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Sir Ernest Scott (1867–1939)

by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

This article was published:

Sir Ernest Scott (1867-1939), historian, was born on 21 June 1867 at Northampton, England, son of Hannah Scott, housekeeper. On his marriage, he cited William Scott, civil engineer, as his father. He was educated at St Katherine's Church of England School, Northampton, where he became a pupil-teacher but left because, being a non-believer, he had conscientious scruples about performing the religious duties required of him. After training on a local newspaper he became a reporter on the London Globe. On 7 May 1892 at the Register Office, Marylebone, he married Mabel Emily Besant, daughter of Rev. Frank and Annie Besant, the famous theosophist; they had one child, Muriel (1893-1924).

In 1892 Scott migrated to Melbourne and joined the Herald. At his wife's insistence, he called himself Besant-Scott, and he edited the Austral Theosophist and lectured for the cause. About 1896, however, his wife was converted to Roman Catholicism and was estranged from her husband, although they continued nominal cohabitation. Scott abandoned theosophy. His wife returned to England in 1909, taking their daughter, but he did not sue for divorce until 1915, before his marriage, on 25 May in Melbourne, to Bendigo-born Emily Illinden Fortuna, sister of Edward Dyason. They had no children.

For the Herald Scott reported the financial disasters of the 1890s and the rise and progress of the Federation movement. Already a keen student of history, he was a fascinated witness of the birth of a nation, and began to study and write Australian history, specializing in European discovery by sea, and published Terre Napoléon: A History of French Explorations and Projects in Australia (London, 1910), Lapérouse (Sydney, 1912) and The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders, R.N. (Sydney, 1914). Scott had left journalism in 1895 and became a Hansard writer, first for the parliament of Victoria, and in 1901-13 for the Commonwealth parliament. His speed and accuracy in shorthand were legendary: when, once, a dispute had arisen as to the terms of a statement, Scott was called on to read back his shorthand notes and 'complied with as much facility as if he were reading longhand'.

In 1913 Scott was invited to apply for the chair of history in the University of Melbourne and was appointed, his research and personal qualities being considered to outweigh his lack of academic qualification and experience. He proved to be a born teacher, an admirable lecturer and a first-rate administrator. Scott was a prodigious worker. Assisted by only one lecturer, Jessie Webb, and later by two part-time tutors, he lectured in British, Australian and European history, and in the history of British and European colonization. In a single year he marked over 600 examination papers, as well as hundreds of essays. His study was constant and systematic, as is shown by a subject index, now in the university's archives, which contains thousands of cards, many with a score of references, and by the well-used volumes from his library of over 13,000 books, now in the Baillieu Library. During his professorial tenure he published eight books, many articles, and made the major contribution to the Cambridge History of the British Empire (volume vii, part 1). His students were never sacrificed to pressure of work. He knew his honour students one by one and if they wished to become historians took infinite trouble to further their careers; such help was often crucial at a time when scholarships for further study and academic openings were few. Future history professors who passed through his school were (Sir) Keith Hancock, Fred Alexander, (Sir) Stephen Roberts, Manning Clark and N. D. Harper. Scott was dean of the faculty of arts (1914-24) and president of the professorial board (1927-30).

His most valuable contribution to the study of history in the University of Melbourne was in the field of method. He stated in his application that he believed he could impart 'a living interest' in history to students and he sought to do so by introducing them to the idea of the study of history as an inquiry in which they were to be active participants. Even pass students were required to write their essays from primary sources and to present their findings correctly documented. Books of documents could be used in examinations: honour students taking final examinations might use any books or manuscript material they wished. Scott adopted these unconventional procedures, strikingly original in his day, because he believed that the purpose of historical study is not the acquisition of an iron memory but the capacity to understand and make good use of historical material.

The bent of Scott's mind was empirical and its weakness was that he not only lacked any impulse to theorize but was hostile to the very concept of theory of history. His thought was not profound or original but he was intelligent, informed, capable, fair-minded and a faithful friend of the advancement of learning. Although in most respects his imagination was warm and vivid he had blind spots as to some areas of human experience and this limited his range of historical understanding. For example, religious belief was to him simply a delusion, and the Puritans of the seventeenth century, deprived of the faith and fire within them, became unintelligible in his hands. Scott had a facile pen and not all his books are scholarly works. In those which profess scholarship some errors exist, but this is inevitable in pioneer work and the field of Australian history was uncleared scrub when Scott began to work in it, when library services were inferior and research grants non-existent—he had only two periods of overseas leave in twenty-three years. The marvel is the high standard of his work; his Flinders biography, at least, is likely to withstand the ravages of time and scholarly criticism. His Short History of Australia (1916) ran through many editions.

Scott was very well-read in English literature, especially of the Elizabethan period: he gave many lectures to the Shakespeare Society in Melbourne and served as its president. He was well-informed in international affairs and an active member of the League of Nations Union, the Round Table and the Australian Institute of International Affairs. His standing in the community was high and, after retirement in 1936, he was president in 1939 of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science, being the only historian who has ever held that position. He was knighted in 1939.

Scott's character was strong, uncomplicated and direct: his wife noted in her diary, 'Ernest is incapable of fibbing'. In university and public affairs he was always on the liberal side of the debate. In the 1890s he advocated votes for women and in the 1930s he was an anti-Fascist. Although students regarded him as a strict disciplinarian, his influence was always exerted in the direction of mercy and a second chance for offenders.

His temperament was cheerful, generous, sociable and kindly. He had a wide and varied circle of friends, including Arthur Streeton and George Marshall-Hall, was very hospitable and a member of the Melbourne Club. Charles Bean wrote of Scott: 'I don't know when I ever met anyone of his age with such a vivacious interest in so many things'. He was passionately fond of classical music and the many sources of his enjoyment of life included gardening, dogs, the theatre, red wine and bushwalking. He was a short, stocky man with bright, alert eyes, always very neat, even dapper, in dress. He lisped badly and once admitted that every one of the thousands of lectures he had delivered had been an ordeal. Survived by his wife, he died of coronary thrombosis on 6 December 1939 and was cremated. The University of Melbourne has named a chair of history in his honour and periodically awards the Ernest Scott prize for a work on the history of Australia or New Zealand or of colonization.

Select Bibliography

  • W. K. Hancock, Country and Calling (Lond, 1954)
  • G. Blainey, A Centenary History of the University of Melbourne (Melb, 1957)
  • A. R. Chisholm, Men Were My Milestones (Melb, 1958)
  • W. K. Hancock, Professing History (Syd, 1976)
  • J. Roe, Beyond Belief (Syd, 1986)
  • Australian Journal of Science, 21 Dec 1939
  • Austral-Asiatic Bulletin, 3, Dec-Jan 1939-40
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1939
  • Argus (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1939
  • Herald (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1939
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 7 Dec 1939
  • Bulletin, 13 Dec 1939
  • K. Fitzpatrick, ‘Ernest Scott and the Melbourne school of history’, Melbourne Historical Journal, 7, 1968
  • Scott papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Lady Scott diaries and other papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Kathleen Fitzpatrick, 'Scott, Sir Ernest (1867–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 26 May 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Ernest Scott (1867-1939), by Monteath

Ernest Scott (1867-1939), by Monteath

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H32082

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Besant-Scott, Ernest

21 June, 1867
Northampton, Northamptonshire, England


6 December, 1939 (aged 72)

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.