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Sir Kenneth Clinton Wheare (1907–1979)

by J. R. Poynter

This article was published:

Sir Kenneth Clinton Wheare (1907-1979), professor of government and vice-chancellor, was born on 26 March 1907 at Warragul, Victoria, eldest of three children of Australian-born parents Eustace Leonard Wheare, grocer's assistant, and his wife Kathleen Frances, née Kinahan. Leonard bettered himself in 1914 by becoming an insurance agent. The family settled in Melbourne in 1922. Kenneth had attended state and high schools at Stawell and Maryborough. In 1923 he entered Scotch College, Melbourne, where he became a prefect and ran the debating club. Winning a scholarship to Ormond College, he took first-class honours in Greek and philosophy at the University of Melbourne (B.A. Hons, 1929). Slight and frail, he played no sport, but was an outstanding president of the Students' Representative Council, and his selection as Victorian Rhodes scholar for 1929 was popular.

At Oriel College, Oxford (B.A., 1932; M.A., 1935; D.Litt., 1957), Wheare's tutors mistook his unassuming demeanour for lack of ability, but he won a first in philosophy, politics and economics and was awarded the Cecil peace prize. Oxford suited him and after a succession of appointments he became Gladstone professor of government and public administration in 1944. He also suffered a personal tragedy: on 22 March 1934 at St Columba's Presbyterian Chapel, Oxford, he had married Helen Mary, daughter of Stella Allan; after the birth of a son she became incurably ill and they were divorced. At the register office, Oxford, on 5 January 1943 he married 26-year-old Joan Randell; they had two sons and two daughters.

Wheare's first research won him the Beit prize in colonial history. Published as The Statute of Westminster, 1931 (Oxford, 1933), it dealt with the Act which restructured the British Empire and offered Australia an independence its governments were reluctant to accept. The constitution of the Empire and Commonwealth, then a fertile field, became Wheare's main subject. After 1945 he was much called on as a constitutional adviser, notably to the National Convention of Newfoundland (1946-47) and to conferences (1951-53) on the Central African Federation. 'I see they've torn up another of my constitutions', he is reputed to have said over one breakfast newspaper. His monographs The Statute of Westminster and Dominion Status (five editions, 1938-53) and The Constitutional Structure of the Commonwealth (1960) record authoritatively the evolution of the colonies into independent states.

As teacher and speaker, Wheare displayed brisk common sense spiced with wit; satirical but never malicious, he was sometimes earthy in private. His writings—concise, deceptively simple, apparently innocent of theory but informed by it—ranged over government and administration at all levels. Four editions of Federal Government (1946-63) confirmed his mastery of that subject. His inaugural lecture had analysed Britain's government as 'a parliamentary bureaucracy', 'the ideally best form of government for a modern industrial state'. Government by Committee (1955) was enlivened by his experience on the Oxford City Council (1940-57), the Departmental Committee on Children and the Cinema (chairman 1947-50), and many university and other committees, where his skills were superb. Unobtrusive, with a habit of 'backing into the limelight and quietly disappearing again', he was nevertheless decisive: 'Over my dead body, Mr Vice-Chancellor', he once objected, 'if I may take up a moderate position in this matter'.

In 1956 Wheare became rector of Exeter College, an old establishment in need of improvement, which he achieved by reducing the intake, strengthening the fellowship and extending the buildings. He had served on the important Committee on Administrative Tribunals and Inquiries (1955-57) headed by Sir Oliver (Lord) Franks. To Franks's later commission of inquiry into the University of Oxford, he submitted 'a classic statement of the principles and virtues of academic self-government'. As Oxford's first Australian vice-chancellor (1964-66), he guided the university to adopt some of Franks's reforms.

Wheare had been appointed C.M.G. (1953) and was knighted in 1966. He chaired (1962-69) the Rhodes Trust and presided (1967-71) over the British Academy. In 1972 when he retired early as rector of Exeter, he became chancellor of the University of Liverpool, a role he took seriously, though characteristically delighted to be made honorary admiral of the Isle of Man herring fishery fleet. He was awarded honorary fellowships of five Oxford colleges and honorary doctorates from the universities of Cambridge, Exeter, Liverpool and Manchester, and Columbia, New York.

In retirement Wheare delivered the 1973 Hamlyn lectures; his topic, Maladministration and its Remedies (London, 1973), broke more new ground. One of his last writings was a review article on the 1975 constitutional crisis in Australia; he knew more about his homeland than it did of him. He died on 7 September 1979 at Oxford. It was said that nobody in Oxford had more friends and fewer enemies. Portraits of him are held by Exeter College and Rhodes House, Oxford, the University of Liverpool, and his family. His likeness is also preserved as a gargoyle on the Bodleian Library, between an emu and a kangaroo.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Hodson (ed), The Annual Register: A Record of World Events (Lond, 1980)
  • Dictionary of National Biography, 1971-80
  • Political Studies, 28, 1980
  • Proceedings of the British Academy, 67, 1981
  • Daily Telegraph (London), 8 Sept 1979
  • Times (London), 19 Nov 1979
  • C. Santamaria, interview with K. C. Wheare (transcript, 1975, National Library of Australia)
  • Rhodes Trust archives (Rhodes House, Oxford, England, and University of Melbourne Archives).

Citation details

J. R. Poynter, 'Wheare, Sir Kenneth Clinton (1907–1979)', 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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