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Wesley (Wes) Milgate (1916–1999)

by Margaret Harris

This article was published online in 2023

Wesley Milgate (1916–1999), professor of English and hymnologist, was born on 18 January 1916 at Leura, New South Wales, fifth child of New South Wales-born parents Sarah, née Bennett, and her husband James Samuel Milgate, carpenter by trade, like others of his Wesleyan family. The Milgates had arrived in Australia in 1839, and became prominent in the establishment of the Blue Mountains township of Leura. Wes attended Leura Public and Katoomba Intermediate High schools, in 1932 winning a public exhibition to the University of Sydney (BA, 1935; MA, 1943). He graduated with first-class honours in English, and proceeded to a diploma in education at Sydney Teachers’ College, but did not graduate because he could not pay the required fee of three pounds. Subsequently he taught in schools at Leeton and Belmore, working on a master of arts thesis on the poet and Anglican cleric John Donne (1572–1631). He was awarded that degree with first-class honours, winning the university medal.

Appointed to the staff of the English department at the University of Sydney in 1946, Milgate travelled to England to study at Merton College, Oxford, in 1948 with the first Nuffield Foundation dominion travelling fellowship in the humanities. His scholarly stature was recognised by an invitation from senior Oxford luminaries to participate in editing the works of Donne. He edited The Satires, Epigrams and Verse Letters (1967) and The Epithalamions, Anniversaries and Epicedes (1978).

A congenitally modest man, Milgate was frequently described as sensitive. He had to be persuaded to apply for the Challis chair of English literature at Sydney, to which he was appointed in 1951. Responsibilities attending this chair included those of chief examiner of English for the New South Wales Leaving certificate. In addition, he fielded invitations to address various educational and cultural bodies, and was always generous with his time and expertise. He was an exceptional teacher, with ‘an impish sense of humour,’ whose ‘lectures were as entertaining as they were instructive’ (Langman 1999, 2). During the decade of his tenure, he led a number of innovations, including a curriculum overhaul. He played an important role in the establishment of the first chair of Australian literature in 1961. Persistent advocacy was required within both the university and the academic community at large to convince that Australian literature was a fit subject for tertiary study.

Such demands told on Milgate’s health, and along with anxiety about the slow progress of his Donne research, led to his resignation in 1961. Following recovery at Leura, he went to Oxford to complete the Satires volume. That project accomplished, in 1965 he took up a post as reader in English at the Australian National University. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1970, and appointed to a personal chair in 1971. During this period, he completed a hefty biography of Donne that had been left unfinished by Robert Cecil Bald. It was typical of him that John Donne: A Life was published in 1970 as by Bald alone. Milgate retired in 1976.

Infused with the ecumenical spirit of the times, in retirement Milgate played a leading part in constructing The Australian Hymn Book (1977) for the Uniting Church—a merger of Methodist, Presbyterian, and Congregational denominations—including one hymn for which he wrote the words. From mid-1975 he was executive editor of the Australian Hymn Book Committee, which would publish two further hymnals by the end of the decade, and he wrote two of the three companion volumes. An accomplished organist, he played regularly at church services in and around Leura. He had never married. In 1985 he left Leura for Bondi, and then moved to Toormina near Coffs Harbour. He died on 15 July 1999 at Camperdown, Sydney, and was cremated.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology. ‘Wesley Milgate.’ Canterbury Press. Accessed 13 June 2022. http://hymnology.co.uk/w/wesley-milgate
  • Fletcher, Brian H. ‘Wesley Milgate and Australian Hymnody 1975–1999.’ Church Heritage 16, no. 3 (March 2010): 156–77
  • Haines, Simon. ‘A Revered and Gifted Teacher.’ ANU Reporter 30, no. 13 (1 September 1999): 2
  • Langman, Fred. ‘Distinguished Scholar Known for His Modesty.’ ANU Reporter 30, no. 13 (1 September 1999): 2
  • University of Sydney Archives. 136/1, Personnel (Staff) Files (Registrar)
  • Wilkes, G. A. ‘Wesley Milgate (1916–1999).’ In Proceedings, 77–80. Canberra: Australian Academy of the Humanities, 1999

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Margaret Harris, 'Milgate, Wesley (Wes) (1916–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/milgate-wesley-wes-723/text41526, published online 2023, accessed online 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

18 January, 1916
Leura, New South Wales, Australia

Death

15 July, 1999 (aged 83)
Camperdown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death

emphysema

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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