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Hessel Duncan Hall (1891–1976)

by B. H. Fletcher

This article was published:

Hessel Duncan Hall (1891-1976), historian and public servant, was born on 8 March 1891 at Glen Innes, New South Wales, second of four children of native-born parents William Hessel Hall, Wesleyan minister, and his wife Jeannie, née Duncan. Educated at Emu Plains and Penrith public schools, Sydney Boys' High School and the University of Sydney (B.A., 1913; M.A., 1915), Duncan gained first-class honours in both of his degrees. On 1 August 1914 at St Paul's Anglican Church, Chatswood, he married Bertha Sneath, a nurse; they were to have a son and three daughters before being divorced. Hall taught at Teachers' College and North Sydney Boys' High School, then proceeded in 1915 to Balliol College, Oxford (B.Litt., 1920). The report he wrote for his B.Litt. was published as The British Commonwealth of Nations (London, 1920).

Encouraged by A. L. Smith, the master of Balliol, in 1917 Hall became secretary to a unionist committee, chaired by Lord Selborne, that was preparing a federal solution to the Irish problem. Between 1917 and 1920 he tutored in the Midlands and the North under the University of Oxford's extension programme. He described himself as a socialist and was involved with the Fabian Society. After failing to obtain a readership at Dacca, India, he returned to Australia. Rejected for the chair of history and economics at the University of Queensland, he found employment in Sydney, chiefly with the university's department of tutorial classes. He was active in public affairs, worked as a correspondent (1921-25) for the Manchester Guardian and led the Australian delegation to the Institute of Pacific Relations conference in Honolulu in 1925.

Hall was professor of international relations at Syracuse University, New York State, in 1926-27. While visiting Geneva in 1927, he joined the staff of the League of Nations and was prominent in efforts to control the opium trade; in 1935 he transferred to the information section and was given special responsibilities for the British dominions. He went back to the United States of America in 1939, took a visiting professorship at Harvard University in 1940 and served on the British Raw Materials Mission, Washington, in 1942-45. For the next decade he was based at the British embassy where he had charge of the North American volumes of the official war history and published North American Supply (London, 1955).

After retiring in 1956, Hall continued the work he had earlier begun on a history of the British Commonwealth. He used his acquaintance with the dominions' leaders and his access to unreleased government records to produce the monumental Commonwealth (London, 1971). In his first book he had developed the concept of the Commonwealth as 'a free co-operating society of nations' and put forward ideas that influenced the Balfour Declaration (1926). His last book, although over-long, confirmed his reputation as 'the doyen of a school of constitutional historians'. In between, he wrote articles on Commonwealth, Pacific and international affairs, produced Mandates, Dependencies and Trusteeship (New York, 1948), and applied psychoanalytic principles to international affairs and politics. In the last-mentioned aspect he was encouraged by his wife Jenny Waelder, a psychoanalyst and divorcee, whom he had married on 10 September 1943.

A talented, creative man whose early political views moderated with age, Hall was noted for his wide interests and 'remarkable powers of analysis and exposition'. He died on 8 July 1976 at Bethesda, Maryland, and was cremated; his wife survived him, as did the children of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Jan 1921, 30 Apr 1926
  • Times (London), 13 July, 3 Aug 1976
  • Hall papers (National Library of Australia)
  • J. Le Gay Brereton papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

B. H. Fletcher, 'Hall, Hessel Duncan (1891–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 16 April 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

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