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Sir Robert Bowden Madgwick (1905–1979)

by Andrew Spaull

This article was published:

Robert Bowden Madgwick (1905-1979), by unknown photographer

Robert Bowden Madgwick (1905-1979), by unknown photographer

Australian War Memorial, 081606

Sir Robert Bowden Madgwick (1905-1979), educationist, was born on 10 May 1905 in North Sydney, second of three sons of native-born parents Richard Chalton Madgwick, an Anglican clergyman's son who became a tram driver, and his wife Annie Jane, née Elston. Robert attended Naremburn Public and North Sydney Boys' High schools. He entered the University of Sydney (B.Ec. Hons, 1927; M.Ec., 1932) on a Teachers' College scholarship, took some history subjects and shared the first university medal in economics with (Sir) Herman Black. While studying at Teachers' College, he partnered Black and (Sir) Ronald Walker in a successful debating team. Walker and Madgwick later wrote an economics textbook for schools, An Outline of Australian Economics (Sydney, 1931).

After teaching at Nowra (1927) and Parkes (1927-28) intermediate high schools, Madgwick was appointed (1929) temporary lecturer in the faculty of economics at the University of Sydney. Professor R. C. Mills's work on E. G. Wakefield and 'systematic colonization' influenced his research. With Mills's help, he obtained a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship in 1933 and enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford (D.Phil., 1936); his thesis was published as Immigration into Eastern Australia 1788-1851 (London, 1937, Sydney, 1969). He returned to Sydney in 1935 as an 'economist who saw the light' and turned to history. In January 1936 he took up a lectureship in economic history at the university. On 19 May 1937 he married Ailsa Margaret Aspinall (d.1967) at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney.

Madgwick helped to found the Sydney University Lecturers' Association. From 1938 he was secretary of the University Extension Board. After World War II broke out, he was involved in planning an army education scheme (known as the Australian Army Education Service from October 1943). He had wanted to serve abroad with the Australian Imperial Force, but on 1 March 1941 was mobilized as temporary lieutenant colonel and sent to Army Headquarters, Melbourne, to head the new service. In July 1943 he was promoted temporary colonel and given the title of director of army education.

The A.A.E.S. had mixed objectives: to build morale, to educate for citizenship, to provide a diversion from forward or staging-area tedium, and to prepare servicemen and women for demobilization. There were some 10 million attendances at A.A.E.S. classes. About 250,000 personnel read its journal, Salt. Its Current Affairs Bulletin had a smaller circulation. Always controversial, the A.A.E.S. was accused of politicizing the army, of harbouring left-wing, 'subversive' instructors, and even of 'owning' a number of grand pianos. Such allegations were deflected by Madgwick's repeated assertions that the scheme provided education, not propaganda.

An exceptional administrator, Madgwick played a major part in establishing the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme. He also sat (1943-46) on two inter-departmental committees which set out the future role of the Commonwealth government in education. Transferring to the Reserve of Officers on 19 April 1946, he worked (from October) as secretary of the interim council of the Australian National University. He continued to champion the cause of adult education, but his claims for a Commonwealth-funded national system were thwarted by lack of support from either the Federal government or the Opposition.

In February 1947 Madgwick accepted the wardenship of New England University College, Armidale, New South Wales. When the institution became the University of New England in 1954, he was appointed vice-chancellor. He spent a good deal of energy in developing the university to meet the cultural and scientific needs of the local community. The U.N.E. adopted new directions in agricultural economics, rural sciences, regional history, educational administration and adult education. Madgwick forged close personal links between 'town and gown' through his committee-work for Armidale's public and private schools, the Anglican synod, community organizations and the New England Cricket Association. In 1954-56 he served as an alderman on Armidale City Council.

As vice-chancellor, Madgwick worried over student amenities and performance in an isolated campus that suffered extreme winters. He defended academic freedom and collegial democracy, while lamenting that universities were obsessed with committees. His style of management was diplomatic and liberal, but, as the university grew, his approach became—in his own words—'a sort of quaint paternalism'. In 1955 the U.N.E. introduced degree courses for external students. As chairman (1964-66) of the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee, Madgwick successfully rebutted the conclusion of (Sir) Leslie Martin's committee on the future of tertiary education in Australia that the provision of 'distance education' was not a university function.

In December 1966 Madgwick retired. He decided against returning to economic history because it had become 'too highly esoteric in content and often too mathematical in technique'. The Federal government sought his advice on grants to teachers' colleges, and chose him to succeed (Sir) James Darling as chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. Madgwick took up this post on 1 July 1967. He saw his role as akin to that of a university leader, with the A.B.C. managers resembling professors and the producers analogous to younger, strident academics. Resisting government interference, especially in current affairs programmes, he once informed (Sir) Alan Hulme, the minister responsible for the A.B.C., 'for every letter you can put on the table . . . criticizing This Day Tonight I can put . . . fifty saying how good it is'. After two terms, he was keen to secure a third, but E. G. Whitlam's Labor government replaced him in 1973. He chaired the Australian Frontier Commission in 1974-76.

Appointed O.B.E. in 1962, Madgwick was knighted in 1966. That year he was granted the freedom of the city of Armidale. Honorary doctorates were conferred on him by the universities of Sydney (1961), Queensland (1961) and New England (1969). At St Andrew's Anglican Church, Wahroonga, Sydney, on 12 January 1971 he married a widow Eileen Hilda McGrath, née Wall. Sir Robert died on 25 March 1979 at Hornsby and was cremated; his wife survived him, as did the three daughters of his first marriage. Madgwick's contribution to education had been distinctive: he pioneered a massive scheme of adult education and regional higher education. A reserved, unruffled administrator, he believed that Australia could only overcome its 'highly developed inferiority complex' by heavy public investment in its educational and cultural institutions.

Select Bibliography

  • A. D. Spaull, Australian Education in the Second World War (Brisb, 1982)
  • K. S. Inglis, This is the ABC (Melb, 1983)
  • L. Foster, High Hopes (Melb, 1986)
  • D. Dymock, A Sweet Use of Adversity (Armidale, NSW, 1995)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27 Mar 1979
  • R. B. Madgwick, unpublished memoir (copy held on ADB file).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Andrew Spaull, 'Madgwick, Sir Robert Bowden (1905–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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