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Sir William Keith Hancock (1898–1988)

by Jim Davidson

This article was published:

Keith Hancock, 1948

Keith Hancock, 1948

ANU Archives, ANUA 15-25

Sir William Keith Hancock (1898-1988), historian, was born on 26 June 1898 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, youngest of five children of Victorian-born parents William Hancock, clergyman, and his wife Elizabeth Katharine, née McCrae. When Keith was not yet 2 years old the family moved to Bairnsdale, on account of his mother’s poor health. The town, and rural Australia, were to make an enduring impression on him, even though the family returned to Melbourne when he was 10. Entering Melbourne Church of England Grammar School on a scholarship, he was acutely conscious of his relative poverty compared with his classmates, but high intelligence and a quirky personality enabled him to make friends; holding the bronze medal of the Royal Humane Society of Australasia for having rescued a child from drowning in 1908 may also have helped.

In 1917 Hancock began studying classics at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1920) but, impressed by the teaching of (Sir) Ernest Scott, switched to history. A keen student, he none the less took an active part in extracurricular activities. At Trinity College he was an eager debater; he also edited Melbourne University Magazine, and soon emerged as a leader in the university’s Public Questions Society. His tact in his role as secretary of the society and his evident serious-mindedness helped allay the suspicions of the professoriate when speakers were brought in from the wider community. He graduated with first-class honours in history, and almost immediately took up a temporary lectureship at the University of Western Australia, Perth. There he provided the only assistance to Edward Shann, who helped to develop his interest in economic history. Gaining immensely in academic and personal confidence, he would look back on his eighteen months in Perth as a golden period.

Having won (1920) a Rhodes scholarship, in 1922 Hancock sailed to England and entered Balliol College, Oxford (BA, 1923; MA, 1930), where he was influenced by the master, A. L. Smith, and more particularly by two other historians, the austere Humphrey Sumner and the affable Kenneth Bell. At Oxford, Hancock kept his nose to the grindstone, for initially he was intent on returning to Australia as soon as possible. Gaining a first in modern history, he was persuaded to sit for examinations at All Souls College, and secured a coveted prize fellowship (1923). To Hancock, already institutionalised by Trinity and Balliol, All Souls gradually became an English home, one to which he would return periodically for the rest of his life.

A keen traveller in university vacations, Hancock went to Tuscany on a walking tour in 1923. Entranced by the landscape, and in particular by the way it had come to absorb a human imprint over many centuries, he chose Italian history for the subject of his first book. Ricasoli and the Risorgimento in Tuscany (1926) resulted from pondering the authoritarian antecedents to Mussolini. The book was held in high regard when it appeared, but a proposal to translate it into Italian to give it wider currency was stillborn.

On 6 March 1925 Hancock married with Anglican rites Theaden Nancie Brocklebank (d.1960) at the Eccleston Square Congregational Church, London. Although his desire to return to Australia had weakened, in 1924 he had accepted the chair of modern history at the University of Adelaide. When he arrived in 1926, he was widely hailed as the youngest professor in the British Commonwealth. Having held no previous teaching post, he was a little overwhelmed at first. But soon he was reconfiguring the history course, making it more Imperial and European, and more concerned with international affairs. Australian students, he believed, needed to be exposed to the big books and the general sweep of history, since Australia’s `past was no more than the world’s present’.

Nevertheless, Hancock became more engrossed with the country, contributing a series of articles for the New Statesman and then writing Australia (1930). In this book he attacked the three pillars of the Australian settlement—protection, state socialism and the White Australia policy—which he saw as together working for stagnation. Protection should be abolished, he argued; it feather-bedded Australian industry and work practices, and had led to the situation where the government drew half of its revenue from customs duties. The Australian tendency had been to regard government as a huge commissariat, and state socialism needed to be rolled back, with business made more competitive. Ultimately the existing situation rested on White Australia, which in turn rested on British power; the time might come when immigration policy—however well it served at the moment—might have to be changed too. Although Australia was cautiously optimistic about the nation’s prospects, it bristled with aphorisms about the country’s short-comings. This quality helped the book to become one of the most influential accounts of Australia written in the twentieth century.

Hancock was aware of his position as both an outsider and insider; as he saw it, this condition provided the necessary balance between analysis and affection. But once Australia was completed, he concluded that he was marking time in Adelaide. In 1934 he returned to England to take up the chair of modern history at the University of Birmingham. He hoped that this would enable him to resume work in European history—either on the big book he was planning on the origins of the nation state, or perhaps in Italian history. Almost immediately, however, he was approached by Arnold Toynbee on behalf of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, and asked to write a study of the British Commonwealth. Hancock’s earlier links with the Round Table now bore fruit; to be a Commonwealth expert in Britain might be an acceptable resolution of the tensions he felt between country and calling.

Insisting on authorial independence, Hancock threw himself into the task, travelling extensively throughout the Empire and Commonwealth, and focusing particularly on flashpoints such as South Africa, Ireland and Palestine. The two volumes of his Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs appeared in 1937-42, the second so large that it was published in two parts. The view that Hancock remains the greatest of the historians of the Commonwealth rests substantially on the Survey. His illumination of contemporary problems arose from an Olympian treatment of historical forces—sometimes, as in the case of Palestine, with an implicit sense of tragedy.

When World War II broke out in 1939 Hancock was still at Birmingham, and was soon active in the Home Guard. In 1941 he became supervisor of a unit of professional historians attached to the Cabinet Office, charged with producing twenty-seven of the twenty-eight volumes of the civil series of the official history of Britain in World War II. At its greatest extent, in 1946, the historical section employed twenty-five people supplemented by a dozen part-timers. Hancock largely determined the scope of individual volumes, which he shaped according to subject or theme rather than departmentally, closely editing and even rewriting some of them. Although the volumes on wartime production were delegated to (Sir) Michael Postan, Hancock’s workload was extremely heavy. It was not helped by his insistence on fire-watching at St Paul’s Cathedral once a week, or by the new duties he took on when appointed Chichele professor of economic history at Oxford in 1944. His own projected central volume, which metamorphosed into British War Economy (1949), involved and developed the skills of his assistant, Margaret Gowing, to such an extent that he felt honour-bound to acknowledge her as co-author. Characteristically, he had insisted on authorial independence, but the manuscripts were circulated widely for official comment and could be the subject of intense negotiation. The one by Richard Titmuss on social policy was seen by sixty civil servants in eight different departments yet, despite this scrutiny, on reaching the printers it had been recalled: Hancock prepared himself to resign over this interference.

During the war Hancock had looked forward to the possibility of an appointment in Australia, but his strong wish to return did not preclude his contesting, unsuccessfully, the wardenship of All Souls in the election of 1945. Next year he became one of the four academic advisers charged with helping to shape the new, entirely postgraduate Australian National University in Canberra. It was envisaged that the four would become directors of research schools, and it was assumed that Hancock would head a school of social sciences, but he backed away from such a concept, describing himself as `more of a social artist than a social scientist’. Influential figures in Canberra pressed for a school that would engage pragmatically with the nation and the region, by departments or teams; Hancock spoke of `chaps’, and had in mind independent research. With the resignation of (Sir) Raymond Firth, the intended director of a school of Pacific studies, Hancock proposed temporarily to extend his intended fiefdom. Because his existing commitment to the new institution was felt to be incomplete, and there were doubts about his highly personalised mode of recruiting, this suggestion caused alarm. In 1949 he was told that he would not be appointed.

Hancock was shaken by this turn of events, but the recent upsurge of academic interest in colonial development, which he had helped to foster, now came to his rescue. Later in 1949 he was appointed director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, a new research institute within the University of London. He spent much energy supervising the refurbishment of an eighteenth-century house on Russell Square, to which various Commonwealth governments and universities contributed furnishings and publications. The institute conducted high-powered seminars attended by academics, postgraduate students, and personnel from the Colonial Office; not only papers but also summaries of the subsequent discussion were circulated. Hancock was knighted in 1953.

Next year the governor of Uganda, Sir Andrew Cohen, asked Hancock to conduct a mission to Buganda, the core kingdom of the protectorate. The governor had deposed the kabaka, or ruler, in 1953 and had immediately exiled him to England. The situation was now one of sullen stalemate. Arriving in Uganda, Hancock insisted on the independence of his investigation, and then sat down with a committee from the lukiiko, or parliament, to discuss various constitutional changes. The most important of these amendments involved turning the kabaka into a constitutional monarch, and persuading the people of Buganda to participate—as they had previously declined to do—in the Legislative Council for the whole of Uganda. Negotiations then proceeded with the governor, who wisely, and unprecedentedly, abdicated the chairmanship of the conference at Namirembe to Hancock. A favourable outcome was achieved, but Hancock’s recommendations were first modified and then eclipsed by Uganda’s rapid progress towards independence.

Africa remained a major preoccupation for Hancock. In 1951, after a reconnaissance visit to South Africa, he had accepted a commission from Cambridge University Press to write a biography of the statesman Jan Christiaan Smuts. The war histories dragged on for sixteen years, and this project would engage him for just as long. He had a number of affinities with his subject: Smuts’s originality as a botanist now sharpened Hancock’s interest in the environment, while his importance as an international figure enabled Hancock to revisit issues of war and peace and the maintenance of a world order that had concerned him since he was an undergraduate.

Moreover, just as Hancock’s Australianness was proclaimed in Uganda as a guarantee of his independence, so too in South Africa it provided a neutral position: despite his knighthood, he was neither British nor English South African, but came from another Southern-hemisphere country whose Europeans, like the Afrikaners, identified themselves with the land. He was therefore able to enter Afrikaner ruling circles with relative ease. Hancock spent extended periods in South Africa in 1955 and 1966. He produced a massive two-volume biography, Smuts (1962-68), as well as four volumes of Selections from the Smuts Papers (1966), co-edited with his research assistant and collaborator Jean van der Poel. At the time Smuts was ground-breaking in its attention to many areas of South African history, but it is less highly regarded today. Hancock’s opposition to fascism may have led him to cast the Nationalists in a similar role, for he more easily sympathised with the liberalism of South African Whites than with the liberation struggle of the Blacks.

Despite his earlier rebuff, Hancock had maintained connections with the ANU. Eventually he was invited to take up the positions of director of the Research School of Social Sciences (1957-61) and professor of history (1957-65). Although preoccupied with Smuts, he nevertheless saw his role as a national one, and was active in founding the Australian Dictionary of Biography (chairman 1959-65) and the Australian Academy of the Humanities (president 1969-71). Concerned to broaden historical studies, he made appointments in European medieval history and in Indian history, and also convened the Wool Seminar (1957-59), which is still admired for its interdisciplinarity.

When Hancock retired in 1965, it was only his administrative role that fell away. He continued to attend seminars—a diminutive figure with his sweep of white hair, and his pipe in hand—delivering an occasional incisive comment almost hesitantly. Once the second volume of Smuts was completed, he handed over the remaining half of the associated document project to van der Poel, and settled down to write Discovering Monaro (1972). Quite deliberately Hancock was opting for the `parish pump’, a consummation of his involvement with the Canberra region as resident and bushwalker. The book also marked a return to the environmental issues foreshadowed in Australia, and these were to dominate the last years of his life. He actively supported the Botany Bay Project, a study of environmental impact in the Sydney region, and in 1973-75 was a tireless publicist for an unsuccessful campaign to prevent the Postmaster-General’s Department from building a telecommunications tower on Black Mountain, Canberra. His radicalism went further. In 1972 he joined fifteen other notables in signing a letter to the newspapers pointing out the absolute necessity of a change of government for the health of democracy in Australia. Later, alarmed by the continuing arms race, he advocated a non-nuclear Australia and, towards the end of his life, spoke of the desirability of neutrality.

Unusually, Hancock wrote both an auto-biography, Country and Calling (1954), and a set of autobiographical essays, Professing History (1976). A good deal of the latter was taken up with his views on his craft, which—apart from his well-known watchwords of attachment, justice and span—were rather less original than he imagined. Distrusting theory, he put his faith in reason; Christianity remained a primal influence, and he gradually returned to it. Although dutiful and drawn to the (British) Establishment, he none the less insisted on his independence and remained a democrat by instinct. His writings, impressive in range, quality and volume, make him a serious contender for the title of Australia’s greatest historian. Certainly he was the most distinguished. Nine universities awarded him honorary doctorates. At the instigation of the Australian government, he was appointed KBE (1965). He was also appointed to the Order of Merit of the Republic of Italy (1961).

On 22 May 1961 at the Church of St John the Baptist, Reid, Canberra, Sir Keith married Marjorie Eyre, who had worked with him as secretary and research assistant since World War II. She survived him when he died on 13 August 1988 in Canberra; there were no children of either marriage. He was buried in Woden cemetery. A library at the ANU was named after him. Portraits by June Mendoza (1971) and Frances Philip (1972) are held by the ANU; a bust (1952) by Alan Jarvis is at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London.

Select Bibliography

  • W. G. Osmond, Frederic Eggleston (1985)
  • S. G. Foster and M. M. Varghese, The Making of the Australian National University 1946-1996 (1996)
  • D. A. Low (ed), Keith Hancock (2001)
  • Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, vol 25 (2004), p 18
  • Keith Hancock papers (National Library of Australia and Australian National University Archives)
  • information collected by author in preparation for a biography.

View the list of ADB entries written by Sir William Keith Hancock

View the list of obituaries written by Sir William Keith Hancock

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Citation details

Jim Davidson, 'Hancock, Sir William Keith (1898–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 21 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Keith Hancock, 1948

Keith Hancock, 1948

ANU Archives, ANUA 15-25

Life Summary [details]


26 June, 1898
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


13 August, 1988 (aged 90)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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