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Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860–1929)

by D. J. Mulvaney

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Baldwin Spencer, by Doris McKellar, 1929

Baldwin Spencer, by Doris McKellar, 1929

University of Melbourne Archives, 202178

Sir Walter Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929), university scientist and administrator, anthropologist and connoisseur, was born on 23 June 1860 at Stretford, Lancashire, England, second of eleven children of Reuben Spencer and his wife Martha, née Circuit. Reuben had risen from clerk to managing director of John Rylands and Sons, cottonspinners and manufacturers; he was a pillar of Manchester Congregationalism; in 1901 he left his children a considerable inheritance. Baldwin was educated at Old Trafford School and at the Manchester School of Art. His interest in art and sketching was lifelong and would reveal itself in his competence as a scientific draftsman and illustrator.

Entering Owens College (Victoria University of Manchester) in 1879, Spencer intended to study medicine. Inspired by Milnes Marshall, a Darwinian disciple, he became a committed evolutionary biologist, soon abandoning conventional religion. After winning a scholarship to Exeter College, he entered the University of Oxford in 1881 to study science under Professor H. N. Moseley who combined enthusiasm for evolutionary biology with ethnological interests and a deep concern for his students. He had visited Australia when a naturalist on the Challenger scientific voyage and later encouraged Spencer to research there. Spencer's own rapport with students owed much to Marshall and Moseley.

Spencer grasped Oxford's diverse opportunities which included lectures by Ruskin and E. B. Tylor. He co-founded the Junior Scientific Club, and excelled in arranging major meetings. Graduating B.A. in 1884 with a first in science, he became a demonstrator in Moseley's laboratory. For a period he shared rooms with (Sir) Halford Mackinder whose example probably inspired Spencer's later biogeographical assessment of Australian faunal distribution and his energetic involvement in Victorian public education.

Spencer's research built upon current advances in microscopy and histological techniques; studies of the parietal (pineal) eye in reptiles were his major project. Election to a Lincoln College fellowship for 1886 resulted. His colleagues included Melbourne-educated Samuel Alexander and the distinguished Latinist, W. Warde Fowler, an amateur naturalist who proved a father-figure. They tramped together in the Cotswolds and Fowler broadened Spencer's awareness of the humanities.

Moseley and Tylor obtained Spencer's assistance in transferring the important Pitt-Rivers ethnographic collection from London to its Oxford museum, an experience which taught him the principles of typological classification of artefacts, following technological and dubious presumed evolutionary development. His two mentors proved influential referees when, in 1886, he applied for the foundation chair of biology at the University of Melbourne.

Notified of his appointment on 12 January 1887, Spencer and his wife disembarked in Melbourne on 30 March. On 18 January at Stockport, Chester, he had married with Independent forms Mary Elizabeth ('Lillie') Bowman (1862-1935), the daughter of family friends. They were to have two daughters and a son who died at birth in 1896. Spencer was of medium height and slight build; he camouflaged his youthful appearance behind a moustache which drooped or was trimmed according to fashion's dictates.

With his colleague, Professor (Sir) David Masson, Spencer helped to transform university standards and they co-operated as entrepreneurs of Australian science. The embodiment of controlled energy, Spencer set about designing and funding the biology building which opened within a year, its laboratories providing a model of contemporary planning and lighting. By 1900 it developed into a major centre of research on the Australian biota. His was the first Australian university department to appoint female lecturers and associate professors; by 1919 his departmental colleagues were all women.

Spencer inaugurated undergraduate field excursions, founded a student science society and sponsored the Princess Ida club for women. His sustained involvement in undergraduate sport resulted in the formation of the Sports Union. As its president, he was instrumental in landscaping the university oval and financing its pavilion. He secured the University team's admission to the Victorian Football League in 1908. After its poor performance and its withdrawal from the league in 1914, he transferred his loyalties to the Carlton club. Respected as a statesman of sport, he was president of the V.F.L. in 1919-26.

With Spencer's encouragement, staff and graduate students participated in the vigorous Field Naturalists' Club of Victoria and in the revived Royal Society of Victoria. President of the former in 1891-93 and 1895-97, he edited publications for the latter and was its president in 1904. He and Masson were the Melbourne architects of the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1914. An exponent of interstate scientific co-operation, he was prominent in the Australasian Association for the Advancement of Science, twice editing Victorian meeting handbooks and serving as 1921 congress president. His versatility extended to co-editorship of the Australian Critic in 1890 with the classicist T. G. Tucker.

Spencer's administrative skills also resulted in his appointment as honorary director of the National Museum of Victoria in 1899. He supervised the museum's transfer to its city location, master-minded the construction of its Russell Street frontage, personally arranged exhibits by drawing on his English experience of typological classification, and published a Guide to the Australian Ethnographical Collection (1901, 1922). Chairman of the university professorial board in 1903-11, he presided over the recovery of the university's reputation and finances following misappropriations. Despite holding the university's senior executive post, his teaching load remained heavy.

The 1894 Horn scientific exploring expedition to central Australia recruited Spencer as zoologist and photographer. Because of friction between members and their sponsor, Spencer later combined mediation with editorship of all four volumes of reports. His own seminal contribution included his classic biogeographic interpretation of Australian faunal distribution. This expedition rekindled his anthropological interest when he met F. J. Gillen, the Alice Springs postmaster. What began as his offer to assist in publishing Gillen's ethnological notes matured into an enduring partnership and a landmark in anthropological history.

In 1896 Spencer joined Gillen for the most intensive field-work then attempted in Australia. The Native Tribes of Central Australia (1899), which resulted, was to influence contemporary theories on social evolution and interpretations of the origins of art and ceremonial. It impressed (Sir) James Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, who developed a lifelong friendship with Spencer. Selections from their correspondence were published in 1932.

Frazer also raised a petition which obtained from their respective governments the release of the partners for a year. Spencer and Gillen drove a buggy from Oodnadatta to Borroloola in 1901-02, working among Aboriginal groups for several weeks at a time. They pioneered sound recording on wax cylinders and shot movie film under conditions of sheer hardship. Their last joint venture took them briefly to Lake Eyre's Arabana people in 1903. Their research produced The Northern Tribes of Central Australia (1904); Across Australia (2 vols, 1912) was a popular version, originally partly serialized in the Age during 1901. These articles provided £1000 towards expedition costs, but all Spencer's other field-work was self-financed.

When the Commonwealth government assumed control of the Northern Territory, Spencer led three other scientists, including J. A. Gilruth, on the 1911 Preliminary Scientific Expedition. Impressed with their findings, the government immediately appointed Spencer to Darwin for a year. As special commissioner and chief protector of Aborigines for some weeks until the arrival of administrator Gilruth, he was the Territory's most senior official. The opposition which his decisions aroused among Darwin's polyglot community anticipated the issues which dominated Gilruth's turbulent era. Spencer's comprehensive but costly blueprint for Aboriginal welfare was tabled in parliament in 1913, and forgotten. His concepts were paternalistic, authoritarian and reflected social Darwinism, yet they were innovative and advocated the creation of extensive reserves.

An infected leg severely restricted Spencer's field-work during 1912. In spite of this permanent source of discomfort, he was hosted by Joe Cooper on Melville Island and by Paddy Cahill at Oenpelli and Flora River. Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia (1914) described his ethnographic observations and extensive collections. An ethnographic quarry today, it was the source of the term 'Kakadu'. Despite humid conditions, Spencer did more filming. Less fortunate was his trail-blazing 1000-mile (1609 km) drive with Gilruth to Borroloola which achieved little.

Spencer visited Alice Springs and Hermannsburg in 1923, at the government's request, but his recommendations on welfare matters were ignored. He returned there briefly in 1926, stung by criticisms derived from Carl Strehlow that the Spencer-Gillen interpretation of Aranda society was wrong. Gillen had died in 1912, but Spencer had defended their work in The Arunta: A Study of a Stone Age People (2 vols, 1927). A popular rewrite of previous books followed—Wanderings in Wild Australia (2 vols, 1928)—this time under his sole authorship.

While at Oenpelli in 1912, Spencer had initiated the collection of over 200 bark paintings. In a philanthropic gesture, he donated them and his entire ethnographic collection in 1917 to the National Museum of Victoria. Included were his movies, wax cylinders and some 1700 photographic negatives of superb quality.

Among his many friends in literary and artistic circles, Spencer numbered the Lindsay brothers, Heysen and Lambert; Streeton initially lodged with him upon his 1906-07 return visit; Spencer commissioned Tom Roberts to paint his friend A. W. Howitt's portrait. Several artists acknowledged the importance of his patronage early in their careers. (From such periods he owned about thirty Streeton works and over forty by Norman Lindsay.) He sold over 200 paintings upon his retirement in 1919. S. Ure Smith claimed this sale as a landmark in the recognition of Australian art. As a trustee (later vice-president) of the National Gallery of Victoria since 1895, Spencer encouraged (not always wisely) the purchase of Australian art. Late in 1916 he voyaged to England to select advisers for the Felton bequest trustees. Their selections, commencing with the William Blake drawings, enriched the gallery through the 1920s. Spencer's contribution was recognized formally in 1926, with the award of the medal of the Society of Artists, Sydney. His lively portrait by Lambert hangs in the Museum of Victoria; portraits by W. B. McInnes are owned by the University of Melbourne and Exeter College, Oxford; another by E. Phillips Fox has not been located.

Spencer retired as emeritus professor in 1919. His nerves and his judgement were impaired from the strain of continuous overwork, the virtual disintegration of his marriage, and concern for his daughters in wartime England. Liquor proved a solace. He was hospitalized in 1921, ostensibly for his old leg injury, but alcoholism was the chief problem.

His health improved and within two years he resumed anthropological activities and rebuilt his art collection. This renaissance evidently coincided with his discreet association with Jean Hamilton, a librarian over thirty years his junior. They lived in London from 1927 and early in 1929 sailed together to Tierra del Fuego to undertake anthropological field-work. After three months under bleak conditions, Spencer died from angina pectoris on 14 July 1929 in a snowbound hut on Navarin Island. Jean Hamilton took his body for burial to Magallanes (Punta Arenas), Chile. His papers were edited as Spencer's Last Journey (1931). His achievements were recognized. Elected fellow of the Royal Society in 1900, he was appointed C.M.G. in 1904 and K.C.M.G. in 1916. Manchester University conferred an honorary doctorate of science, while Melbourne awarded a doctorate of letters. Exeter College, Oxford, elected him to an honorary fellowship in 1907 and stained glass in its hall commemorates his contribution.

Spencer was an approachable, enthusiastic teacher, a brilliant lecturer (in 1902 he packed Melbourne's town hall), a capable and firm administrator, an entrepreneur for national science, one of Victoria's first conservationists (Wilson's Promontory National Park is his monument) and an advocate for Australian artists. People ranging from governors to unlettered frontiersmen called him 'friend'. Yet his significance rests chiefly on his Aboriginal work. He drew upon the assumptions and models of biological evolution and applied them to Aboriginal institutions, beliefs and technology in a mechanistic manner. Although a kindly humanitarian in practice, in theory he saw Aborigines simply as dehumanized 'survivals' from an early stage of social development. His voluminous written and photographic records endure as a priceless Aboriginal archive, despite his unacceptable value judgements on their society. Sir James Frazer's pompous 1899 pronouncement was prophetic: 'in immortalizing the native tribes of Central Australia, Spencer and Gillen have at the same time immortalised themselves'.

Select Bibliography

  • R. R. Marett and T. K. Penniman (eds), Spencer's Last Journey (Oxford, 1931)
  • R. R. Marett and T. K. Penniman (eds), Spencer's Scientific Correspondence (Oxford, 1932)
  • D. J. Mulvaney and J. H. Calaby, ‘So Much That is New’ (Melb, 1985)
  • Royal Anthropological Institute, Journal, 28 (1899), p 281
  • Lone Hand, Mar 1917
  • Spencer papers (Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and State Library of New South Wales and Museum Victoria).

Additional Resources

Citation details

D. J. Mulvaney, 'Spencer, Sir Walter Baldwin (1860–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (Melbourne University Press), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Baldwin Spencer, by Doris McKellar, 1929

Baldwin Spencer, by Doris McKellar, 1929

University of Melbourne Archives, 202178

Life Summary [details]


23 June, 1860
Stretford, Lancashire, England


14 July, 1929 (aged 69)
Navarin Island, Chile

Cause of Death

heart disease

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.

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