Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Henry Keylock Rusden (1826–1910)

by F. B. Smith

This article was published:

Henry Keylock Rusden (1826-1910), public servant and polemicist, was born at Leith Hill Place, near Dorking, Surrey, England, fourth son of Rev. George Keylock Rusden and his wife Anne, née Townsend. In 1834 he arrived in New South Wales with his family, including his brother George. At 15 he left home and found various jobs in the Riverina. He then joined the gold rushes in New England and Victoria. In 1853 Rusden forsook the diggings for Melbourne and joined the public service. He became an accountant in the Police Department where he stayed until his retirement in August 1891, respected for his punctiliousness. On 5 June 1858 he had married Anna Spence.

Outside the office Rusden was an autodidact who relished disputation. He was a founder of the Eclectic Society in 1867 and remained a member until it disbanded in 1894; he was also a founder of the open, more plebeian, Sunday Free Discussion Society in 1870. Both groups debated political economy, calendar reform, free-thought, divorce, family limitation and eugenics, often under Rusden's leadership. He described himself in the 1870s as 'an atheist in theology', although his eight children who survived infancy were raised as Anglicans, 'a determinist in philosophy, a Malthusian and radical in sociology and an ultra free-trader'. His motto was 'Thorough'. Aroused by a problem in aerodynamics, he made his own boomerangs, although his observation of their flight was hampered by eyes damaged years before by a solar eclipse.

His universe comprised an ineluctable net of causation, in which every entity was subject to law and every human act and natural event had necessary, measurable consequences. Morality, therefore, was determinable by science. Rusden advocated sterilization and experimentation on criminals and the 'socially unfit', defended suicide on compassionate grounds and as a means of removing social liabilities, denounced religious beliefs because they obscured rational moral choices, and looked forward to the sexual and economic emancipation of women and the decay of the nuclear family. Rusden's numerous pamphlets (several under the pseudonym 'Hokor') are collected in the State Library of Victoria. There are papers by him in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Victoria for 1867, 1868, 1872, 1874, 1893, 1895. His intellectual boldness and range were combined with organizational skill: he was elected to the council of the Royal Society of Victoria in 1867-68, 1874, 1876, was secretary in 1870-73 and 1877 and vice-president in 1891-1900. He was also secretary to the Yorick Club and the Cremation Society. The Victorian Cremation Act, 1903, proceeded from his labours, but he was buried in St Kilda cemetery after his death on 10 April 1910.

Select Bibliography

  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870-1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960).

Citation details

F. B. Smith, 'Rusden, Henry Keylock (1826–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 17 April 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Hokor

Leith Hill, Surrey, England


10 April, 1910 (aged ~ 84)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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