Graeme Davison

Portrait 2012Davison completed his BA (Hons) and Dip Ed at the University of Melbourne and his PhD at ANU. He undertook a second undergraduate degree at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar for Victoria (1964). He was a member of the History Department at Melbourne University, where he taught Australia’s first course in urban history. He became Professor of History at Monash in 1982. He retired from his chair of history in 2005 and became Emeritus Professor (‘Emeritus Sir John Monash Distinguished Professor’ from 2014). Davison has also served as Professor of Australian History at Harvard (1988−9) and been a visitor in the Institute of Advanced Studies in the Humanities at Edinburgh (1994), King’s College London (2005-7, 2013) and the University of Tübingen (2011). He was formerly an adjunct professor in the Research School of Social Sciences at the Australian National University. He is a Fellow of the ASSA (1985) and AHA (1987). He was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Letters by the University of Melbourne in 2007 and became an Officer in the Order of Australia (AO) in 2011.

Davison set out his professional credo in his Monash retirement lecture: ‘To be a professor, to profess history, is to assume a responsibility, not just to practise one’s discipline, but also to advocate and defend it’ (2006: 3). He has combined his interest in research and teaching with an extensive public and community role and in extending his activities and influence beyond the academy he has enacted an ideal of a ‘public historian’. He has been on boards, or councils associated with, for example, the National Archives, Museum Victoria, the National Museum of Australia, the National Trust, Heritage Victoria and the State Library of Victoria. His interest in urban history, and particularly the city of Melbourne, led him to an active involvement with the politics of conservation and heritage. He was the first historian member of the Victorian Historic Buildings Preservation Council (from 1976) and its first non-legal chairperson (1983−6, Hon DLit, 2006: 12). He acted as advisor to the National Museum of Australia (2003−04) where, he writes, he acted as mediator ‘between the historians on its curatorial staff and the inquisitors on its council’ (2006: 17). As president of the Australian Historical Association (1988, 2006: 15), he drafted the profession’s response to the Dawkins White Paper on reform to the higher education sector. He has been a panel member of the Australian Research Council and a supporter of professional associations.

At Monash he created a new post-graduate program in Public History, the first of its kind in Australia, which aimed to train historians for employment outside the academy as commissioned historians and consultants, and to narrow the gap between academic and public history. He was inaugural director of the Institute of Public History, founded 2003.

In 2015 he published Lost Relations: Fortunes of my family in Australia’s Golden Age, in which he traced the lives of two generations of his forebears. It was immediately acclaimed as ‘a quiet masterpiece’.

Research expertise: Australian history, particularly urban history, including a study of the city as a social laboratory, the social impact of technology, the growth of suburbia, heritage and conservation; public history including the uses and abuses of history (‘in monuments and buildings, family histories and museum exhibits, management textbooks and political tracts’ (2006: 16). For details of his many publications, go to


As author:

The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne (1978, revised edition 2004); The Unforgiving Minute (1993); The Use and Abuse of Australian History (2000); Car Wars: How the Car Won Our Hearts and Conquered our Cities (2004, with Sheryl Yelland); History as Vocation (2006); Lost Relations: Fortunes of my family in Australia’s Golden Age (2015)  

As co-author:

University Unlimited: The Monash Story (2012) (with Kate Murphy); Trendyville: The Battle for Australia’s Inner Cities (2014) (with R.T. Howe and D Nicholls)

As editor/co-editor:

Melbourne on Foot (1980), The Outcasts of Melbourne (1985) (with Chris McConville and David Dunstan), Australians 1888 (1987, with J.W. McCarty and Ailsa McLeary); A Heritage Handbook (1991) (with Chris McConville); The Oxford Companion to Australian History (1998) (with John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre), Yesterday’s Tomorrows; The Powerhouse Museum and its precursors (1880-2005) (2005) (with Kimberley Webber), Struggle Country: The rural ideal in twentieth century Australia (2005) (with Marc Brodie), Body and Mind: Essays in honour of F.B. Smith (2009) (with Pat Jalland and Wildred Prest)

The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1978−2014 (reprinted 1979, 1981, 1984, 1988; 2nd edition 2004−2014), xviii, 382p.

Marvellous Melbourne was a pioneering study in the field of urban history, published at a time when cities had only begun to claim the attention of academic historians. According to the author (2006: 8), the idea of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ was an urban myth, built around a soubriquet conferred by visiting London journalist George Augustus Sala in 1885. In his book, Davison set out ‘not so much to de-mythologise it as to understand the structural and ideological conditions of its emergence’ (2006: 8). The first part of the book, ‘The City’ is constructed as a series of variations on the theme of the transformation, between 1880 and 1895, of a relatively small provincial city to a greatly expanded metropolis with its competitive bureaucratic structures, discussing the city’s commercial, professional, industrial, architectural and civil service sectors. In the second part, ‘The Suburbs’, Davison turned from the world of work and the central business district to the suburban world of home and family, charting ‘the economic and technological forces behind the expansion of the suburbs, the growth of home-ownership and the development of a status-oriented society organised around getting and spending (2006: 9). This part of the book became the point of departure for the author’s later work on suburban Australia. Reviewers of the book in the late 1970s and early 1980s were struck by parallels between nineteenth-century Melbourne and the contemporary city (Maher 1981: 439).

The book became an instant classic in Australian urban history, as its many reprintings attest; Trove lists ten versions. Reviewers commented on the ‘elegant and smooth’ writing, the ‘tone evocative of times long past’ (Fry 1980: 125) and the generous use of images, including four four-sided inserts of colour photographs and illustrations—maps, panoramas, architectural elevations and paintings (including Tom Roberts’s 1886 depiction of Bourke Street West, Melbourne). Elegantly produced, the book was described as ‘a collector’s piece in the making for those who cherish Marvellous Melbourne’ (Fry 1980: 125). The book was co-winner of the Ernest Scott Prize in 1978−9.

Selected reviews: Labour History 39 (November 1980), 124−5 (Eric Fry); Journal of Historical Geography 7/4 (1981), 438−9 (C.A. Maher); Australian Studies 19/2 (2004), 4−5 (Ged Martin).

Car Wars: How the Car won our Hearts and Conquered our Cities, Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2004, xix, 308p (with Sherryl Yelland).

In the 1950s, Melbourne experienced a second boom and became ‘the beachhead of American investment and innovation, especially in cars, electronics and other new manufacturing industries’ (xiv). This book is a study of the post-war city and its growth, conceived as from a single prolific seed: the mass appeal of the automobile. Car Wars connected several themes in Davison’s work: the social impact of technology, the growth of suburbia, the history of vernacular landscapes and the Faustian logic of modernisation’ (2006: 15). If Marvellous Melbourne showed how the boom and bust years of the 1880s and 1890s shaped what are now the inner and middle suburbs, Car Wars charted what Davison saw as an even greater transformation of the city in the second suburban boom of the 1950s and 1960s. The book captures, in text and image, the moment when these thrilling new machines transformed the city, ‘tearing up the old world and creating a new one’, with sometimes unintended consequences. ‘The car enabled the city to sprawl in all directions, way beyond the train and tram lines laid down in the late 19th century. It changed the shape of streets. It lined roads with shopping malls, service stations, car yards, billboards, parking lots and parking meters … the car was decisive in turning Australian culture towards the US’ (Button 2004: 1). With Ford at Broadmeadows and General Motors at Dandenong, Melbourne became the car manufacturing capital of Australia. The one-car family became the site of ‘one of the fiercest struggles in the contemporary battle of the sexes’ (38): the right of women to drive. Alongside the struggle of the genders, the book also documents the oppositional ‘green’ anti-car campaigns of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, as concerned citizens and unions fought the expansion of the freeway network. It notes the emergence of the RACV, a self-help organisation that became a political pressure group. The narrative extends to the 1990s, and Jeff Kennett’s City Link vision and number plates that proclaimed ‘Victoria: on the move’.

One reviewer described the book as making ‘a timely and careful intervention in public debate that will stimulate dialogue and reflection’ (Aidan Davison 2004: 325). It is a debate that continues, as the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party sends its first representative to the Australian Senate to ‘defend the rights of motoring enthusiasts’. The book won the Nettie Palmer Prize for Non-fiction (Victorian Premier’s Prize), 2004.

Selected reviews and feature articles:

Urban Policy and Research 22/3 (2004), 323−6 (Aidan Davison); Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 90/2 (2004), 219 (Ian Arthur); The Age 14 February 2004 (‘Entertainment/Books’) (James Button); The Australian, 3 March 2004 (Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker with David Dunstan); Australian Review of Public Affairs 28 January 2005 (Georgine Clarsen).

General Sources:

The Unforgiving Minute: How Australians Learned to Tell the Time, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1993, viii, 160p.

This book tells the story of Australia’s engagement with time. Although relatively short, the narrative extends from the Dreamtime, through colonial time-telling to the present day and the hourly performance of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ on the giant Seiko fob-watch in Melbourne Central. As one reviewer wrote playfully, ‘Marking time, making time, measuring time and keeping time all jostle each other throughout Davison’s study, until one feels like Captain Hook, pursued by a perpetually-ticking crocodile’ (Martyr 1997).

The Unforgiving Minute is the third volume in the OUP ‘Australian Retrospective’ series, in which authors were invited to examine formative issues in Australia’s national history in a style accessible to non-specialist readers. Davison provided the only study then available on the meaning and measurement of time in the Australian context, opening new territory in his habitually fresh and imaginative way.

Davison’s interest in time as a subject came out of his work on the 1888 volume of the bicentennial history. The ‘slice’ approach taken in the bicentennial history obliged authors and editors not only to freeze time, but to rethink their conceptions of time itself. ‘Time’, Davison decided, ‘was not the inert medium of history; it had a history of its own’ (2006: 13). Ken Inglis observed of this book, ‘Davison does time as [Geoffrey] Blainey did space [The Tyranny of Distance].

The book extends Davison’s interest in the social impact of technology: ‘time’ is largely defined in social terms. ‘In recounting the story of how Australians became the managers of their own time’, wrote Frank Broeze, ‘[the book] offers an entirely new perspective on the broad sweep of Australian society’ …[It] is innovative, ambitious and stimulating’, written with a ‘felicitous fluency of style’ (Broeze 1995: 220, 223). The result is ‘one of the most interesting books on Australian history to be published in recent years’, one which embraced both ‘new ideas and courageous syntheses’ (Broeze 1995: 221, 223).

Reviews: Technology and Culture 36/3 (1995), 712−14 (Stephen Salsbury); Labour History 68 (1995), 220−3 (Frank Broeze); Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History (1997) (Philippa J. Martyr),

General sources:

NLA: Graeme Davison interviewed by Susan Marsden, 2003. 2459425; ORAL TRC 4977; ORAL TRC 4977 (transcript)

Graeme Davison, History as a Vocation, Lecture on the occasion of his retirement from the School of Historical Studies, 23 November 2005. Clayton: Monash University School of Historical Studies, 2006.

Citation for the award of an Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Melbourne, 2007



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