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Raymond Maxwell (Max) Crawford (1906–1991)

by Robert Dare

This article was published:

Max Crawford, by A.D. Colquhoun, c.1966

Max Crawford, by A.D. Colquhoun, c.1966

National Library of Australia, 12850043

Raymond Maxwell Crawford (1906-1991), historian and educator, was born on 6 August 1906 at Grenfell, New South Wales, ninth of twelve children of New South Wales-born parents Henry Crawford, stationmaster, and his wife Harriet Isobel, née Wood. Max and his younger brother, the economist (Sir) John Crawford, were the first in the family to go to university. Harriet made sacrifices for their education while Henry was a tireless reader and inspiring storyteller. Max later acknowledged the enduring effect of his upbringing in a Presbyterian home ‘more concerned with the parable of the talents and with life as a calling than with hell’ (Crawford, Clark, and Blainey 1985, 36).

Educated at Bexley Public (1913-18) and Sydney Boys’ High (1919-23) schools, Crawford proceeded to the University of Sydney (BA, 1927). He wrote essays of prodigious length—twenty thousand words and more and often typed—and graduated with first-class honours in history and English. Supported by a Woolley travelling scholarship, in 1927 he went to Balliol College, Oxford (BA, 1932; MA, 1951), to read modern history. Although awarded a first-class degree, he was not attracted to academic life. He contemplated becoming a writer and considered imperial service.

Resigned to a future in teaching, Crawford returned to Australia in 1930 to take up a position as an assistant master at Sydney Grammar School. On 9 January 1932 at the Presbyterian Church, Bexley, he married a fellow schoolteacher, Dorothy Grace Cheetham. Following a term as a tutor in history at Balliol in 1932, he taught briefly at Christ’s Hospital, West Sussex, and Bradfield College, Berkshire. He returned to Australia in 1935 to a lectureship in history at the University of Sydney under (Sir) Stephen Roberts. The next year, with the retirement of (Sir) Ernest Scott imminent, Crawford applied for the chair in history at the University of Melbourne. He had no reason to be confident, writing in his application ‘I have not yet published any original work’ (UMA 1991.0113). He was appointed, aged thirty, and took up the post in March 1937.

The timing was propitious. The university was about to undertake a survey of student numbers and staff resources as a prelude to planning future development. The plan Crawford prepared for his department influenced its character for decades to come and saw its rise to pre-eminence among Australian departments of history. The capstone of his plan was a restructured honours school, with small tutorial classes and an emphasis on historical theory. The research thesis was relegated to a fourth master’s year for the few who wanted to take that route. Instead, the three-year honours course would educate citizens who would use their knowledge of the past to shape a better future.

Crawford and the school of history became inseparably linked—it became his school. He thought of himself later as a Renaissance historian who also wrote Australian history, and he planned ambitious studies of Spain and Russia that he never completed, but his lasting contribution to the writing of history in Australia lay elsewhere. He excelled in the classroom and lecture theatre, in particular teaching his course in the theory and method of history to a new generation of scholars who would fill positions in the rapidly expanding departments of history around Australia after World War II.

From the beginning of his time in Melbourne, Crawford was a public advocate of causes he cared about. He gathered material on what he feared was a tendency of modern government to restrict civil liberties. He made his concerns the theme of a lecture on ‘Liberty and the Law,’ given on 18 May 1939 to the Australian Council for Civil Liberties, of which he was a vice president (1938-45). In May 1940 he and thirty of the university’s staff signed a letter to the press deploring a regulation enabling the government to limit the war reporting of the communist and trade union presses. The contents were anodyne, but Crawford outraged some fellow members of the professorial board for two reasons: he and the other signatories signed as individuals but also as members of the university, and the letter was published mid-way through the German invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands. Crawford defended himself before the professorial board, arguing that universities had ‘a professional interest’ in preserving ‘freedom of expression’ (UMA 1991.0113).

Crawford also brought to his new post an ambition to encourage Australians to recognise themselves as part of Asia and the Pacific. He joined activities to promote friendship with China and supported the creation of an Oriental studies department. He co-ordinated a co-operative of teachers and scholars to produce a school textbook, Ourselves and the Pacific (1941); by 1961 a later edition was used by more than seventeen thousand students taking the Victorian Intermediate certificate course ‘Australasia and the Pacific.’

In late 1941 Crawford offered his services to the Department of External Affairs for the duration of World War II. He served on the prime minister’s committee on national morale, chaired by Alf Conlon, and in November 1942 was appointed first secretary to the Australian legation in the Soviet Union. It was a life-changing appointment, mostly for the worse. He went with high expectations that he would promote the war effort by familiarising Russians with Australia, and Australians with Russia. Moreover, he would observe at close hand the most monumental social experiment of the twentieth century. What he found instead were obstructive and suspicious authorities, a diplomatic corps mired in cynicism, and an immovably backward society. The ‘dead hand of the past’ as much as the war, he thought, was holding back the construction of a new society. His work became increasingly routine and he suffered a succession of illnesses ranging from colds, bronchitis, and suspected pneumonia, to a condition he likened to dysentery. He was admitted to hospital in Cairo to recuperate and repatriated in January 1944.

Resuming his work at the university, Crawford began to revise his view of history in light of his experiences in the Soviet Union. Under the influence of Arnold Toynbee, he had seen human response to adversity as the most powerful source of social improvement. Now he saw necessity, chance, and the weight of the past acting to check the human quest for freedom. For a while he doubted his essentially humanistic account of the past, and sought understanding in a science of society comparable to the science of physics. In time he abandoned that, too, though more in intellectual despair than in expectation of fresh insight. We are not free to remake our world, he now thought, and the study of history is not a prelude to social action.

Even as he gave up hope for the Russian revolution, he was dogged by his previous enthusiasm for it. He was named in the Victorian parliament in 1946 as one of the ‘pink professors’ teaching communism to their students. In 1951 he defended his moderate politics when seeking entry to the United States of America, but the consulate delayed his application until Crawford cancelled the visit due to his wife’s critical illness. Dorothy died in November 1956 after a long struggle with a heart disorder.

In April 1961, at a time of heightened anxiety about communist infiltration of major institutions, Crawford wrote a letter to the Bulletin alleging misconduct by an unnamed communist in two unnamed departments at the university. Surprisingly, given his reputation as a civil libertarian sympathetic to reformist causes, he recommended that applicants for academic positions should be examined for their political affiliations. The anonymity of those concerned was soon lost in a welter of accusation and counter-accusation. One of the departments was social studies, which had earlier operated under a board Crawford chaired; its head, and a target of the alleged misconduct, was (Eileen) Ruth Hoban, whom Crawford had married in 1958. Tensions over the running of the department had emerged between Hoban and her colleague Geoff Sharp, who had Communist Party affiliations and was acting head in 1958. Crawford masked his own involvement in the matters he revealed in order to allege misconduct deriving from membership of a political party. While individual careers, including his and his wife’s, were under intense scrutiny, the damage inside Crawford’s own department was also grave. He took indefinite sick leave as the controversy escalated. The senior colleague who temporarily replaced him, John La Nauze, resented the interruption to his own work and speculated that a committee of inquiry might recommend termination of Crawford’s tenure. Another senior colleague, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, who had earlier reported her dismay at the time Crawford was devoting to social studies, resigned in 1962 citing a collapse of confidence. Crawford’s health continued to be poor over the next decade and he retired in 1970.

Crawford’s best-known book is Australia, published in four editions between 1952 and 1979. He had been a driving force behind the creation in 1940 of the journal Historical Studies, Australia and New Zealand, which in 1971 published a special issue in his honour. He served two terms (1941-42, 1945-47) as dean of the faculty of arts and was chairman (1947-57) of the board of social studies. Beyond his university he was a foundation member of both the Social Science Research Council of Australia (1942-54) and the Australian Humanities Research Council (1954-68, chair 1965-68). From 1969 he was a fellow and council member of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. He was appointed OBE in 1971.

In retirement, with his health recovered, Crawford wrote a biography (1975) of his University of Sydney teacher George Arnold Wood. He called it ‘A Bit of a Rebel,’ after Wood’s description of himself, but the title is equally appropriate for Crawford, who pushed against inequality and injustice and for a better society, but not too hard. Survived by his wife and the three children of his first marriage, he died on 24 November 1991 at Camberwell, Melbourne, and was cremated. The University of Melbourne named the Max Crawford Chair of History in his honour.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Anderson, Fay. An Historian's Life: Max Crawford and the Politics of Academic Freedom. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 2005
  • Crawford, R. M., Manning Clark, and Geoffrey Blainey. Making History. Fitzroy, Vic.: McPhee Gribble, 1985
  • Dare, Robert. ‘Max Crawford and the Study of History.’ In The Discovery of Australian History, 1890-1939, edited by Stuart Macintyre and Julian Thomas, 174-91. Carlton, Vic.: Melbourne University Press, 1995
  • Dare, Robert. ‘Theory and Method.’ In The Life of the Past: The Discipline of History at the University of Melbourne, 1855-2005, edited by Fay Anderson and Stuart Macintyre, 339-53. Melbourne: Department of History, University of Melbourne, 2006
  • Macintyre, Stuart, and Peter McPhee, eds. Max Crawford's School of History. Parkville, Vic.: History Department, University of Melbourne, 2000
  • University of Melbourne Archives. 1991.0113, R. M. Crawford Papers.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robert Dare, 'Crawford, Raymond Maxwell (Max) (1906–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 20 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

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