Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Wilfrid Oldham (1890–1959)

by Wilfrid Prest

This article was published:

Wilfrid Oldham (1890-1959), university lecturer and historian, was born on 8 June 1890 at Kabakada, near Rabaul, New Britain, second son of Victorian-born parents Frederic Bignell Oldham, Methodist minister, and his wife Alice Edith, née Crothers. In 1894 the family moved to New Zealand, where Wilfrid attended state primary schools at Pukekohe and Gisborne. After his father was transferred to circuits in South Australia, Wilfrid continued his schooling at Port Augusta and Naracoorte, and in Adelaide.

In 1908 Oldham became a pupil-teacher at Balaklava Public School. He entered the University (Teachers') Training College in 1912 and enrolled at the University of Adelaide (B.A., 1914; M.A., 1920). In 1914 he graduated with first-class honours and won the Tinline scholarship for history. He worked on his M.A. thesis under the supervision of Professor George Henderson, while taking undergraduate subjects in economics (1915-16) and teaching at Adelaide High School (1916-17). On 11 July 1917 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Because of defective vision resulting from a childhood accident, he was allocated to the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served at headquarters, A.I.F. Depots in Britain, from June 1918 and was discharged from the army on 21 June 1919 in Adelaide.

At the Methodist Church, West Hindmarsh, on 2 April 1920 Oldham married Marjory Anderson, a 26-year-old schoolteacher; the service was conducted by a Congregational minister. That year he was transferred to the Teachers' Training College and appointed half-time assistant-lecturer in the university's department of modern history. He did not leave the Education Department until 1927, when he became 'night lecturer in History' at the university. After securing a fellowship (1931-32) from the Rockefeller Foundation, he enrolled at the University of London (Ph.D., 1933) where he completed a substantial and well researched thesis on 'The Administration of the System of the Transportation of British Convicts, 1763-1793'.

Unfortunately this academic qualification did not assist Oldham's subsequent career. He continued to teach at the University of Adelaide until 1946 on the same salary at which he had been first employed. Only in 1950, six years before his retirement, was he promoted to senior lecturer. While careful and conscientious in his dealings with students, as a lecturer he was too modest and uneasy in manner to be a crowd pleaser. His personal fulfilment came rather from his relationship with his wife and two children, from gardening and tennis, and from membership of the Johnian Club and the State branch of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia.

Shortly after undergoing surgery for cancer, he died of a coronary occlusion on 24 July 1959 in Kingswood Private Hospital, Malvern, and was cremated; his wife, son and daughter survived him. Oldham's publications included his Tinline thesis, The Land Policy of South Australia (Adelaide, 1917), Adelaide History, Grade VII (Adelaide, 1922), and a children's book, London on the Thames (Melbourne, 1935). His Ph.D. thesis, edited by his son Hugh, was published as Britain's Convicts to the Colonies (Sydney, 1990).

Select Bibliography

  • W. K. Hancock, Country and Calling (Lond, 1954)
  • Johnian Club, Syllabus, 1930-62/63 (State Library of South Australia)
  • staff book of pupil-teachers 1900-19, GRG 18/123, and record of secondary teachers 1900-65, GRG 109 (State Records of South Australia)
  • student records, 2351and staff file 1915/374, 399, 1918/347, 1927/6, 1929/78, 1930/97, 1945/368 (University of Adelaide Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Wilfrid Prest, 'Oldham, Wilfrid (1890–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 18 April 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


8 June, 1890
Kabakada, New Britain, Papua New Guinea


24 July, 1959 (aged 69)
Malvern, Adelaide, South Australia, 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.