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George William Rusden (1819–1903)

by Ann Blainey and Mary Lazarus

This article was published:

George William Rusden (1819-1903), by unknown photographer

George William Rusden (1819-1903), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 03180

George William Rusden (1819-1903), historian, educationist and civil servant, was born on 9 July 1819 at Leith Hill Place, near Dorking, Surrey, England, son of Rev. George Keylock Rusden (1784-1859) and his wife Anne, née Townsend, and older brother of Henry Keylock. In 1833 Rev. G. K. Rusden had to leave his spacious home and private school at Leith Hill Place and migrated with his wife and ten of his children to New South Wales to join his eldest son Francis. They arrived at Sydney in the James Harris on 1 May 1834 and Rusden took up the parish of Maitland. On the voyage George had been befriended by (Sir) Charles Nicholson, and within seven years was managing his property at Mingay, near Gundagai, and soon took over others in the Lachlan and Goulburn districts. By 25 Rusden was a seasoned pastoralist but he despaired of making money from the land: to him New South Wales was a 'cruel' country.

At 28 Rusden sailed to China where his brother-in-law, Ellis Gilman, had commercial interests. Although exulting in the adventure that he found, he did not realize his dream of quick riches. He worked as a clerk in Gilman's factory at Canton and spent some time with his brother Alfred, a tea-taster in Shanghai. He failed in attempts to visit India and Borneo and returned reluctantly to Sydney early in 1849, determined to study for the Bar and still hoping to make enough money to set up his family in England.

Rusden never began law. Probably through Nicholson, he was appointed on 4 July 1849 agent for the National schools, first at Port Phillip and later at Moreton Bay. He threw himself into his work and in his several tours rode 10,000 miles (16,093 km) as far south-west as Portland and as far north as Brisbane, taking in the Hunter Valley and Armidale. An ardent Anglican, he was unusual in his support of state-directed education; but his National Education (Melbourne, 1853) shows that he was much influenced by the ideas of Dr Arnold of Rugby.

By October 1851 Rusden had accepted from La Trobe the post of clerk in the Victorian colonial secretary's office and next year became clerk of the Executive Council. He continued in education as a member of the Board of National Education in 1853-62. In 1856 he took on the post of clerk of the parliaments (being also the clerk of the Legislative Council) at a salary of £1000 and was a weighty adviser to the councillors in their clashes with the assembly. In 1856-57 he was on the board of inquiry into the reorganization of the civil service. He was a member of the Council of the University of Melbourne from its foundation to 1886; he was on the Brighton Municipal Council for five years between 1860 and 1873 and was mayor for three years; he was also a member of the Acclimatisation Society. One of the colony's leading Shakespeare enthusiasts, in 1860-64 he helped to found a Shakespeare scholarship at the university and Shakespeare prizes for children. He was also remembered as the 'finest billiard player in the colony'.

On leave in 1862 he again visited China, probably with the view of taking permanent employment in Gilman's firm, but his Melbourne activities now prevailed and an illness, caught soon after his arrival in Shanghai, possibly made a convenient pretext for a quick departure. While in China Rusden witnessed the relief of Ka Ding held by the Tai Ping rebels, and was deeply impressed by his acquaintance with General Charles Gordon. After Gordon's death at Khartoum in 1885, Rusden became his fanatical champion; W. E. Gladstone, not surprisingly, was Rusden's bête noire.

In 1882 Rusden retired to England on a pension of £500. He settled to a life of writing, travelling in Europe, enjoying his many friendships and meticulously managing his investments. In 1884-92 he was on the executive of the Imperial Federation League in England. By 1883 Rusden was already well known, both under his own name and his pseudonym 'Yittadairn', as the author of many articles, pamphlets and lectures on subjects political, religious and literary. As early as 1851 he had published in Maitland his poem Moyarra: An Australian Legend, in Two Cantos, then The Discovery Survey and Settlement of Port Phillip (Melbourne, 1871) and in 1874 Curiosities of Colonization (London). In that year he visited England to gain support for a history of Australasia, turning especially to his friend Anthony Trollope. In 1878 and 1882 he visited New Zealand, collecting information, and in 1883 the History of Australia and the History of New Zealand were published in London, each in three volumes. Both works received adverse criticism.

In the History of New Zealand Rusden had fiercely and indiscreetly attacked the minister for native affairs, John Bryce, for his part in the Maori wars, relying mostly on the hearsay account of Bishop Hadfield of Wellington. Bryce sued for libel and the action dragged on in London in 1884-87. Rusden appealed against the first verdict in March 1886; he ably defended himself and retracted his statements at the rehearing in June 1887. Damages were reduced to about half the original £5000 but the whole affair drained him both financially and emotionally.

The History of Australia was scathingly reviewed by A. Sutherland in the Melbourne Review and David Blair in the Victorian Review; while Deakin wrote a memoir partly to refute a work which was 'as untrustworthy as a partisan pamphlet well can be without deliberate dishonesty'. Rusden's personal knowledge of events gave strength to his work but it was often inaccurate and violently prejudiced. Nevertheless with their breadth of scale his histories were a major cultural achievement of the colonial period, particularly notable for his belief that the history of Australasia did not begin with Europeans. He had deep knowledge of and sympathy with the native peoples of Australasia and was, according to D. B. W. Sladen, 'a violent Tory on everything except where natives were concerned … even more violent as an advocate for coloured people'.

An asthmatic, Rusden returned to Melbourne on medical advice in January 1893 and lived quietly at his South Yarra home, Cotmandene, working on his study of William Shakespeare; His Life, His Works, and His Teaching (Melbourne, 1903). His interest in his family and friends remained undimmed and his letters to them reveal him as affectionate, amusing, dutiful and generous. He had been very fond of his sister Georgina Mary, who kept house for him till her death in 1868. Rusden loved celebrated acquaintances; he was a friend of W. E. H. Lecky and knew Carlyle and Millais. His genuine kindness and sense of responsibility redeemed many such relationships from snobbery, and his penchant for bishops was more than outweighed by his personal piety and his devotion to the Church of England. His help in the 1860s for Alfred and Edward, sons of Charles Dickens, earned their father's gratitude. In the last decade of his life Rusden struck his contemporaries as 'a quaint old world figure' whose 'unique personality constituted a link between the old and the new order'. On his death on 23 December 1903 an obituarist farewelled him: 'cheery and worthy … with his pleasant crab-apple face and long legs … as peculiar a gentleman as one will encounter in a lifetime. We don't know any Australian resident so distinctively English … What a delicious bundle of prejudices was Rusden! A walking Westminster Abbey. And honest as the day'.

Rusden never married. His estate was worth some £18,000 and equal portions were left to the children of his four surviving sisters and his brother Henry. His house went to the Church of England (he had already given £8000 to St Paul's Cathedral and the Bishop of Melbourne's Fund in 1889) while his books and papers were bequeathed to Trinity College (University of Melbourne) and the Church of England Grammar School.

Select Bibliography

  • H. M. Humphreys (ed), Men of the Time in Australia: Victorian series, 1st ed (Melb, 1878)
  • D. B. W. Sladen, Twenty Years of My Life (Lond, 1915)
  • A. Deakin, The Crisis in Victorian Politics, 1879-1881, J. A. La Nauze and R. M. Crawford eds (Melb, 1957)
  • A. G. Austin, George William Rusden and National Education in Australia, 1849-1862 (Melb, 1958)
  • manuscript catalogue (State Library of New South Wales and National Library of New Zealand)
  • uncatalogued manuscripts (Trinity College Library, Melbourne, and Royal Historical Society of Victoria).

Citation details

Ann Blainey and Mary Lazarus, 'Rusden, George William (1819–1903)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

George William Rusden (1819-1903), by unknown photographer

George William Rusden (1819-1903), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 03180

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Yittadairn

9 July, 1819
Leith Hill, Surrey, England


23 December, 1903 (aged 84)

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.