John Rickard

john-rickardAfter completing his BA (University of Sydney) and PhD (Monash University), Rickard was Lecturer and subsequently Reader and Professor at Monash between 1971 and 1998. He was elected FAHA in 1991. He has been a Visiting Professor of Australian Studies, at Harvard University, 1997−8 and Visiting Fellow of Australian Studies at the University of Copenhagen, 2007. He is currently adjunct professor in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. He was editor of istorical Studies/Australian Historical Studies between 1989 and 1994 and has served on the Publications Committee of the Royal Historical Society of Victoria, of which he is a Fellow, since 1999. He was a member of the Historic Buildings Council (now Heritage Victoria) in the 1980s. His long-standing involvement in St Mary’s Anglican Church, North Melbourne, includes the writing of An Assemblage of Decent Men and Women (2008). In his youth, Rickard worked as an actor and singer, and he maintains a strong connection to the performing arts. He is a supporter of several arts organisations, and has had a long association with the Green Room Association, both as president 1985−90 and subsequently as a member of the opera panel.

Research expertise: He has written widely in Australian cultural and political history, with a particular interest in life writing. His first book, a much-cited study Class and Politics: New South Wales, Victoria and the Early Commonwealth 1890−1910 (1976), was extremely influential. Winner of the Ernest Scott Prize for History, the book broke away from strict Marxist economic determinism, licensing subsequent scholars to use ideas about class in a more open way.


As author: H.B. Higgins: The Rebel as Judge (1984); Australia: A Cultural History (1988, revised 1996; 2015); A Family Romance: The Deakins at Home (1996); An Assemblage of Decent Men and Women: A History of the Anglican Parish of St Mary’s North Melbourne (2008); An Imperial Affair: Portrait of an Australian Marriage (2013).

As editor: With Peter Spearritt, Packaging the Past?: Public Histories (1991).

H.B. Higgins: The Rebel as Judge, Sydney, George Allen & Unwin Australia P/L, 1984), xi, 350p.

H.B. Higgins was a notable figure in Australian history, highly influential in both Australian politics and law in a period described as the heroic age of twentieth century liberalism (Watts 1986: 126). The son of an Irish Methodist preacher, Higgins arrived in Australia with his family in 1870, when he was eighteen. He graduated from the Melbourne University Law School, was admitted to the Victorian Bar (1876) and entered the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1894 as MLA for Geelong. He was one of ten Victorian delegates to the Federal Convention of 1897 and directly influenced two elements of the Constitution (sections 51 and 116), though he actively campaigned against the constitution at the referendum of 1899. This, together with his opposition to Australia’s involvement in the Boer War, cost him his parliamentary seat in 1900. Elected to federal parliament in 1901, he became attorney-general in the first federal Labor government in 1904, though not himself a member of the Labor Party. In 1906 he was appointed to the High Court and, a year later, became President of the newly formed Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, in which role he delivered the so-called ‘Harvester judgment’, a historically significant judgment that paved the way for the establishment of the principle of the ‘basic wage’ in Australia. Over the course of his tenure in the arbitration court (1907−21) he did much to distil and codify Australian ideas about wage regulation and the standard of living.

Rickard described his subject as ‘a political radical and social reformer’, though his designation of Higgins as a ‘rebel’ proved contentious for some reviewers, particularly for those who were practitioners of the professions of politics (Hasluck) or arbitration (Isaacs). Paul Hasluck, though disagreeing with this sobriquet, acknowledged that the book was ‘an outstanding contribution to Australian studies … that provides material for first-class argument and for testing the preconceptions of other experts’ (Hasluck 1984). Rickard opted for a psycho-historical treatment of the biography, exploring the formative influences of Higgins’ Irish Methodist origins, the events of his childhood, including the death of his brother, and the complexities of his experiences as an immigrant. The arrangement of the chapters unfolds the different facets of Higgins’ life, character and activities. Reviewers acknowledged the resulting ‘flashes of real psychological finesse’ in Rickard’s reconstruction of Higgins the man (Watts 1986: 126) and praised the integration of public and private life. Stuart Macintyre commented (1985: 69), in observing that the reader’s understanding of the public Higgins was deepened by Rickard’s attention to the private man, ‘At long last an Australian historian has risen to the challenge of the biographical form, and breathed new life into it.’ Isaac described the book as ‘beautifully written and scholarly’ (Isaac1985: 400). It was Age non-fiction book of the year in 1984.

Sources and selected reviews: Royal Historical Journal 56, issue 218 (1985), 55−7 (A.F. Davies); The Age, 8 December 1984 (Paul Hasluck); UNSW Law Journal 8 (1985), 380−400 (James A Thomson); Journal of Industrial Relations 27 (1985), 397−400 (J.E. Isaac); Overland 99 (1985), 68−70 (Stuart Macintyre); Thesis Eleven 15 (1986): 125−7 (Rob Watts); Social Alternatives 5/4 (November 1986): 59 (Malcolm Saunders).

Australia: A Cultural History, Melbourne: Longman Cheshire, 1988; 2nd revised edition, Harlow, UK: Longman, 1996, xiv, 315p.

Australia: A Cultural History might well be described genealogically as the offspring of Geoffrey Serle’s From Deserts the Prophets Come, a book Rickard acknowledges, along with W.K. Hancock’s classic Australia (1930), as a source of inspiration for his book (1996: xii). But whereas Serle’s book was primarily a history of high culture in Australia, emphasising how artists themselves sought to express creatively an Australian ethos or identity, Rickard’s book has a broader focus. It is not so much a cultural history of Australia as a history of Australia from a cultural point of view; not so much a critical guide to the arts in Australia as an attempt to relate the concerns of ‘art’ to the wider culture of the country (1996: xiii). It begins with centuries of Aboriginal habitation before the coming of the Europeans, and takes the reader through to the time of writing (1988) and the bicentenary for the first edition and, with an entirely new chapter on the contemporary scene and the incipient centenary of federation (2001) with the second. A third edition will be published by Monash University Publishing in December 2015. Within his generally chronological narrative the cultural approach has enabled a freer and more innovative thematic treatment.

Rickard uses ‘cultural’ in the anthropological sense to mean the whole way of life of the people. The narrative focuses throughout on the transmission of values, beliefs and customs amongst the diverse mix of peoples that constitutes today’s Australia. Avoiding the long-standing dichotomy between high and popular culture, the book concerns itself ‘with a diverse range of values, beliefs, and cultural rituals’; it examines politics, social life, the environment, empire loyalism, multiculturalism, and housing as systems of meaning and belief that tell us much about how Australians live and interact’ (Garton, 2001: 166). ‘It [is] populist history emphasising the social and cultural but [not ignoring] that a grand imperial narrative of progress and achievement [is] important to many Australians’ understanding of their own nation and self’ (Quanchi: 79).

Rickard does not deny that a transplanted culture is inevitably derivative but looks to explain how derivative forms take on a distinctive shape in the Australian environment; culture becomes a dialogue between the present and the past. He is not looking to identify a single Australian character: on the contrary the book is a celebration of diversity. Rickard makes a case for a distinctive Australian style of dealing with or accommodating difference. ‘He highlights the differences between men and women [who feature prominently in his narrative], Catholics and Protestants …, bosses and workers, Anglos and the “inferior” races’ (Hirst 2006).

Generously illustrated, the book attracted praise for its ‘wit and charm’ (Melleuish: 141), was described as a ‘splendidly crafted history’ (Martin 1991: 757) and included in Emer. Prof. John Hirst’s ‘The First XI: The Best Australian History Books’ (The Monthly, October 2006).

Selected reviews: English Historical Review 106/420 (July 1991), 756−7 (Ged Martin); Australian Journal of Politics and History 44/1 (March 1998), 142 (Gregory Melleuish); Social Alternatives 21/2 (2002), 79 (Max Quanchi).

Sources: John Hirst, ‘The First XI: The Best Australian History Books’ (The Monthly Quarterly Essay, October 2006); Stephen Garton, ‘Cultural History’, in Oxford Companion to Australian History, ed. Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre (Oxford University Press, 2001): 166.

A Family Romance: The Deakins at Home, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1996, x, 182p.

This ‘elegant, discreet and imaginative’ book is an intimate family portrait of the Deakins at home, focussing on Deakin as son, brother, husband and father, and particularly on the ‘emotionally charged’ relationships between Alfred, his wife Pattie and his sister Catherine. It was written as part of a larger projected study of Australia’s second and most intriguing Prime Minister, adding a picture of the domestic Deakin to then-existing studies of the public politician (John LaNauze) and the inner life of the mystic and spiritualist (Al Gabay). Janet McCalman described the result as ‘a psychological portrait of great power, made all the more effective by the re-creation of the most important relationships’ (1998: 391).

The design of the book is fluid. Sections of historical narrative drawing on the conventional sources of the Deakin papers and other related collections held in the National Library of Australia are interspersed with passages (in a different typeface) in which the author comments reflexively on his approach, his understanding of the characters, their stories and relationships, and his creative decisions in assembling the book. At other times, Rickard has ‘taken the dangerous option of fictionalising … his suppositions, dramatizing the silences in the historical record’. For example, he imaginatively recreates a dialogue ‘as it might have occurred’ between Pattie and Catherine at a moment of crisis on Boxing Day 1908. McCalman comments of this strategy, ‘[Rickard’s] fine dramatic sense and innate diffidence enable him to succeed where others have failed’ (1998: 392).

In his essay ‘Psycho-history—an Australian perspective’ (History Today, 31/5, 1981), Rickard set out his views on the importance of family history, by which he meant not genealogy but the history of the family, the relationships that shape its members and the social structures to which it gives rise. ‘In colonial history,’ he wrote, ‘ where the family as an institution is so closely connected with the emergence of a new social structure, family history is of even greater importance. It is difficult to see how such history can achieve its full potential without an attempt being made to reconstruct the changing psychological and cultural dynamics of the Australian family.’ His case study for this essay was his biography of H.B. Higgins, discussed above, but might equally have been A Family Romance, or indeed An Imperial Affair (Monash University Publishing, 2013) a delicate study of his own quest to understand his own parents and the world in which he grew up, part biography, part autobiography and part social history, filtered in this case through the fragile prism of memory.

It is not Rickard’s contention that psychological explanations should replace other explanations but rather that they should supplement or enrich them. ‘Sometimes the psychological dimension might indeed suggest ways of integrating existing explanations.’ In A Family Romance, the Deakins are revealed as ‘complex, contrary people: high-minded questing souls yearning to live at an intensity of experience and receptiveness that sat ill with the materialistic, rude colonial society of late Victorian Melbourne’ (McCalman 1998: 391). Here is the public man made flesh, his private life dramatized through the realisation of other lives intertwined with it.

For the elegant felicity of the writing, one can hardly go past the description of Deakin’s mother (p. 5): ‘She sought no life outside the home, and within it she managed to combine a talent for self-effacement with that calm self-assurance which sometimes characterises the less imaginative’.

Review and sources: Australian Historical Studies 29/111 (1998): 391−2 (Janet McCalman); John Rickard, ‘Psycho-history—an Australian perspective’ (History Today, 31/5, 1981), at; John Rickard, ‘Reading the Victorian Family’, in History on the Couch, ed. Joy Damousi and Robert Reynolds (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2003): 84−95 (for Higgins and Deakin).


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