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Ian Alexander Turner (1922–1978)

by D. B. Waterson

This article was published:

Ian Alexander Hamilton Turner (1922-1978), by unknown photographer

Ian Alexander Hamilton Turner (1922-1978), by unknown photographer

Herald & Weekly Times Portrait Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38849/4610

Ian Alexander Hamilton Turner (1922-1978), political activist and historian, was born on 10 March 1922 at East Malvern, Melbourne, son of Australian-born parents Francis Herbert Blackley Turner, wheat-farmer, and his wife Nina Florence, née Lang. Ian was educated at Nhill State School, Geelong College (on a scholarship) and the University of Melbourne (LL.B., 1948; B.A., 1949). At school and university he cut his political teeth in debates about the Spanish Civil War, fascism and communism.

On 23 October 1941 Turner was called up for full-time service in the Militia. In August 1942 he transferred to the Australian Imperial Force. Next year he joined the Communist Party of Australia. He served as a driver with headquarters staff in Queensland (1942-43) and in New Guinea (1943-44) where he was reduced in rank from lance corporal to private for insubordination. While attached to headquarters, I Corps, on the Atherton Tableland, Queensland, he became an acting corporal in the Australian Army Education Service. He was discharged from the A.I.F. on 7 February 1945 in Melbourne.

Returning to the university, Turner was co-editor of Farrago, joint-secretary of the Labor Club and president of the Students' Representative Council. His study of history and politics under Max Crawford, Percy Partridge and Manning Clark deepened his love for his country, and its art, literature and landscape. Marxism proved 'the deepest influence on his thought'. He embraced the radical nationalist tradition and began his lifelong exploration of the left in Australian history and society. At a civil ceremony in Melbourne on 28 February 1948 he married Amirah Gust, an assistant-librarian and fellow communist; they had three children before being divorced.

In 1949 Turner was made secretary of the Australian Peace Council. He organized anti-war conferences in Australia and attended similar congresses in Europe. The Communist Party then directed him to gain 'proletarian industrial experience'. Obtaining a job as a railway cleaner, he was elected an official in the Australian Railways Union, but felt that his expectations were 'absurdly romantic'. When the railways sacked him in 1952, he stood unsuccessfully for the Legislative Assembly seat of Glen Iris as a communist candidate and worked as secretary of the Australasian Book Society. His opposition to the Soviet Union's suppression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956 led to his expulsion from the C.P.A. in 1958.

Turner studied at the Research School of Social Sciences, Australian National University (Ph.D., 1963). His thesis examined the dynamics of the labour movement in eastern Australia in 1900-21 and provided the foundation for his most substantial book, Industrial Labour and Politics (Canberra, 1965), and its offshoot, Sydney's Burning (Melbourne, 1967). After lecturing in history at the University of Adelaide from 1962, he moved in 1964 to Monash University, Melbourne, where he distinguished himself as an original, brilliant and inspiring teacher of Australian history and as an outstanding supervisor of honours and postgraduate students. In 1969 he was promoted to associate-professor. He wrote In Union is Strength (1976), edited The Great Depression (with L. J. Louis, 1968) and The Australian Dream (1968), and published numerous articles.

On 27 April 1968, at Richmond, Turner married with Methodist forms Ann Barnard, a schoolteacher and a divorcee. After they separated, he lived with Leonie Sandercock. By 1970 he was a leader of the Labor Unity faction in the Victorian branch of the Australian Labor Party. He used his skills to help prevent a split in the State party following federal intervention that year. The Whitlam government appointed him to the Australia Council. His transition from communist to social democrat worried and confused some of his radical associates.

Turner maintained a long association with Stephen Murray-Smith and the journal Overland. Despite his introspective and often despondent commentaries on 'an age of sterile materialism' in Australia, he revelled in his country's popular culture. He wrote seminal essays for Cinderella Dressed in Yella (1969)—a collection of 'Australian children's play rhymes', which he edited with June Factor and Wendy Lowenstein—and for Australian Graffiti (1975), which he produced with Rennie Ellis. In 1966-78 he delivered his annual Barassi memorial lecture on Australian Rules football, equipped with a Richmond 'beanie', a can of beer, and a pie and sauce.

A lover of jazz and modern art, Turner conducted a salon at his Richmond home where artists (such as Clifton Pugh, Noel Counihan and Fred Williams), writers (among them David Williamson), folk-musicians, students and politicians gathered to enjoy the company of this outgoing, yet sometimes enigmatic, 'everyman's academic', with his barrel chest, twinkling eyes, grizzled hair and beard, and intense pronouncements. He was attracted to women and attractive to them. While playing beach cricket, he died of a coronary occlusion on 27 December 1978 on Erith Island, Bass Strait, and was cremated. His wife survived him, as did the son and two daughters of his first marriage. Portraits of Turner by Counihan, Williams and Pugh are held privately. Sandercock and Murray-Smith edited a selection of his writings, Room for Manoeuvre (1982).

Select Bibliography

  • A. Inglis, Amirah (Melb, 1983)
  • A. Inglis, The Hammer and Sickle and the Washing Up (Melb, 1995)
  • Monash Reporter, Mar 1979
  • Overland, no 76/77, Oct 1979
  • Age (Melbourne), 28, 29 Dec 1978
  • National Times, 12-18 Sept 1982
  • 'An Evening with . . . Ian Turner', ABC TV, 2 Feb 1976 (ABC Archives, Sydney)
  • personal knowledge.

Citation details

D. B. Waterson, 'Turner, Ian Alexander (1922–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 13 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (Melbourne University Press), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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