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Peter Ross Eldershaw (1927–1967)

by R. C. Sharman

This article was published:

Peter Ross Eldershaw (1927-1967), archivist, was born on 5 January 1927 at West Looe, Cornwall, England, son of Australian-born parents John Roy Eldershaw, artist, and his wife Dorothea Willis, née Barclay, a sculptress. Peter spent much of his youth at the family home at Richmond, Tasmania, but fell victim to poliomyelitis in the epidemic of 1937-38. It left him with no muscular ability in his legs and doctors said that he would never walk again. He completed his primary and undertook his secondary education at Wingfield House, a hospital in Hobart, then attended the University of Tasmania (B.A., 1950) in a wheelchair.

Thanks to Eldershaw's ingenuity, splints and other apparatus were designed and built, which enabled him gradually to walk, but with great difficulty. When the State Archives was being established in Hobart as an arm of the State Library of Tasmania, the authorities were persuaded in 1951 to employ him as a temporary 'Indexer of Historical Records'. Next year he was appointed assistant-archivist. His major work for the archives was his preparation of the first three parts of the Guide to the Public Records of Tasmania (1957-58 and 1965), inventories of the documents of the Colonial Secretary's and the Governor's offices, and of the Convict Department.

A founder (1951) of the Tasmanian Historical Research Association, Eldershaw edited its Papers and Proceedings until his death. His editing was extensive, rigorous and creative. He was extremely conscious of the need for historians and other archives-users to have help at every level: he undertook a considerable amount of voluntary editorial work by assisting, for example, with N. J. B. Plomley's monumental Friendly Mission: The Tasmanian Journals and Papers of George Augustus Robinson, 1829-1834 (1966). Eldershaw was made an honorary life member of the T.H.R.A. in 1958. A member of the Australian Dictionary of Biography's Tasmanian working party, he contributed ten articles to volumes 1 and 2.

He also participated in early efforts by Australian archivists to develop an independent professional identity. His contributions to journals such as Public Administration and the Bulletin for Australian Archivists indicated both a philosophical and a practical support for archivists to have their own organization. When attempts to establish a separate association failed in 1958, Eldershaw promoted the archives section of the Library Association of Australia. He published articles in its journal, Archives and Manuscripts, prepared papers for conferences and was an associate-examiner for archives subjects in the registration examination. In 1963 he was made a fellow of the L.A.A.

Three years earlier Eldershaw had succeeded Robert Sharman, the first full-time archives officer, State Archives of Tasmania. On 18 April 1960 at St John's Anglican Church, New Town, Eldershaw married Shirley Margaret Franks, a librarian. A good deal of his time and talent was devoted to the rather frustrating search for misplaced or missing documents. Reports frequently reached him of Tasmanian public records being offered for sale, and, as the Public Records Act (1943)—under which he operated—made provision for the compulsory acquisition of such items, attempts were made through the courts for this material to be repossessed for the Crown. After an effort to acquire records from a museum at Port Arthur went disastrously wrong, Eldershaw took a leading role in the preparation of new legislation for the Tasmanian Archives Act (1965). A milestone in archival legislation in Australia, it had a significant bearing on that which was subsequently passed in other States. In March 1966 Eldershaw's position was reclassified as principal archivist.

'Behind many of his quiet and dry remarks lurked both an informed irony and a keen humour which commanded respect.' Eldershaw was completely without pretentiousness or pomposity, and devoid of self-pity. He died of hypertensive coronary vascular disease on 23 July 1967 at his Kingston home and was cremated; his wife, son and two daughters survived him. In 1975 the T.H.R.A. established an annual lecture in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • Archives and Manuscripts, 3, Nov 1967, p 4
  • R. C. Sharman, 'Peter Ross Eldershaw, 1927-1967', Australian Library Journal, Dec 1967, p 253
  • R. C. Sharman, 'Peter Ross Eldershaw', Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 15, no 3, Jan 1968, p ii
  • R. C. Sharman, 'Tasmanian Archives and the Eldershaw Tradition', Papers and Proceedings (Tasmanian Historical Research Association), 22, no 2, June 1975, p 84
  • Mercury (Hobart), 25 July 1967
  • Eldershaw file (Archives Office of Tasmania)
  • private information.

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Citation details

R. C. Sharman, 'Eldershaw, Peter Ross (1927–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (Melbourne University Press), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 January, 1927
West Looe, Cornwall, England


23 July, 1967 (aged 40)
Kingston, Tasmania, Australia

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