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Laurence Frederic (Laurie) Fitzhardinge (1908–1993)

by Graeme Powell

This article was published:

Laurie Fitzhardinge, by Alec Bolton, 1981

Laurie Fitzhardinge, by Alec Bolton, 1981

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an14465757-1

Laurence Frederic Fitzhardinge (1908–1993), classicist, librarian, and historian, was born on 6 July 1908 at Chatswood, Sydney, eldest child of New South Wales-born parents, James Frederic (Eric) Fitzhardinge, solicitor and book collector, and his wife Florence Marion, née Rutherford. She had been a prize-winning history graduate at the University of Sydney (BA, 1900) and a cataloguer at the Public Library of New South Wales. Laurie was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and the University of Sydney (BA, 1930), where he resided at St Paul’s College and excelled in Greek and Latin. He continued his classical studies at New College, Oxford (BA, 1932; BLitt, 1933; MA, 1937).

Although Fitzhardinge considered becoming a bookseller, in 1934 he was appointed research officer responsible for Australian collections at the Commonwealth National Library (National Library of Australia, since 1960), Canberra. His tertiary studies in history had not extended beyond Roman times, but he immediately immersed himself in the published sources on Australian history. A meticulous bibliographer, he compiled the first edition of the Annual Catalogue of Australian Publications (1936) and worked closely with John Ferguson on the early volumes of a Bibliography of Australia (1941). He also contributed to the expansion of the library’s manuscript collection. He acquired the extensive papers of Sir Littleton Groom upon which was based Nation Building in Australia: The Life and Work of Sir Littleton Ernest Groom (1941); Fitzhardinge was a major contributor. Seconded (1944–45) to Canberra University College as director of the school of diplomatic studies, he lectured in Australian history to diplomatic cadets.

Fitzhardinge was appointed lecturer in classics at the University of Sydney in 1945. He spent his sabbatical (1947–48) in Britain visiting university presses in connection with his post as supervisor of the nascent Sydney University Press. Based at Oxford University’s Clarendon Press, he was especially interested in dictionary projects including the Dictionary of National Biography. In 1951 he returned to Canberra to take up the position of reader in sources of Australian history in the Australian National University’s (ANU) Research School of Social Sciences. A strong advocate for a national dictionary of biography, with Pat Tillyard (Wardle) as his research assistant, he commenced compiling a biographical register in 1954. When Sir Keith Hancock took over as head of RSSS and its history department in 1957, he strongly supported Fitzhardinge’s campaign to establish the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

In 1951 W. M. Hughes, the former prime minister, appointed Fitzhardinge as his biographer, a formidable task on which he was engaged for almost thirty years. Despite criticism from colleagues, pressure from Hancock, and complaints from Hughes’s widow, he set his own leisurely pace and the first volume, That Fiery Particle, 1862–1914, did not appear until 1964; the second, The Little Digger, 1914–1952, followed in 1979. Although the work was an uneven coverage of Hughes’s long career, it was widely acclaimed as a major contribution to the political history of the Commonwealth.

On 1 August 1936 at the registrar’s office, Wellington, New Zealand, Fitzhardinge had married Hope Verity Hewitt, a school teacher, to whom he had become engaged when he was an undergraduate. In their early years in Canberra, they were well-known figures in the town’s cultural and intellectual circles. Verity established a bookshop, while Laurie gave public talks on classical literature, ancient history, and book production. He was president (1954–55 and 1961–63) of the Canberra and District Historical Society, which he had helped to found, and wrote several publications on Canberra history, including W.M. Hughes in Search of a Federal Capital (1964) and Old Canberra and the Search for a Capital (1983).

He and his wife had moved in 1959 to a farm, River View, near Queanbeyan, New South Wales, where they bred cattle. Following his retirement from the ANU in 1973, Fitzhardinge returned to the classics and published The Spartans (1980), a survey of the art of ancient Sparta. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities (1983) and of the Royal Australian Historical Society (1987). He continued to collect rare books, adding to the library that he had inherited from his father.

Predeceased by Verity (d.1986) and survived by their two sons, he died at Queanbeyan on 31 October 1993 and was cremated. Remembered as much as a ‘character’ as a historian, colleagues described him as ‘a scholar of gentle temperament’; he was an eccentric in the English academic style, and a man ‘with an unquenchable desire to talk’ (Gollan 1993, 53). The J. L. and L. F. Fitzhardinge Collection of rare books is held in the National Library of Australia.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Cochrane, Peter, ed. Remarkable Occurrences: The National Library of Australia’s First 100 Years, 1901–2001. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2001

  • Fitzhardinge, Laurence. Interview by Bill Tully, January–February 1983. Sound recording. National Library of Australia

  • Gollan, Robin. ‘Laurence Fitzhardinge 1908–1993.’ Proceedings (Australian Academy of the Humanities), 1993, 53–54

  • Nolan, Melanie and Christine Fernon, eds. The ADB's Story. Canberra: ANU E Press, 2013.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graeme Powell, 'Fitzhardinge, Laurence Frederic (Laurie) (1908–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2017, accessed online 24 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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