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Garnet Vere (Jerry) Portus (1883–1954)

by W. G. K. Duncan

This article was published:

Garnet Vere (Jerry) Portus (1883-1954), historian and educator, was born on 7 June 1883 at Morpeth, New South Wales, youngest of eight children of Henry Dumaresq Portus, steamship company manager, and his wife Hannah, née Butler. He attended East Maitland High School in 1898-1900 and worked in the Department of Mines for three years before going to St Paul's College at the University of Sydney (B.A., 1906; Rhodes scholar, 1907). At New College, Oxford (B.A., 1909; B.Litt., 1911; M.A., 1917), he studied history and economics under H. A. L. Fisher. A foundation scholar at the theological college at Hereford, he was made deacon in December 1910.

After returning to Sydney next year, Portus was a country parson as curate at Merriwa and rector at Cessnock. On 28 May 1912 he married Ethel Mary Ireland at St Bede's, Drummoyne; they had one son. In 1914 Portus acted for G. C. Henderson as professor of history and English at the University of Adelaide. He then spent 'three barren and useless years' as an assistant military censor in Sydney. His theological difficulties intensified: he doubted the doctrine of personal immortality, the efficacy of prayer, the virgin birth, the atonement and original sin. He later wrote:

I could not go back into the work of the official Christian ministry … at the end of 1917, Meredith Atkinson pressed me to come to him as Assistant Director of Tutorial Classes at the University of Sydney, I regarded it as something in the nature of a call … Here was work which did not ask for adherence to any set of doctrines except the belief that Adult Education was of supreme importance to the Australian community. And of that I was convinced.

Portus succeeded Atkinson in 1918 as director of tutorial classes and for sixteen years, with his assistant-director F. A. Bland and David Stewart, was among the leaders of the Australian adult education movement. As a true liberal, he often suffered conservative hostility. In 1934 he returned to the University of Adelaide as professor of history and political science, and remained until retiring in 1950 (professor emeritus from 1951).

Portus's first publication had been a rewritten version of his B.Litt. thesis, Caritas Anglicana (London, 1912), a history of eighteenth-century religious and philanthropical societies. Of it he later wrote: 'It got some good reviews but … I should not recommend it to the general reader, except as a soporific'. His school history book, Australia Since 1606 (Melbourne, 1932), saw twelve editions in fifteen years, and was a text in several Australian States. Its humour, gaiety and verve, and Portus's homely verses and sketches which illustrated it, delighted many children and teachers. The same qualities enhanced various booklets and pamphlets written in his later years. The most substantial was They Wanted to Rule the World (Sydney, 1944), an edited version of his popular radio broadcasts on world dictators, with some 'imaginary history' such as 'if the Chinese had discovered Australia'.

In Sydney Portus had also been a part-time, university lecturer in economic history. A foundation member of the New South Wales group of the Institute of Pacific Relations, he edited for them, with Persia Campbell and R. C. Mills, Studies in Australian Affairs (1928). He was an early contributor to Australian labour studies, writing a chapter on 'The labour movement in Australia (1788-1914)' for a book edited by Atkinson, Australia. Economic and Political Studies (Melbourne, 1920), and an article, 'The development of wage fixation in Australia', for the American Economic Review (March 1929). After attending a conference in 1927 at the Institute of Politics at Williamstown, Massachusetts, Portus wrote a wide-ranging and interesting short study of American society, The American Background (1928). He was general editor of the Workers' Educational Association series of monographs designed to encourage investigation in economic, social and political fields of study, 'hitherto surprisingly neglected in Australia'. To this he had contributed Marx and Modern Thought (1921), a lonely, pioneering effort. Another original and authoritative publication was his chapter, 'The gold discoveries 1850-60', in The Cambridge History of the British Empire, volume 7 (1933). Portus was one of the founders of the Australian Institute of Political Science and belonged to the Sydney group of the Round Table in 1920-33.

Teaching was his forte. He opposed the increasing specialization within universities which tended to keep students so busy acquiring facts that they had no time to think, to search for ideas, and to build theories that linked and interpreted facts. An educational system, especially at tertiary level, should always find room for what he called 'lively and compelling generalizations'. He so enlarged the scope and enriched the content of his lectures on economic history that they became virtually a cultural history of mankind. He defended pioneers in the field, such as H. G. Wells and Van Loon, against pedants' sneers, and welcomed A. J. Toynbee's integrative work. As an exponent of world history, 'Jerry' Portus has had no Australian successor.

His teaching method derived from his experiences with adults. Students, to him, were responsible people who would mature only if they thought for themselves. He promoted discussion, even in his large lectures which were 'good fun', creating a friendly informal atmosphere that encouraged participation. His educational ideas were set out in his Joseph Payne memorial lectures at the University of London, published as Free, Compulsory and Secular (Oxford, 1937). Here again he was an innovator in a field that has since been vigorously cultivated.

Portus was a member of the South Australian talks advisory committee and the national talks committee of the Australian Broadcasting Commission. In his later years he was widely known as a radio personality. He had long been a publicist for such bodies as the Australian League of Nations Union (Australian Association of the United Nations) and the Student Christian Movement. He gave innumerable public addresses warning of the danger of uncritical worship of the nation-state; and he devoted his presidential address to the history section of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science in 1947 to a searching examination of The Concept of Sovereignty (Melbourne, 1948).

In a different sphere, Rugby Union football, he was equally popular. Portus had won a blue while an undergraduate at Sydney, and represented England in 1908. He later followed the game as a journalist and New South Wales and Australian selector, becoming something of a patron saint of the code in less enthusiastic South Australia.

A witty conversationalist and inveterate raconteur, Portus left a lively autobiography, Happy Highways (Melbourne, 1953). Survived by his wife and son, he died suddenly at North Adelaide on 15 June 1954, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • Hermes (Sydney), 7 Aug 1907
  • Australian Highway, Apr, May 1934
  • Economic Record, 30 (1954), p 276
  • Australian Quarterly, Sept 1954
  • Historical Studies, 4, no 15, Nov 1959, p 269
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 June 1954
  • radio script on Prof G. V. Portus, D5390 (Misc) no 14 (State Library of South Australia)
  • Portus family papers (State Library of South Australia)
  • H. Bourke, Worker Education and Social Inquiry in Australia 1913-1929 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1981).

Citation details

W. G. K. Duncan, 'Portus, Garnet Vere (Jerry) (1883–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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