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Henry Mayer (1919–1991)

by Murray Goot and K. S. Inglis

This article was published:

Henry Mayer, by Hugo Wolfsohn, 1965

Henry Mayer, by Hugo Wolfsohn, 1965

National Portrait Gallery

Henry Mayer (1919-1991), professor of politics, was born on 4 December 1919 at Mannheim, Germany, son of Oscar Mayer, a lawyer and atheist who had been brought up as a non-observant Jew, and his Czech-born, Catholic-raised wife, Rosemarie, née Kleiner. He was named Helmut and had a stepsister, Liselotte, from his mother’s first marriage. After Hitler became German chancellor in 1933, he moved with his father to Nice, France, in 1934, and some years later his mother shifted to Switzerland. In 1936, following residences in Switzerland and Italy, Helmut went to England, where he became known as Henry. Having been expelled from several boarding schools in Europe, or so he said, he completed his secondary education at Millfield, a progressive school in Somerset. An uncle, (Sir) Robert Mayer, and his parents supported him.

After Millfield, Mayer worked in London for another uncle who was an importer. In 1938, as ‘Henry Holmes,’ he became a supporter of the tiny Socialist Party of Great Britain. A falling-out with his uncle followed and he lost his employment; he moved to a refugee hostel. To support himself, he later claimed, he wrote short stories for pulp magazines and scripts for the British Broadcasting Corporation, turned his hand to interpreting and fortune-telling, and became a part-owner of a night-club and a publicist for a jazz band.

On the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, Mayer was classified as an enemy alien. He was six feet (183 cm) tall, of fair complexion, with black hair and grey eyes. His occupation he gave as journalist and his religion as ‘none (Jewish origin)’; an atheist, he would later insist he was not a Jew. Categorised as a ‘Refugee from Nazi Oppression,’ he remained free from restrictions. However, by June 1940, almost all enemy aliens had been interned. Sent to a series of holding camps, he was transferred to the Dunera, and transported with over 2,500 others from Liverpool to Australia. Maltreated and robbed by British guards during an ‘extremely unpleasant’ voyage, he was later awarded twenty pounds in compensation. But compared to what would have befallen many of the internees in Europe, the ‘“horror”,’ he insisted, ‘was minor’ (Mayer 1980, 62). Later, he would distance himself from any celebration of the Dunera men’s fortitude—or of Australia’s good fortune in receiving them. Had not so many of them been professionals and academics, he asked (Mayer 1983, 27), would their injustice ‘have been written up at all?’

Mayer disembarked in Sydney and was sent to an internment camp at Hay. To help pass the time, he taught English, demonstrating his talent for teaching, and wrote poetry. From Hay he was transferred to Tatura, Victoria. ‘Henry Holmes,’ keen to introduce internees to socialism, made contact with the minuscule Socialist Party of Australia; hopeless causes would always attract him. He claimed to have been ‘beaten up regularly’ by Stalinists in Tatura (Mayer 1980, 62). Early in 1942 he was among internees released to help orchardists in Shepparton and Ardmona harvest fruit. On 8 April 1942 he enlisted in the Australian Military Forces. Attached to the 8th Employment Company with other Dunera internees, he served in Victoria and New South Wales. Late in 1942 he applied, unsuccessfully, to join the British Army. He was discharged on 25 June 1946.

In 1947 Mayer enrolled at the University of Melbourne (BA Hons, 1950; MA, 1952); as an ex-serviceman he qualified for support under the Commonwealth Reconstruction Training Scheme, his stipend being supplemented by Sir Robert Mayer. He changed his name by deed poll from Helmut to Henry in September. Among his teachers in the department of political science, Percy Partridge, a student of the Sydney philosopher John Anderson, was the most important influence. Mayer also began a long intellectual and personal association with Hugo Wolfsohn, another Dunera internee and tutor in the department. To Max Corden, Mayer was ‘a fully-fledged European intellectual,’ who ‘seemed to have dropped from the skies on to provincial Melbourne’ (Corden in Rydon and Goot 1985, 5). With his wide reading, love of argument, and disdain for sacred cows, he had a considerable impact on his classmates. These included T. H. Rigby, who was to become Australia’s foremost Kremlinologist, and Herbert Feith, who would become a leading expert in Indonesian politics. Mayer contributed short stories, poetry, and a piece on the ‘proletariat’ to Present Opinion, published by the university’s Arts Association, and in 1949 co-edited with Corden Melbourne University Magazine. He topped the honours list in political science in 1949; the same year, he was naturalised. In 1952 he completed a massive Master’s thesis on Marx’s theory of social classes under capitalism; it, too, passed with first-class honours. It would long trouble him that he never completed a PhD.

Moving in 1950 from a tutorship at Melbourne to a teaching fellowship under Partridge in the department of government and public administration at the University of Sydney, Mayer became involved with Anderson’s libertarians—the free-thinking, sexually promiscuous intellectuals who constituted the Sydney ‘Push.’ Travelling by sea to England on sabbatical leave late in 1956, he met Elaine Frances Mary Smith, an advertising copy writer. They married in the register office at Kensington, London, on 9 March 1957.

Under R. N. Spann, who succeeded Partridge as professor in 1954, Mayer was promoted rapidly to senior lecturer (1955), and in 1964 to associate professor. In 1969 he was appointed professor of government; the title of his chair was changed to political theory in 1970 at his request. He served briefly and reluctantly as head of department (1974-75) during a time of deep division over professorial authority and curriculum reform. On his retirement at the end of 1984 he was made an emeritus professor. From 1985 he served as visiting professor in mass communication at Macquarie University, and also from 1986 as visiting professor of sociology at the University of New South Wales.

Mayer’s first academic journal article, ‘Some conceptions of the Australian party system 1910-1950’ (1956), established his name. Disputing perceptions of the Australian Labor Party as the party of initiative and non-Labor as parties of resistance, he urged scholars to look behind the parties to the interests that moulded them, and characteristically proposed a program of research for others. His emphasis on conflict, pluralism, and the idea that parties registered the demands of interest groups signalled the beginning of a ‘Sydney School’ organised around the defence of group theory. In 1954, he collaborated with Joan Rydon in writing The Gwydir By-Election 1953: A Study in Political Conflict, the first book-length study of an Australian election. Against treating ‘non-Labor’ as one party, Mayer came to view the concept of a two-party preferred vote (Labor versus non-Labor) as anti-intellectual.

In 1961 Mayer edited Catholics and the Free Society: An Australian Symposium, a book centred on the Catholic Social Studies Movement and the Democratic Labor Party. Between 1966 and 1980 he edited five editions of a reader, Australian Politics (the last three with Helen Nelson), an innovative, imaginative, and idiosyncratic contribution to the discipline. A prolific creator of bibliographies, he also assembled ARGAP: A Research Guide to Australian Politics and Cognate Subjects (1976, with Margaret Bettison and Judy Keene), and ARGAP 2 (1984, with Liz Kirby).

After the publication of The Press in Australia (1964), Mayer came to be recognised as the founding father of the study of mass communication in Australia. He argued, against its critics and his own aspirations, that given the influences at work, Australia had the press it had to have. A wide-ranging scholar of the media, he addressed issues of diversity and control, the construction of news, and alternative media. In 1976 he established Media Information Australia (later Media International Australia). He also produced (with Pauline Garde and Sandra Gibbons) The Media: Questions and Answers: Australian Surveys 1942-1980 (1983).

A foundation member of the Australasian Political Studies Association (APSA), Mayer created and edited APSA News (1956-63), and initiated annual conferences. From 1971 to 1976 he edited Politics (from 1990 the Australian Journal of Political Science). With Spann, he founded the Sydney Studies in Politics monograph series (1962-69). His Marx and Engels in Australia (1964) was part of the series. He reached wider audiences through the university’s department of tutorial classes, Donald Horne’s Observer, and Channel 7’s Sunday morning Television Tutorial—this last with selected colleagues and students. Later he wrote a fortnightly column, ‘Speaking Freely’ (1968-76), for the Australian. Elected a fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia in 1965, he was appointed AM in 1980. He was an honorary life member of the Australian Communication Association.

Full of energy, Mayer was a prodigious reader, fascinated by ideas from all sources, and keen that they be more widely discussed. He wrote more than one hundred entries for some issues of MIA on a dazzling array of books, magazines, and reports. He was renowned for notes—unpredictably typed or in a semi-legible hand—that directed students, colleagues, and others to things they should read and ponder. A striking performer in the lecture theatre, he was a redoubtable presence at conferences and seminars, where his erudition and ability to demolish arguments were fabled. That he did not write a book after 1964 was due both to his concern that somewhere there was a publication or an angle he had missed and to the constantly changing nature of his preoccupations and enthusiasms. From the late 1960s, he developed particular interests in indigenous issues, feminism, and media reform.

Survived by his wife and daughter, Mayer died on 4 May 1991 at St Leonards, and was cremated. The Henry Mayer Trust was established that year. An annual lecture was named in his honour, as were prizes offered by the University of Sydney, Macquarie University, and the Australian (and New Zealand, from 1994) Communication Association. APSA established an annual prize in his name for the best article in the Australian Journal of Political Science, and later a biennial prize for the best book on Australian politics. A large annotated collection of material he collected on the media is held by RMIT University in Melbourne.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Brett, Judith. ‘The Interwar Foundations of Australian Political Science.’ In The Australian Study of Politics, edited by R. A. W. Rhodes, 33-46. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009
  • Goot, Murray. Henry Mayer’s ‘Immortal Works’: Scholarly, Semi-Scholarly and Not Very Scholarly at All. Canberra: Department of Political Science, Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University for the Australasian Political Studies Association, 1986
  • Goot, Murray. ‘Mayer, Henry.’ In The Oxford Companion to Australian Politics, edited by Brian Galligan and Winsome Roberts, 334-35. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2007
  • Mayer, Elaine. Personal communication
  • Mayer, Henry. ‘The Dunera Affair: An Inside View.’ National Times (Sydney), 27 February – 5 March 1983, 27
  • Mayer, Henry. ‘Not Yet the Dunera Story.’ 24 Hours, January 1980, 62
  • Mayer, Henry. ‘Some Conceptions of the Australian Party System 1910-1950.’ Historical Studies Australia and New Zealand 7, no. 27 (November 1956): 253-70
  • National Archives of Australia. A367, C81213
  • National Archives of Australia. B78, 1949/Mayer H
  • National Archives of Australia. B884, V377470
  • National Archives of Australia. MP1103/2, E40212
  • National Archives of Australia. MP1103/1, E40212
  • Pearl, Cyril. The Dunera Scandal: Deported by Mistake. London and Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1983
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Rydon, Joan, and Murray Goot, eds. Special issue, Politics 20, no. 2 (1985)
  • Tulloch, John. ‘Passing of a Renaissance Man.’ Macquarie University News, May 1991, 9

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Murray Goot and K. S. Inglis, 'Mayer, Henry (1919–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2014, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

View the front pages for Volume 19

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Henry Mayer, by Hugo Wolfsohn, 1965

Henry Mayer, by Hugo Wolfsohn, 1965

National Portrait Gallery

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Mayer, Helmut
  • Holmes, Henry

4 December, 1919
Mannheim, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany


4 May, 1991 (aged 71)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

heart disease

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.

Military Service
Key Organisations
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