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Basten, Sir Henry Bolton (Henry) (1903–1992)

by Keith Hancock

This article was published online in 2016

Henry Basten, by Norman Plant, 1974 [detail]

Henry Basten, by Norman Plant, 1974 [detail]

National Library of Australia, 23015322

Henry Bolton Basten (1903–1992), university vice-chancellor, was born Henry Bolton Cohen on 2 May 1903 at Stoke Newington, England, elder son of English-born parents Gustave Henry Cohen, commercial traveller, and his wife Elizabeth Emma, née Hawker. Henry was educated at City of London School, winning a scholarship in 1921 to Merton College, Oxford (BA, 1925; MA, 1954), where he read classics and philosophy. In 1924 he won a Chancellor’s prize for an essay on irony.

On graduation Cohen joined the overseas civil service and was posted to India to work for the Calcutta Port Trust. On 8 December 1931, at St Mary’s Cathedral, Calcutta, he married Mildred Minshall, a graduate of the Slade School of Fine Art; the couple had known each other in England. He moved to Singapore in 1934, where he was employed by the Singapore Harbour Board. Evacuated with his wife and son before the 1942 Japanese occupation, he returned to Britain and worked with the Ministry of War Transport on the organisation of shipping, in the course of which he visited Egypt and West Africa. To protect his family from anti-Semitism, he changed his name to Basten (his maternal grandmother’s maiden name) in October 1945. Returning to Singapore as chairman and general manager of the Singapore and Penang Harbour Board, he played a major role in the rehabilitation of the port of Singapore. During that period he also assisted in the establishment of the University of Malaya. He was appointed CMG in 1947.

Basten left Singapore and the civil service in 1950 and for a short time lived on a six-acre (2.4 ha) farm near Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire, England. Recruited by the Menzies government to review the operation of Australian ports, in January 1952 he delivered a report that identified the major causes of delay in the turn-round of ships, notably wharf congestion and a lack of warehouse space in the major ports. He recommended changes in the system of employment in the stevedoring industry, and noted the need for new ports; this recommendation later led to the development of facilities such as Port Botany.

In December 1952 Basten migrated with his family to Adelaide. After a brief period of employment by Commercial Motor Vehicles Pty Ltd, he was appointed in 1953 as administrative assistant to Professor A. P. Rowe, the vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide. Such was his success in this role that, following Rowe’s resignation in 1958, the university council appointed Basten to replace him. Despite his background in administration, his appointment received unqualified support from the academic staff.

Displaying a rare talent for dealing with government, the university council, and staff and students, Basten became a distinguished vice-chancellor. During his tenure the institution grew from 5,000 to 9,000 students (including 650 postgraduates), and the number of full-time academic staff nearly doubled to about 500. Wishing to promote postgraduate studies, including through establishing residential facilities, he played a central role in founding the co-educational Kathleen Lumley College in 1965. He contributed to other aspects of higher education in South Australia, including negotiating an arrangement with the South Australian School of Mines (SA Institute of Technology from 1960) to confer degrees on its graduates. In anticipation of an increased demand for tertiary education beyond the capacity of the university, between 1961 and 1965 he oversaw the creation of a new campus at Bedford Park, which became the Flinders University of South Australia in 1966. He was knighted that year, and in 1967 Flinders conferred an honorary doctorate of letters upon him.

Following his retirement in March 1967, Basten moved to Canberra, and was appointed to the Australian Universities Commission, succeeding (Sir) Lenox Hewitt as chairman (1968–71). He played an active role in several national initiatives: as foundation chairman of the Australian Institute of Marine Science (1972–77); member of the planning committee and the interim council of the Australian National Gallery (1965–71); and chairman of the development council of the Australian Defence Force Academy (1975–81).

 A man of charm and erudition, Basten combined purposeful determination with gracious diplomacy and an ability to engage people with his ideas and projects. The political scientist Hugh Stretton noted his ‘sensitivity, humility, capacity and will to learn’ and his ‘conciliatory skill and temper’ (Badger 1992, 6). Survived by his wife and two sons, he died on 8 April 1992 at Chatswood, Sydney, and was cremated. A room in the Mitchell Building at the University of Adelaide and a wing at Kathleen Lumley College commemorate his contribution to the university.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Badger, Geoffrey. ‘Sir Henry Basten, 2 May 1903–8 April 1992.’ Lumen 21, no. 7 (5 June 1992): 6–7
  • Basten, H. B. The Turn-Round of Shipping in Australian Ports. Commonwealth of Australia. 4 January 1952
  • Basten, John. Personal communication
  • Basten, Tony. Personal communication
  • National Archives of Australia. A5840, 613
  • University of Adelaide archives. Letter of appointment, 15 October 1953
  • University of Adelaide archives. Council minutes, 26 September, 1958
  • University of Adelaide archives. Council minutes, 2 September, 1966
  • University of Adelaide archives. Education Committee minutes, 26 September, 1958

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Keith Hancock, 'Basten, Sir Henry Bolton (Henry) (1903–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/basten-sir-henry-bolton-henry-21145/text31655, published online 2016, accessed online 18 October 2019.

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