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Harry Hastings Pearce (1897–1984)

by Nigel H. Sinnott

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Harry Hastings Pearce (1897–1984), bibliophile, historian, writer and rationalist, was born on 27 August 1897 at North Creswick, Victoria, eldest of six children of Herbert Hastings Pearce, miner, and his wife Harriet Ann, née Williams.  Educated at nearby Hollinwood, Harry acquired a taste for radical and freethought literature from his father, a founder of the Creswick branch of the Political Labour Council, and from other supporters of the labour movement.  He also developed a talent for poetry.  Although opposed to conscription—and celebrating the defeat of the 1917 referendum in a poem—he joined the Citizen Military Forces in World War I and served until 1920, reaching the rank of lieutenant.

In 1919 Pearce found employment with the Hume Concrete Pipe Co., Maribyrnong.  While living in Melbourne he met such socialists as D. J. Cameron and R. S. Ross, and the leading rationalists Henry Gilbert (Harry Scott) Bennett and J. S. Langley.  The company sent him to Tasmania (1920) and Brisbane (1923).  Transferred to New Zealand in 1924 as roving works manager, he called for his Tasmanian fiancée, Creina Elizabeth Traill, a waitress, whom he married at St Bride’s Church of England, Otorohanga, on 15 October 1925.

A committee member of the Auckland Rationalist Association, Pearce contributed to its journal, the Truth Seeker, and—in his own words—'kept up a continuous stream of letter writing to the local papers, taking on all comers, including a number of clergymen'.  To avoid embarrassing his employers he adopted the nom-de-plume of Profanum Vulgus (Horace’s term for the common or irreverent crowd).  On his travels he visited second-hand bookshops, and amassed a considerable library of freethought and radical books, manuscripts, drawings and press cuttings.

In 1939, at his request, Pearce was transferred back to Melbourne; he remained with Hume until his retirement in 1965.  Living in Footscray, he joined Langley’s Freethought Society of Australia and helped to produce its magazine.  A member of the Australian Poetry Lovers’ Society from 1945, he was honorary secretary and treasurer from 1950 and editor of its journal from 1959 to the society’s closure in 1973.  Having also joined the Henry Lawson Society in 1945, he edited its journal, the Lawsonian, until 1984, as well as holding over the years all executive positions in the society.  He became a fellow (1948), and committee member (1951-62) of the Bread and Cheese Club, and was active in the Australian Literature Society, the Book Collectors’ Society of Australia, and the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.  In 1978 he was invited to become president of the short-lived Secular Society of Victoria.  He was a life member of the Old Creswickian Association.

In addition to numerous pamphlets and booklets, Pearce published two collections of his poetry (1948 and 1969), a book, On the Origins of Waltzing Matilda (1971), and a series of fifteen articles on the English secularist, Charles Southwell, in the New Zealand Rationalist (1957-58).  A dedicated, reflective man, in February 1984 he gave his papers and library of 15,000 items to the National Library of Australia.  He was also a benefactor of the Creswick Museum and the State Library of Victoria.  Harry Pearce died on 20 December 1984 at Greenvale, Victoria, and was cremated.  Childless, he was survived by his wife.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 7 July 1978, p 12
  • Lawsonian, no 279, January-February 1985, p 1
  • N. Sinnott, 'Obituary, Harry Hastings Pearce', Recorder, no 132, February 1985, p 4
  • Pearce papers (National Library of Australia)
  • personal knowledge

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Nigel H. Sinnott, 'Pearce, Harry Hastings (1897–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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