Alan George Lewers Shaw (1916–2012)

agl-shawEducation and awards: BA (Hons), University of Melbourne, 1938; BA, MA, Oxon, 1940; HonLittD, University of Newcastle, 1984; Fellow of both the AHA and ASSA, 1967; FRAHS (1979); FRHSV (1973); first Fellow of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies (1998). He taught first at the University of Melbourne, where he was also Acting Dean, then Dean of Trinity College (1944–51), then at Sydney University, before being appointed to Monash University as the second professor of history in 1964. He retired from Monash, Emeritus Professor, in 1981. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1982 for his services to education. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of Trinity College in 1983 and elevated to Senior Fellow in 2011. He became the first Fellow of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies in 1998. A portrait by John Olsen (1962) is part of the Trinity College art collection.

Research expertise: Shaw is remembered as ‘one of Australia’s most distinguished and prolific historians’ who, over a long career, ‘made foundational contributions to the history of colonial Australia, especially of the convict era, of British imperialism and of his own state, Victoria.’ (Davison 2012: 36). Alan Atkinson wrote of him that ‘No other Australian historian has demonstrated such a high level of productive scholarship over more than 50 years’ (2001: 583). In 2002, having sat on the editorial board from its formation in 1960 until 1999, as well as being Section Editor for the first two volumes and contributing ten articles, Shaw was awarded the inaugural Medal of the Australian Dictionary of Biography.

Public offices held during Shaw’s tenure at Monash:

  • Council of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (1965–71)
  • Trinity College Council (1968–78)
  • Inaugural President of the Australian Historical Association (1973–74)
  • Monash University Council (1977–79)
  • Member of the Library Council of Victoria (1976–85)
  • President of the Academy of Social Sciences of Australia (1978–81)
  • Chairman of the Public Records Advisory Council of Victoria (1979–86)

Many of Shaw’s other public service activities as a supporter of community and professional organisations either continued into his retirement or were post-retirement from Monash: member of the Library Council of Victoria (1976–85); President of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria (1987–91); Chairman of the History and Literary Committee of Victoria’s 150th anniversary commemoration (1980–83) and General Editor of the accompanying 3-volume publication The Victorians; second terms on the Trinity College Council (1984–2005) and the Monash University Council (1989–91). ‘Without seeming the least egotistical’, wrote Graeme Davison, ‘[Shaw] exuded a patrician confidence of judgment, detachment and devotion to public duty that often singled him out for leadership.’

Shaw believed that education, not ideology, was the key to progress; his was a voice of ‘furious moderation’ (Davison 2012: 37). He vigorously promoted the teaching of history in secondary schools and was the foundation President of the NSW History Teachers’ Association while at Sydney University in the early 1960s. He wrote a number of text-books, including his Introduction to Australia History (1959) and Modern World History (1961). His The Story of Australia (1955) was the first short history of the country since Hancock’s in 1930. Shortly before his death, he established the Alan and Peggy Shaw Scholarship for a Trinity College student to study at Oxford University.

He helped found the Friends of the LaTrobe Library, and his support of the Library is commemorated in its annual ‘AGL Shaw Summer Research Scholarships’. The RHSV and the LaTrobe Society also hold a joint annual AGL Shaw Lecture. During the financial year 2003–04, the NGV Library was renamed The Shaw Research Library, in honour of AGL Shaw and his wife, Mrs Peggy Perrins Shaw. Professor Shaw had been the President of the Friends of the Gallery Library, and Mrs Shaw was a well-respected artist who is represented in the NGV Collection (NGV, 2003/04: 81).

Major publications (written while at Monash):

As author:

Convicts and the Colonies: A Study of Penal Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other Parts of the British Empire (1966–1977); Heroes and Villains in History: Governors Darling and Bourke in New South Wales (1966; The fifth George Arnold Wood Memorial Lecture, U of Sydney, September 1965); A Short History of Australia: Part 1 (1967); Great Britain and the Colonies, 1815–1865 (1970); Ralph Darling (1971); Sir George Arthur, Bart, 1784–1854 (1980). Several other books were written after his retirement. Most books have been through several editions: his important short history, The History of Australia, first published by Faber in 1955, went through five revised editions between 1961 and 1983.

As co-author:

(with H.D. Nicholson) Growth and Development in Australia: An Introduction to Australian History (1966); (with H.D. Nicholson) Australia in the Twentieth Century: An Introduction to Modern Society (1967).

As editor:

Great Britain and the Colonies 1815–1865 (London: Methuen & Co Ltd, 1970 [Debates in Economic History Series]); Gipps—La Trobe correspondence 1839-1846 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press at the Miegunyah Press [Miegunyah Press series, no. 5], 1989, xxxi, 415p).



Graeme Davison, 2012 Annual Report of the Australian Academy of the Humanities, 36–8

Peter Yule and Will Kimpton (with Jennifer Dowling), The Age, 15 May 2012): 16.

Trinity remembers AGL Shaw [May 2012]–media/news/trinity-remembers-agl-shaw.html

David Carment, ‘Obituary: Emeritus Professor A G L Shaw OA’, Newsletter of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies Inc. 35, May 2012


2003/04 Annual Report, Council of Trustees of the National Gallery of Victoria, 81

Alan Atkinson, ‘Shaw, Alan George Lewers’, Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (Oxford University Press, 2001): 583.

There are two oral history interviews in the collections of the NLA: Alan Shaw interviewed by Neville Meaney (for the Neville Meaney collection), 2 sound cassettes, 6 November 1986 (Libraries Australia ID 4977960); Alan Shaw interviewed by Robert Pascoe and Nikki Henningham (ASSA collection), 2 digital audio tapes, 7 December 2005 (Libraries Australia ID 40171431. Transcripts of both interviews are available.

Selected monographs:

Convicts and the Colonies: A Study of Penal Transportation from Great Britain and Ireland to Australia and other Parts of the British Empire, London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1966, 399 pp.

This book, together with Lloyd Robson’s The Convict Settlers of Australia, was a pioneering attempt to cast light on the complexities of the 80-year history of convict transportation to Australia, drawing on the vast mass of administrative records then becoming available to scholars. The research occupied Shaw for some fifteen years, give or take, before the book was published. Even so, according to the author, it was yet incomplete (p. 13). ‘Although I have reached a number of conclusions’, he wrote in his ‘Preface’ (p. 13), they need to be confirmed (or perhaps refuted) by detailed investigations both of the districts from which the convicts came, and of those they were sent to; for it is only from such studies that the whole truth can emerge, and at the moment these are extremely rare’.

Nonetheless, wrote one reviewer, he produced ‘a brilliantly clear account of a very complex subject’, one which maintained ‘the highest standards of scholarship’ (McCulloch 1967: 206, 207). The same reviewer went on to enumerate the most valuable contributions of the book: [Shaw’s] distinction between penal theories and practice; his evaluative profiling of the typical English or Irish convict; his assessment of the reasons for transportation (four-fifths of all convicts were transported for theft); his consideration of whether transportation was a deterrent (only five percent of convicts returned); his statistical tables of the cost of the convicts, and his appendix, with details of numbers transported; his conclusion that parsimony influenced almost all aspects of British policy; and his discovery that the most common sentence was for seven years. The main emphases in the study were the settlements on Van Diemen’s Land and Norfolk Island. The reviewer concluded with a paean of praise for Shaw’s writing: ‘Shaw has written a highly complicated story with considerable narrative skill, ironic detail, wit, and insight.’ It remains a standard text, as the heavily annotated copy in the Matheson library attests.

Review: The American Historical Review 73/1 (October 1967), 206–07 (Samuel Clyde McCulloch).

Sir George Arthur, Bart 1784–1854. Superintendent of British Honduras; Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land and Upper Canada; Governor of the Bombay Presidency, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1980, xv, 307 pp.

In 1973–74 Shaw was elected to the Smuts Dominion Fellowship in Commonwealth History at Cambridge University, by which time he had embarked on his research for his biography of Sir George Arthur. ‘Embarked’ quite literally, as he visited, during periods of study leave over the decade he spent researching and writing the book, the four places Arthur governed. As the subtitle to Shaw’s book advises, Arthur enjoyed a peripatetic career in British colonial governance, being successively Aide de Camp in Jersey, Quarter Master General in Jamaica, Superintendent of Honduras, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, and Governor of the Bombay Presidency. It was a topic eminently suited to complement Shaw’s belief in Australia’s place in what was later called ‘The British World’, a belief he set against what he saw as the ‘inward-looking nationalism’ of much Australian historical writing (Davison 2012: 37). ‘By following Arthur through his various postings’, wrote Graeme Davison, ‘Shaw delineated an empire unified by networks of patronage, as well as by the expeditionary zeal of the Evangelicals, like Arthur, who shouldered much of the burden of its administration’ (idem).

Shaw studied an enormous corpus of documentation in England, Belize, Hobart, Toronto and Bombay, and the bibliography is organised in sections to reflect, in part, geographical location. This diligence has given the biography enduring weight and authority as a resource. In a recently published article (Lester 2012) Shaw’s biography is cited 31 times, mainly for quotations from Arthur’s personal papers held in Toronto, Sydney, and Delhi. In 2008, Shaw authored the entry on Arthur for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

With a moderation matching Shaw’s own, an English reviewer found the book to be ‘well written’ and Shaw’s judgment of the man ‘fair and balanced’. ‘[Shaw] has impressed his readers as being, if not the best known of Australian historians, certainly one of the most careful, sensitive and vigilant. Not for him the flight of irrelevant fantasy or the rigid corset of dogma’ (Madden 1983: 435).

Shaw’s understanding of the workings of the nineteenth-century British empire, as reflected in his other scholarly writings, was seen to give him a background for a reassessment of Arthur: ‘No longer the harsh, iniquitous, and ruinous monster of Tasmania, Arthur emerges from this study as an honest, autocratic, efficient, and canny bureaucrat whose sole object was to keep his masters in the Colonial Office satisfied and to accumulate money to support his five sons, seven daughters, and an ailing wife’ (McCulloch 1981: 842).

Sources: Alan Lester (2012) ‘Personifying Colonial Governance: George Arthur and the Transition from Humanitarian to Development Discourse’, Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102/6, 1468–88, DOI: 10.1080/00045608.2011.627060.

A.G.L. Shaw, 2008. Arthur, Sir George, first baronet (1784–1854). In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. On-line ed. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Reviews: American Historical Review 86/4 (October 1981), 842 (Samuel Clyde McCulloch); English Historical Review, vol. 98, No. 387 (April 1983), 434–5 (A.F.McC. Madden)

A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before Separation, Carlton South: The Miegunyah Press, 1996, xvi, 334 pp.

Shaw’s A History of the Port Phillip District: Victoria before Separation (1996) was completed in his eightieth year, as a complement to his 1989 edition of the correspondence between Sir George Gipps and Charles Joseph LaTrobe. In the introduction to the book, Shaw observes that no general history of the Port Phillip District (or pre-gold Victoria) had been written since the first volume of Henry Giles Turner’s History of the Colony of Victoria in 1904 (p. xv). Discussing Shaw’s ‘wonderful achievement’ in this book, reviewer Martin Sullivan commented that ‘One can easily imagine that, in another ninety-four years, men and women will still be turning to Shaw’s work with faith and confidence that A History of the Port Phillip District is still the history of the Port Phillip District’ (1998: 171). ‘Hundreds of slivers and shards from the written documents are threaded through the prose’, Sullivan wrote, but without intruding on the narrative, which dealt with the three great issues of white colonial life: land, labour and separation.

Summing up Shaw’s achievement, this same reviewer observed that ‘there are few who have contributed more to the story of nineteenth century eastern Australia than Professor Shaw’ (1998: 170). He was the prototype of a University man of his generation: Graeme Davison described him as ‘a paragon of the gentleman scholar—cultured, disinterested, unmoved by political or intellectual fashion—whose general absence from the Australian social landscape he regretfully observed’ (Davison 2012: 37).

Reviews: Australian Historical Studies 110 (1998), 170–1 (Martin Sullivan); Victorian Historical Journal 68/2 (November 1997), 196–7 (Don Garden)


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