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George Arnold Wood (1865–1928)

by R. M. Crawford

This article was published:

George Arnold Wood (1865-1928), historian, was born on 7 June 1865 at Salford, Lancashire, England, eldest child of George Stanley Wood, cotton merchant, and his first wife Martha ('Pattie') Pickering (d.1871), née Alliott. Belonging to a family active in Chapel and in Liberal Party affairs, Arnold inherited through his mother a proud tradition of Nonconformity dating back to the seventeenth century. After secondary schooling at Bowdon College, Cheshire, he went in 1882 to Owens College, Manchester (B.A., 1885), and in October 1885 to Balliol College, Oxford (B.A., 1888; M.A., 1890), where he read history.

His Oxford years were of profound importance in his development. Benjamin Jowett's Balliol attracted young men of bright intelligence, and the closest of Wood's wide circle of friends were all to achieve distinction. In such company his mind was broadened, his imagination stirred and his growth in maturity was remarkable. Jowett's college could enrich and liberalize the sense of calling derived from Wood's Nonconformist upbringing without threatening it.

In 1886 Wood shared the Brackenbury scholarship and in 1888 was awarded first-class honours. In October he entered Mansfield College, the new Congregational foundation, on a scholarship to study theology. Study of scriptural sources stirred religious doubts, which he openly avowed, but he was persuaded to continue. In time he would become a reluctant agnostic. After winning the Stanhope prize for a brilliant essay on Wallenstein in 1889, Wood could have waited for a British university post, but was persuaded in 1890 to accept the new Challis chair of history at the University of Sydney. He arrived in February 1891.

His inaugural public lecture in May on 'The study of history' showed him to be an original thinker with a passionate belief in the value of his subject. A student of the 1890s wrote of 'the revolution which he wrought … With life as he described it, one could not help feeling concerned'. Wood did his best to reproduce in Sydney the Oxford of his experience, sharing with unassuming friendliness in his students' talk, their societies and their games. With Walter Scott and (Sir) Mungo MacCallum, he was a founder of the Teachers' Guild of New South Wales and was president of the Teachers' Association of New South Wales. On 27 December 1898 at Marrickville he married with Congregational forms Eleanor Madeline, sister of Hubert Whitfeld.

Wood was greatly disturbed by the outbreak of the South African War, which he believed to be unjust, and stated his views in letters to the Daily Telegraph from November 1899. He was answered by MacCallum, his colleague, friend and precise opposite in all opinions about the war. After this hard-hitting but courteous exchange, Wood remained silent until reports of mounting infant mortality in the concentration camps drove him into an anguished protest against 'a policy that is bringing everlasting infamy upon the English name'. Again he was answered by MacCallum.

In January 1902, with W. A. Holman and others, Wood formed the Australian Anti-War League which advocated a negotiated peace on liberal terms. At a time of mounting hysteria, as its president Wood became a main target of attack; under pressure from the newspapers and some prominent men, on 3 February the university senate censured him. He had written a careful analysis of Australian opinion about the war for the Manchester Guardian. A garbled report of his article stirred a frenzy of demands that he should be dismissed; peace negotiations were well advanced when the full text of his article reached Sydney, and the attack fizzled out.

The irony was that Wood was as fervently loyal to the British Empire as any of his accusers, but his loyalty was to the Gladstonian view of an empire committed to liberty and justice. His public statements during the South African War, his articles for the Manchester Guardian in 1903-04 and a searching essay, 'Australia and Imperial Politics', in Meredith Atkinson's Australia (Melbourne, 1920) consistently pleaded for a return to Gladstone's vision.

Meanwhile, Wood continued to widen the range of his university courses, particularly in the field of maritime discovery. Although he had no assistant until 1916, he managed to find time for a number of extension courses, including one on 'Industry in England, 1770-1875', the first series ever given at the Trades Hall by a Sydney university professor. Honorary secretary of the University Extension Board since 1902, he was an active member of the Workers' Educational Association central committee from 1914.

With the outbreak of World War I Wood studied the published diplomatic documents which convinced him that the German government had willed the war and should bear 'the immediate responsibility'. Yet he also sought in a lecture course of 1916 to understand 'the guilt of others'. He knew, too, that 'Prussianism' was not confined to Germany and from the outset feared that the sacrifice of young lives would be betrayed by those who believed that force could solve the problems of peace. He supported the war-effort in the ways open to him, while sharing MacCallum's dislike of hysterical anti-Germanism.

A post-war product of pre-war studies, his The Discovery of Australia (London, 1922) was 'an excitement and a stimulus' to later scholars. In 1921 he had also sent the manuscript of 'The foundation of New South Wales' to his publishers, but it appeared only as scattered articles which obscured its characteristic theme that even people warped by an evil society could blossom, given hope and opportunity. Long overdue leave in 1924 enabled Wood to prepare a lecture course on early New South Wales (given next year) and to write The Voyage of the Endeavour (Melbourne, 1925). His prose was vigorous, enlivened by humour and a happy turn of phrase, and he enjoyed the detective work of the historian; but, above all, he was a teacher to whom publication was an acceptable by-product.

Progress was set against a measure of defeat. A post-war increase in student numbers made the personal teaching of his Oxford experience impossible—two men could not teach 350 students to their own satisfaction. 'The personal touch of mind and mind is necessary to education', he wrote in 1927 in an unsuccessful appeal for two tutor-lecturers. Recurrent eye-trouble added to the burden of marking far too many essays, examination papers and theses. Nevertheless, Wood began 1928 in good cheer, but ended the first term suffering from shingles in its severest form. After months of mind-breaking torment, he died by his own hand on 14 October 1928 at Randwick and was cremated. His wife, three sons and a daughter survived him.

Set against his life, the manner of his death was irrelevant. If anything rivalled his simple courtesy and integrity of mind, it was his jovial good-humour. Fortunate in the attachment of his family and in the unbroken respect and liking of his students, he knew that his life, as a whole life, had been happy. The slim young man of 1891 had added four stone to his ten by 1914. It was equally natural that the exuberant expectations of the 1890s should mellow into the tempered optimism of the older man. A verse in Hermes (November 1921) caught the general view:

Then come where tolerance and cheerful sanity
Temper the Ideal in Professor W …

Although he feared the capacity of the press to manipulate opinion and understood the obstinate persistence of poverty and social injustice, Wood discerned in English history a growth in liberty and social conscience which could be carried further by those who understood Milton's message of strenuous liberty. So he set before his students a portrait gallery of those democrats who had dared to rise to the challenges of their times, whether on a wider stage or in the isolation of Botany Bay. The true utility of history was to inspire the vision and steel the will. His own outlook was tempered by a salty enough understanding of human nature; still more, he believed in the capacity of ordinary men and women in favourable circumstances to grow in stature, and to free that capacity was his test of progress.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. Crawford, ‘A Bit of a Rebel’ (Syd, 1975), and for references
  • Hermes (Sydney, 21, no 2, Aug 1915, p 48
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 May 1891, 29 May 1902, 16, 17 Oct 1928
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 19 Oct, 11, 22, 30 Nov, 6 Dec 1899, 16 Dec 1901
  • Manchester Guardian, 22 Apr 1902, 16 Oct 1903, 13 May 1904
  • Wood papers (University of Sydney Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. M. Crawford, 'Wood, George Arnold (1865–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 17 June 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

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wood, Arnold

7 June, 1865
Salford, Lancashire, England


14 October, 1928 (aged 63)
Randwick, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

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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.