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George Mackaness (1882–1968)

by Martha Rutledge and Bruce Mitchell

This article was published:

George Mackaness (1882-1968), educationist, author and bibliophile, was born on 9 May 1882 at Blue's Point, Sydney, eldest of eight children of native-born parents George Mackaness, printer and lithographer, and his wife Annie Ellen, née Barnett. He was educated at Drummoyne Public School, where he began as a probationary pupil-teacher in July 1897. Next January he was transferred to Balmain Superior Public School, where he completed the four years training in December 1901. He spent 1902 at Fort Street Training School on a half-scholarship and began teaching at Fort Street Public School in January 1903 at £96 a year. At St Thomas's Anglican Church, Balmain, he married Alice Matilda Symons on 19 December 1906.

Meanwhile he had studied part time at the University of Sydney, graduating B.A. with first-class honours in English and half the James Coutts scholarship in 1907 and M.A. with first-class honours in English in 1911. From 1912 he was master of English and deputy headmaster of Fort Street Boys' High School. To the boys he was known as 'Creeping Jesus', because his rubber-heeled shoes enabled him to surprise wrongdoers.

At Fort Street Mackaness was encouraged by the headmaster Alexander Kilgour to develop a new approach to teaching English. Although he expected the boys to read the classics, he deplored the lack of appreciation of Australian literature. With Bertram Stevens he edited Selections from the Australian Poets (1913), which ran through many editions and was revised with his daughter Joan as The Wide Brown Land (1934). To develop self-expression he introduced 'magimaps' of imaginary islands drawn by the boys, who wove stories about the people and places associated with their individual islands. He pioneered the 'Play day movement' in New South Wales: Fort Street became noted for its annual days in which every class acted scenes from Shakespeare or other writers. His book embodying his methods, Inspirational Teaching (London, 1928), won international recognition.

In 1924-46 Mackaness was lecturer-in-charge of the department of English at Teachers' College, Sydney, where Bernard Smith found his conductor-like gestures, while demonstrating how to teach primary schoolchildren the significance of poetic metre, 'wholly ludicrous'. He was also examiner in English for the intermediate certificate, a university extension lecturer and acting lecturer in English at the university in 1909, 1915-18 and 1927-30. He published several textbooks, an anthology, Australian Short Stories (London, 1928), and a selection of Henry Lawson's prose works (1928).

By the 1930s Mackaness was a major figure in Sydney literary circles: he was an active foundation member of the Sydney branch of the English Association from 1923, an early member of the Sydney P.E.N. Club and president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers in 1933-34. He resigned when despite his protests Egon Kisch attended a luncheon for John Masefield. In 1938 with (Dame) Mary Gilmore and others he tried to found a new literary society excluding journalists. Still involved in amateur dramatics, he was president of the Junior Theatre League and of the Impressionist Theatre, which staged Continental drama. He revered Norman Lindsay and became a close friend of Hugh McCrae, who frequently addressed him as 'Joyous Jarge'. From 1937 he served on the advisory board of the Commonwealth Literary Fund and in 1942-65 was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales. In 1946 he published an anthology, Poets of Australia. Over the years Mackaness corresponded with many writers. He chided Miles Franklin for sending him typewritten letters: 'You know I save them up for posterity … That's why Kipling's letters to me don't have the imprimatur of his personality as I should have liked'.

Encouraged by Professor (Sir) Ernest Scott, Mackaness became absorbed in historical research. In 1931 he published The Life of Vice-Admiral William Bligh, for which he was awarded a D.Litt. by the University of Melbourne in 1932. Like Ida Lee earlier, he compiled massive documentary material, but he failed to 're-create the man or his times' and offered few general insights. Henry Mackenzie Green found the life of Bligh 'verbose and repetitive and full of journalistic clichés', pitfalls which Mackaness largely avoided in his second major biography, Admiral Arthur Phillip (1937).

A prolific contributor to newspapers and journals, Mackaness edited and had privately printed in limited editions a series of thirty-nine Australian historical monographs. He also published lighter sketches such as Lags and Legirons (1944) and bibliographies of the works of James Bonwick, Christopher Brennan and Lawson. A Freemason, he wrote with Karl Cramp A History of the United Grand Lodge (1938). He was a council-member, fellow from 1940 and president in 1948-49 of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Appointed O.B.E. in 1938, he was awarded an honorary D.Sc. by the University of Sydney in 1961.

His interest in historical research led Mackaness and his wife into the by-ways of book-collecting. With limited money (he was earning £960 a year when he retired in May 1946), he built up probably the largest private collection of Australiana by the 1960s. In seventeen articles in the Amateur Book Collector (Chicago) in 1951-52 he described some of his finds including a leatherbound copy of the pirated edition of Charles Dickens's The Pickwick Papers published in Launceston by Henry Dowling in 1839, and the journals of the Canadian patriots transported to New South Wales in 1838. He traced the Australian descendants of one, Joseph Moreau, and found a mint copy of Leon (Léandre) Ducharme's Journal d'un Exilé Politique aux Terres Australes (Montreal, 1845), which he translated and produced in 1944. Another find was the manuscript of George Augustus Robinson's account of his journey into south-eastern Australia in 1844. He also published two collections of his articles and essays in the field, The Art of Book-Collecting in Australia (1956) and Bibliomania (1965).

In 1966 Mackaness asked Angus & Robertson Ltd to dispose of his huge library at his Drummoyne home on a share basis. He died at Five Dock on 3 December 1968, and was cremated with Anglican rites. His wife and daughter survived him and inherited his estate, valued for probate at $46,119. A large man, balding in his later years, Mackaness was tireless but inclined to be pernickety. He made notable contributions in three fields—as a teacher of English, as a historian who made available quantities of documentary material, and as a bibliophile who made the collecting of Australiana popular.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Kisch, Australian Landfall (Lond, 1937)
  • C. Morris, The School on the Hill (Syd, 1981)
  • Age, 19 Mar 1960
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Nov, 11 Dec 1934, 26 June 1966, 4 Dec 1968
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 Nov, 11, 13 Dec 1934, 4 Dec 1968
  • Mackaness papers (National Library of Australia and State Library of New South Wales)
  • Miles Franklin papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Mary Gilmore papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • teachers' records (Education Dept Archives, Sydney).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge and Bruce Mitchell, 'Mackaness, George (1882–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 16 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


9 May, 1882
Blues Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


3 December, 1968 (aged 86)
Five Dock, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.