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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Ward, Russel Braddock (1914–1995)

by Beverley Kingston

This article was published online in 2020

Russel Ward, by Louis Kahan, 1982

Russel Ward, by Louis Kahan, 1982

University of Melbourne archives, 11343/​205055

Russel Braddock Ward (1914–1995), teacher and historian, was born on 9 November 1914 in Adelaide, eldest of four children of English-born John Frederick Ward, schoolmaster, and his South Australian-born wife Florence Winifred, née Braddock. Russel was named for his paternal greatgrandfather, Mark Russel, and his mother’s Braddock parents. Both the Wards and the Braddocks were stern temperance Methodists and, according to Ward, extremely puritanical about sexuality. When Russel was about seven his father was appointed to the staff of Thornburgh College at Charters Towers, and then in 1923 became founding headmaster of Wesley College in Perth; Russel attended both schools. At fifteen he moved to Prince Alfred College in Adelaide when his father became headmaster there. He studied English at the University of Adelaide (BA Hons, 1936), where he also rowed in the university eight and discovered alcohol. Devastated when he missed out on a hoped-for Rhodes scholarship, with his father’s help he obtained a teaching position in Victoria at Geelong Grammar School in 1937. His summer vacations were spent labouring in the bush or in Central Australia. Here he discovered the miners, shearers, stockmen, and fencers who helped to inspire his idealised view of working-class men—so different from those he had encountered in his polite bourgeois upbringing and young adulthood.

Ward completed a diploma of education (1938) at the University of Melbourne. On 11 September 1939 he married Margaret Alice Ind at St Martin’s Church of England, Campbelltown, Adelaide. Margaret had to forgo the remaining months of a three-year nursing course to move with him to a new job at Sydney Grammar School, offered on the strength of his experience as a rowing coach. Their first child, Alison, was born in 1941 but died later that year, having drowned in her bath when her mother fainted. Margaret suffered increasingly from mental illness. Russel struggled to keep her out of institutions and maintain the family unit. They would divorce in 1967.

Serving in World War II, Ward began full-time duty in the Citizen Military Forces on 12 February 1942 and transferred to the Australian Imperial Force in September. He performed wireless maintenance (1942–43) and psychology testing (1943–46) work in Australia and rose to warrant officer, class two, before being demobilised on 16 April 1946. Having abandoned his father’s Christian faith, he had by this time become a humanist. He had also joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1941; he would leave it in 1949. After the war he returned to teaching, now in the government system, having had enough of elite private schools. He completed a thesis on English poetry and politics through the University of Adelaide (MA, 1950), and published his first textbook, Man Makes History, in 1952. Although he was offered an appointment as a lecturer at Wagga Wagga Teachers’ College, it was never ratified by the New South Wales Public Service Board chaired by Wallace Wurth, because, Ward assumed, of his communist past. It is likely, however, that the puritanical Wurth had access to Ward’s Department of Education file and was aware of irregularities in Ward’s private life. His wife’s mental-health problems and his infidelities were not exactly secrets. Biff Ward, his eldest daughter, later said she was distressed as a child by the way he ogled women in the street, and thought he was a sex addict.

In 1953 Ward won a scholarship to the Australian National University (ANU) (PhD, 1957). There he fell among a congenial crowd of communist, ex-communist, or left-leaning fellow students and teachers, including Bob Gollan and Eric Fry. His study of early Australian folk songs and singers was inspired by a similar enthusiasm among scholars in both Britain and the United States of America and the work of people such as Percy Grainger, A. L. Lloyd (who had spent time collecting in Australia between the wars), and Burl Ives, rediscovering and popularising this music of the people.

At the ANU he also met H. C. Allen, a visiting British historian whose work comparing the frontier in America and Australia, published in 1959 as Bush and Backwoods, had reawakened interest in the American historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Turner’s argument about the role of the American frontier in creating the hardy, independent backwoodsman as the classic American type and as a dominant influence in that country’s democratic thinking had already been adapted to Australia by Fred Alexander. His Moving Frontiers (1947) had sought to explain the impact on Australian politics of the miners who had gathered on the West Australian goldfields in the 1890s. Brian Fitzpatrick, whose independent left-wing politics Ward admired, had also used the idea of the frontier in an economic sense to explain the persistence of collectivism in Australia. Ward now superimposed these ideas of the moving frontier on his account of the waves of itinerant labourers in the bush and the outback, using the idea of mateship to explain their survival in harsh environments. His subsequent book, The Australian Legend (1958), seemed to capture many common characteristics of the Australian male type at a time when memory of the heroic feats and loyalty to their comrades of Australian servicemen during World War II was still fresh. Earlier, C. E. W. Bean—having described the tough work culture of the wool industry in On the Wool Track (1910)—had found these same qualities in the Australian troops he observed during World War I and had begun to create the Anzac legend. Ward’s book seemed to gather all these ideas together and make sense of their origins to readers in the late 1950s, when working conditions were being transformed by postwar industrialisation and when society was becoming more differentiated by European immigration.

A selection committee at the New South Wales University of Technology, supported by a file of glowing references from men familiar with Ward’s as-yet-unpublished work, recommended his appointment in 1956 as a lecturer in history. The vice-chancellor, (Sir) Philip Baxter, with the support of Wurth, now the chancellor, vetoed the appointment. The professor of economics and dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences, Max Hartwell, resigned in protest. In the absence of any explanation, Ward assumed that his communist history was being held against him. Hartwell later claimed that the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) was involved in the decision to veto Ward’s appointment. When his ANU scholarship ran out, Ward obtained another job with the New South Wales Department of Education at Telopea Park High School in Canberra.

In 1957 Ward was offered a lectureship in history at the University of New England (UNE) at Armidale, New South Wales. Ten years later he became the professor. He also served as deputy chancellor (1981–89). Though well regarded as a colleague and teacher, some found him authoritarian. He believed that senior staff should take significant responsibility for teaching, especially at first-year level. Most of his books were designed for teaching purposes, including a short history of Australia and three volumes of documents (jointly edited with John Robertson). There was also an overview of Australian twentieth-century history, A Nation for a Continent (1977). Armidale seemed to suit him. Dressed in a tweed jacket with his flat-crowned felt hat and his clipped moustache, he might have been a New England grazier. On 8 June 1970 at the Registrar General’s Office, Sydney, he married Barbara Susan Wood Holloway from the staff of the English department.

Despite his achievements, Ward seems to have maintained a sense of grievance against ASIO, though it is possible his reputation was enhanced by his tribulations as an ex-communist. The Australian Legend became ‘a work of mythic power’ (Hirst 1998, 672), one of those books that was thought to say more than it really did. It became a great resource for seminars and special issues of historical journals, discussion ranging ever further from the text itself. Ward himself was not averse to this development. In his memoir, A Radical Life, in 1988, he wrote:

If my life has achieved anything, it has helped many Australians better to understand themselves and each other, by showing them the nature of their national identity or self-image. But this stereotypical Australian was created in the first place by the life experience of many thousands of nameless convicts and bushmen and recorded in the songs and yarns they passed on to each other. (Ward 1988, 242)

However, an increasing proportion of the population—women and recent immigrants especially—failed to find their identity in the mateship of nineteenth-century male convicts and bushmen, while the archetypal Australian bush song, Waltzing Matilda, by A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, was not written until the end of that century. Ward’s female students thought well of him as a teacher, and he prided himself on appointing women to his staff. Indeed, one of them, Miriam Dixson, produced a feminist reworking of The Australian Legend in The Real Matilda (1976).

Ward retired in 1979 and continued living in the family home in Beardy Street, as professor emeritus. Awarded a doctorate of letters by UNE in 1983, he was appointed AM in 1986 and elected an honorary fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities in 1993. During the last nine years of his life he spent more time with his companion Jeané Upjohn at her home in Texas, Queensland. He died there on 13 August 1995 and was buried at Armidale; he was survived by one of the two daughters and the son from his first marriage, and by the two sons and one daughter from his second. A lecture was established at UNE in his name.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Bridge, Carl, ed. Russel Ward: A Celebration. [Armidale, NSW]: University of New England Union, 1996
  • Hirst, John. ‘Ward, Russel Braddock.’ In The Oxford Companion to Australian History, edited by Graeme Davison, John Hirst, and Stuart Macintyre, 672. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1998
  • National Library of Australia. MS 7576, Papers of Russel Ward, 1908–1994
  • O’Farrell, Patrick. UNSW, A Portrait: The University of New South Wales 1949–1999. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 1999
  • Ward, Biff. In My Mother’s Hands: A Disturbing Memoir of Family Life. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2014
  • Ward, Russel. A Radical Life: The Autobiography of Russel Ward. South Melbourne and Crows Nest, NSW: Macmillan Company of Australia, 1988

Additional Resources

Citation details

Beverley Kingston, 'Ward, Russel Braddock (1914–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ward-russel-braddock-29606/text36485, published online 2020, accessed online 6 August 2020.

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