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Edward Owen Giblin Shann (1884–1935)

by G. D. Snooks

This article was published:

Edward Owen Giblin Shann (1884-1935), economist, was born on 30 April 1884 in Hobart, youngest of four children of Frank Shann, schoolmaster and journalist and his second wife Frances, née Wood. Edward's mother soon left her husband and children and late in the 1880s they moved to Victoria, where Edward attended Wesley College, Melbourne, and Queen's College, University of Melbourne (B.A., 1904). During the 1890s depression, they had experienced severe financial difficulties and Edward was only able to attend college and university by virtue of his brother Frank's help and by winning scholarships. According to one of his professors, he refused 'to confine himself in the modern way to a limited field'. Despite the competitive disadvantage of this strategy, which he always pursued, Shann topped his class and graduated with first-class honours in history and political economy.

He was temporary lecturer in constitutional history at the University of Melbourne in 1905 and 1907-08, and acting professor of philosophy at the University of Adelaide in 1906 (a period he later referred to mysteriously as 'that Adelaide set-back'). According to the master of Queen's he was 'one of the best teachers in the University'. At the same time he worked as political secretary to the radical liberal politician, Donald Mackinnon. In September 1908 Shann left for the London School of Economics, where he studied under Graham Wallas and Edwin Cannan. He was influenced by the Fabians and knew the Webbs and Bernard Shaw. Intending to study for a D.Sc., Shann began working on French syndicalism, but as usual his thirst for knowledge led him to read widely in political theory and sociology as well as economics. With references from Alfred Deakin, Shann also associated with politicians, bureaucrats and wealthy businessmen and investigated the social and economic condition of the working class in England and Europe. He sought out the great scholars of the day, including G. M. Trevelyan, Alfred Marshall and John McTaggart. Despite the excitement of these years it was a lonely time, aggravated by poverty and, ultimately, a nervous illness which temporarily concluded his studies.

He returned to Melbourne in 1910, inspired by Fabian ideals and intense patriotism, eager to participate in the building of a rational socialist society. Later Shann lost his youthful enthusiasm for socialism but he never abandoned his strong sense of social responsibility. He resumed university lecturing and work with Mackinnon, while seeking a permanent academic appointment. After declining the chair of political science at the Imperial University of Peking in 1910, Shann was lecturer-in-charge of history and economics at the University of Queensland from June 1911 to December 1912, when he became foundation professor of history and economics at the University of Western Australia. During 1913 he was placed second to (Sir) Ernest Scott for the history chair at Melbourne. On 19 December 1911 in Melbourne he had married Alice Eddie.

Shann's career in Perth was many sided. He pioneered the academic development of economics in Australia, helped to lay the foundation of the Australian tradition in economic history, made an important contribution to the development of the new university in Perth (where he was vice-chancellor in 1921-23), and inspired young men who became influential in academia (such as J. A. La Nauze) and the Commonwealth public service (H. C. Coombs and (Sir) Arthur Tange). Shann's students regarded him as a 'great teacher', 'supremely capable of communicating the excitement of intellectual exploration … and establishing the sense of social responsibility'.

Yet his most enduring contribution was made through his books. Their common theme—the individual's struggle against restriction—is an imaginative fusion of Australia's underlying economic problem with the general condition of mankind. Cattle Chosen (London, 1926) traces the pioneering efforts of the Bussell family as they struggled against an alien environment in south-west Western Australia. With the current interest in ecology, this pioneering work deserves renewed attention. Shann's most famous essay, The Boom of 1890—and Now (Sydney, 1927), attempted to draw parallels between the late 1880s which gave way to the depression of the 1890s, and the late 1920s which he argued could lead to depression in the 1930s, because of a similar extravagant use of overseas capital at a time of uncertain export prices.

An Economic History of Australia (Cambridge, 1930) was Shann's major publication: this exceptionally well-written book's two important virtues are its strong integrating theme of the struggle of enterprising groups against the forces, largely public, of restriction (particularly tariffs and arbitration), and the pioneering use of economic theory, always elegantly covert, to analyse Australian history. Bond or Free? (Sydney, 1930) includes a collection of essays that take up the themes of his economic history and argue, in part, that the ultimate choice of Australians was between alternative social and economic forms that would render them either bond or free. Shann's passionate challenge, which arose out of a genuine concern for all Australians, is just as relevant today as then. His contribution to the Cambridge History of the British Empire (Vol. VII, part I, 1933) was completed in the mid-1920s.

In 1930 he was invited by (Sir) Alfred Davidson to act as the Bank of New South Wales's economic consultant—the first economist ever to hold such a position in Australia. He worked full time for three years at the bank's Sydney office where he established an economics department, the first in an Australian bank, and an economic circular, and advised Davidson on important issues such as exchange devaluation.

Shann also had an important influence on the government's Depression policy when he joined the Copland Committee in 1931, which formulated the famous Premiers' Plan, and the Sir Wallace Bruce committee on unemployment in 1932. In both he argued for greater flexibility in domestic factor markets and against excessively expansionary fiscal policies. He also expressed his strongly held views, regarding flexible exchange rates and freer trade, when he represented the Commonwealth government at the Ottawa Conference in 1932 and the bank at the World Economic Conference in London in 1933. Though not an official delegate, he influenced those who were. Shann's contemporaries remarked, without exaggeration, that he was 'one of the pioneers promoting the status of the economist as an adviser and consultant in a developing country' and that 'the history of those years of depression might have been very different without his help'.

He also found time to publish books of documents together with his views on economic policy. Appearing in rapid succession were The Crisis in Australian Finance (1931), The Battle of the Plans (1931), and The Australian Price Structure (1933), all with (Sir) Douglas Copland; and Quotas or Stable Money? (1933). Weeks before his death, Shann was planning further joint publications with Copland. He also published scholarly articles in the Economic Record, Australian Quarterly, and Foreign Affairs, wrote numerous newspaper articles, and made many radio broadcasts on economic questions. In 1921 he had been appointed to the Commonwealth Literary Fund committee.

In 1933 Shann accepted the chair of economics at the University of Adelaide, but was required to spend 1934 lecturing in Perth. The Adelaide appointment was to end tragically with his premature death on campus at 7.40 p.m. on 23 May 1935, when he fell from an office window. The coroner's verdict was suicide, but this remains an open question. Shann was survived by his wife and three daughters. He was cremated and memorial services were held in Adelaide and Perth. In mourning Shann's loss, his colleagues said: he was 'one of the leaders and founders of the study of economics in Australia'; and his 'interests were so varied, the width of his knowledge so great, that it is impossible to appraise him only as an economist or even as a scholar'.

One colleague saw him as 'a smallish, neatly dressed man, who wore round, gold-rimmed spectacles. Quick in movement and temperamental in reaction, often with a certain tenseness about him, he was … introspective and self-questioning'. Another recalled him as 'young and alive to the finger tips, witty, nimble-minded, resourceful in argument, eager for the truth'. Others remembered his 'dark-brown expressive eyes', that he was 'friendly and warm', 'very sensitive', 'effervescent in social situations', but that there existed a 'darker, depressive side' that caused him much agony, especially towards the end of his life. Indeed the outward signs of success, together with an outgoing manner, disguised the inner struggle. Shann had delighted in playing cricket and tennis and in his later years golf and fishing.

The annual Shann memorial lecture (established 1961) and the Shann Memorial (erected April 1937), both at the University of Western Australia, commemorate him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • H. C. Coombs, Some Ingredients for Growth (Perth, 1963)
  • W. K. Hancock, Economists, Ecologists and Historians (Perth, 1974)
  • Economic Journal, 45 (1935)
  • Economic Record, 11, June 1935
  • Historical Studies, 9, no 33, Nov 1959
  • Labour History, no 28, May 1975
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 May 1935
  • West Australian, 1 June 1935
  • Shann papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Thematic Essay

Citation details

G. D. Snooks, 'Shann, Edward Owen Giblin (1884–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 23 June 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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