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Vere Gordon Childe (1892–1957)

by Jim Allen

This article was published:

Gordon Childe, by Andrew Swan Watson, 1930s

Gordon Childe, by Andrew Swan Watson, 1930s

National Library of Australia, 23815428

Vere Gordon Childe (1892-1957), archaeologist and political theorist, was born on 14 April 1892 at North Sydney, son of London-born parents Rev. Stephen Henry Childe, rector of St Thomas's Church of England, and his second wife Harriet Eliza, née Gordon. He was reared in an atmosphere of conventional late-Victorian views and strict paternal authority, against which his inquiring spirit chafed. Known as Gordon, he was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and the University of Sydney. He graduated B.A. in 1914 with first-class honours in Latin, Greek and philosophy and won the University Medal, Professor Francis Anderson's prize for philosophy and the (Sir) Daniel Cooper graduate scholarship. At The Queen's College, Oxford, he was awarded a B.Litt. in 1916 for research on Indo-European archaeology and next year obtained first-class honours in literae humaniores.

By 1915 Childe was 'reluctantly convinced … that orthodoxy was impossible intellectually': his socialist and pacifist views were greatly strengthened by wartime conditions in Britain. In 1917—in some trepidation lest he be forced to enlist—he returned to Sydney and in November became senior resident tutor at St Andrew's College, University of Sydney. He joined the Australian Union of Democratic Control and opposed what he saw as attacks on civil liberties by W. M. Hughes's government. In particular he involved himself in the bitter struggle against the introduction of conscription. Like other pacifists he was under surveillance by the Department of Defence and had his mail censored.

Over Easter 1918 Childe addressed a peace conference and in May resigned his college position at the request of the principal. In July the Sydney University senate refused to confirm his appointment as tutor in ancient history. The university had apparently been advised by the Department of Defence that his appointment in wartime was undesirable. In the State parliament questions were asked if he had been illegally penalized for his political views.

Childe wrote to the chancellor to complain of his treatment, then went to Brisbane. Towards the end of 1918 he taught briefly at Maryborough Boys' Grammar School, then returned to Brisbane. Back in Sydney, from August 1919 he was private secretary to John Storey, leader of the Opposition and premier from March 1920 until October 1921. Childe left the same month for England, where he worked for six months in the New South Wales Agent-General's Office, being dismissed with the change of government in New South Wales.

Thirty-five years later in a posthumous article in Antiquity (1958), entitled 'Retrospect', Childe dismissed these turbulent years as a 'sentimental excursion' into Australian politics, but in 1923 in London he published How Labour Governs, an account of the trade union movement in Australia and the emergence of a working-class party which had won power in a parliamentary system. The book firmly established his reputation as a historian of political theory. His first-hand observations of in-fighting and power struggles during one of the most hectic periods of the labour movement led him to conclude that the parliamentary system was a creation of upper classes, embodying their traditions and privileges, and that once within it working-class representatives would of necessity lose their allegiance to their own party, 'rat' on their principles and fail to implement the programmes on which they had been elected. Childe's interpretation has provided a framework for later histories of the Australian labour movement. A second edition was published in 1964.

Sceptical and angry, Childe rejected the vulgar, reactionary quality of much of Australian social and political life. As well, he accepted uncritically the hypothesis that the current organization of society involved some exploitation and enslavement of the workers, and that the object of a labour movement must be to alter the social structure. On the other hand the lack of unity and apathy of the workers discouraged Childe, who saw that to continue to engage in political activities on their behalf was indeed sentimental. If human dignity no longer existed, he believed it had existed in the past and that the evidence for it could be collected: it was to this problem that he now turned.

Childe appears to have been unemployed for several years, during which time he travelled in Europe. In 1925 he became librarian at the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and that year published The Dawn of European Civilization; by 1930 he had written four more major works. The books not only brought together for the first time a huge array of data from all over Europe, but also synthesized and distilled them in a theoretical fashion which 'pioneered a new way of looking at technology' and revolutionized archaeology.

Childe saw European civilization as 'a peculiar and individual manifestation of the human spirit', and to explain its origins and development became his task. Over the next three decades he published some 20 books and 200 papers where the technical aspects of his search were assembled and argued. From the beginning he was dissatisfied with archaeology being little more than the mere listing of stone tools and pottery types. Instead it should become the preliterate substitute for conventional history 'with cultures instead of statesmen, as actors, and migrations in places of battles'. In the 1930s he became increasingly committed to an economic interpretation of archaeological evidence, and almost inevitably adopted and developed a Marxist framework for explaining the past. He considered the shift from hunting and gathering to food production, and the emergence of professional groups who did not produce their own food so significant that he called them the Neolithic Revolution and the Urban Revolution.

Childe was concerned with archaeology's relevance (and therefore his own) in contemporary society. One method he used to demonstrate his own utility was to write a series of books designed to present the results of his research in a non-academic form for the general public. The most popular were Man Makes Himself (1936), and What Happened in History (1942), which by 1957 had sold over 300,000 copies. His works were also widely translated.

In 1927 Childe had been appointed first Abercromby professor of prehistoric archaeology at the University of Edinburgh. Although that year he began excavating a Neolithic village, Skara Brae, in the Orkney Islands, most of his 'vital discoveries were made in the library and museum, not in the field'. In 1936 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of literature by Harvard and next year a doctorate of science by Pennsylvania State University. He was appointed a fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, and of the British Academy, and was professor of prehistoric European archaeology and director of the Institute of Archaeology in the University of London in 1946-57. Childe was shy and retiring in society, even to the point of rudeness. As one of his colleagues has put it, learning was 'the austere content of his life'.

After he retired, Childe returned to Australia in April 1957. He gave a number of lectures and completed The Prehistory of European Society (published posthumously in 1958). Seemingly he found Australia still unattractive and unpleasant. When the University of Sydney awarded him an honorary D.Litt. he attended the ceremony in a bright green shirt—typically 'Childeish' (a word he often used). On 19 October Childe fell to his death over Govetts Leap in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. From his actions after his retirement, both in Britain and Australia, it seems possible that he took his own life, despite the coroner's verdict of accidental death. Childe did not marry.

Select Bibliography

  • V. G. Childe, How Labour Governs, F. B. Smith ed (Melb, 1964)
  • B. Cunliffe, ‘Introduction’, V. G. Childe, The Dawn of European Civilization, (St Albans, 1973)
  • M.S.N., no 3, 1947
  • British Academy, Proceedings, 44 (1958)
  • Historical Studies, no 29, Nov 1957
  • J. Allen, ‘Aspects of Vere Gordon Childe’, Labour History, May 1967, no 12
  • Department of Defence — Directorate of Military Intelligence, censorship reports, MP95/1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • University of Sydney Archives
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jim Allen, 'Childe, Vere Gordon (1892–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (Melbourne University Press), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Gordon Childe, by Andrew Swan Watson, 1930s

Gordon Childe, by Andrew Swan Watson, 1930s

National Library of Australia, 23815428

Life Summary [details]


14 April, 1892
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


19 October, 1957 (aged 65)
Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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Religious Influence

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