her care, the family moved to Melbourne. Ebenezer continued to work in country schools until 1914, leaving Fred to look after his mother. Although industrious and intelligent, he felt he lacked ‘social graces’ as a result of his ‘restricted social life’ (Alexander 1976). He attended Melbourne High School, winning a non-resident exhibition to Trinity College and a senior scholarship to the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1920).

One of three recipients of an Orient Steam Navigation Co. passage in 1921, Alexander proceeded to England, entering Balliol College, Oxford (MA, 1923). He suffered from respiratory problems in 1922 and returned to Melbourne to recuperate. While at home he publicised the Oxford University Boy Emigration Movement, of which he was secretary. On 9 July 1924, at the parish church of Fairfield, Lancaster, England, he married Margaret (Gretha) Lowes Thorkildson. In 1924, after working as a research assistant at the League of Nations Union in Geneva for a few months, he returned to Australia to take up a position as assistant lecturer in history in the department of history and economics at the University of Western Australia headed by Edward Shann. As part of his job he was required to give public lectures for the University Extension Board and the Workers’ Educational Association. Being firmly committed to ‘town and gown,’ this arrangement suited him well, even though in conservative districts he was occasionally dubbed ‘Red Fred’ in reference to what some saw as his left-leaning ideas. In Perth he joined the local branch of the League of Nations Union, over which he later presided. His first book, From Paris to Locarno, and After: The League of Nations and the Search for Security, 1919–1928, was published in 1928.

In 1931 the department was split and Alexander was appointed lecturer in charge of history. The next year he was granted study leave and won a Rhodes travelling scholarship. He spent nine months overseas, including three in Geneva as a member of the Australian delegation to the League of Nations, and also visited France, Germany, Poland, and the Soviet Union. In 1934 he became dean of the faculty of arts and in 1937 associate professor of modern history. While visiting the United States of America on a Rockefeller fellowship in 1940, he was seconded as personal assistant to Richard (Baron) Casey, Australian minister to the United States, who was setting up the Australian embassy in Washington. On the way home he spent a month in Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane helping Sir Keith Murdoch, (Sir) Richard Boyer, and others form the Australian–American Association. His second book, Australia and the United States, appeared in 1941.

Resuming his duties as head of history, Alexander took on the additional role of director of adult education at the University of Western Australia. These responsibilities were deferred, however, because of his army service in World War II. On 11 August 1941 he began full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces (later Australian Imperial Force) as a major and the senior army education officer in Western Australia. Maintaining a close association with the Adult Education Board, he used its facilities, lecturers, music programs, and library books to enliven programs designed to educate and entertain troops in camps throughout the State. He relinquished his AIF appointment in December 1944.

That year Alexander purchased a car and learnt to drive; previously he had been a regular bus commuter, arriving at the university complete with hat, gloves, walking stick, and wearing heavy-rimmed spectacles. Returning to teaching, he appointed J. D. Legge as a lecturer in history in 1946; Legge would pioneer the teaching of Asian history in Australian university departments. The next year Alexander published his influential monograph Moving Frontiers: An American Theme and Its Application to Australian History and was promoted to professor. On study leave from 1949 to 1950, he visited South Africa as a Carnegie fellow. He had appointed Douglas Pike to teach Australian history in 1949, and Pike and his successor, Frank Crowley, as well as John Reynolds, who taught British history, freed Alexander to concentrate on teaching European history. Regardless of his many other commitments, he made students a priority and was always approachable and helpful; they knew him as ‘Freddie.’ He was also a shrewd tactician, well prepared for meetings and perceptive in appointing reliable associates to his work teams. As the part-time director of adult education, he revitalised the program, often bringing in experts from other States. At the annual summer school he introduced topical debates and panel discussions, together with music and dramatic performances. Influenced by international festivals, this operation expanded to become the Festival of Perth in 1953. Alexander stepped down as director of adult education the following year, as it now required full-time attention. However, he served as chairman, later president, of the festival board. His history of adult education in Australia was published in 1959. The previous year he had spent three months in Canada, resulting in the book Canadians and Foreign Policy in 1960. The next year he was a visiting professor of Commonwealth history and institutions at the Indian School of International Studies, New Delhi.

During the 1940s Alexander had lobbied for a library act that would bring Western Australia into line with the other States, and this legislation was enacted in 1951. As chair of the Library Board of Western Australia (1953–82), he championed the modernisation and development of Western Australia’s library system. His extramural activities were diverse and demanding and he crossed the Nullarbor many times to attend meetings of the Social Science Research Council of Australia (later Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia), of which he was a founding member (1953); the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust (director 1954–84); and the Australian and New Zealand committee for Rockefeller fellowships in social science (chairman 1953–60).

Responding to an invitation in the University of Western Australia’s golden jubilee year, Alexander produced Campus at Crawley in 1963. He received an honorary doctorate of literature from the university that year. Upon retirement in 1966 he became emeritus professor and was appointed CBE. He subsequently produced two surveys of recent Australian history, Australia Since Federation (1967) and From Curtin to Menzies and After (1973), and a memoir, On Campus and Off (1987). Although he was highly regarded for his contribution to scholarship and the arts in Western Australia, his focus on the high politics of parties, parliament, and policy was by then under challenge from scholars of social history and biography. In 1979 he received the Redmond Barry award from the Library Association of Australia. Of average height, he was distinguished by a shock of prematurely grey hair, a craggy face, and immaculate attire. Predeceased by his wife and one of their two daughters, he died on 17 March 1996 at Claremont and was cremated. He is commemorated by a lecture theatre and fellowship at the University of Western Australia. The building that houses the State Library of Western Australia and the J. S. Battye Library of West Australian History is also named for him.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Alexander, Frederick. Interview by J. D. B. Miller, 24 October 1976. National Library of Australia
  • Banks, Ron. ‘Historian Who Boosted Arts.’ West Australian, 20 March 1996, 30
  • Battye Library. MN 2040, Fred Alexander Papers
  • Bolton, Geoffrey. ‘Scholar Left His Mark on Our History.’ Australian, 22 March 1996, 17
  • De Garis, B. K. Fred Alexander: A Tribute. Nedlands, WA: Department of History, University of Western Australia, 1988
  • National Archives of Australia. B883, WX29334
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Stannage, Tom. ‘Professor Fred Alexander.’ Campus News, 8 April 1996, 6

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Wendy Birman, 'Alexander, Frederick (Fred) (1899–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 27 May 2024.

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