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Hancock, Sir William Keith (1898–1988)

by Noel Butlin

Keith Hancock, by Alec Bolton, 1984

Keith Hancock, by Alec Bolton, 1984

National Library of Australia, 14261934

Emeritus Professor Noel Butlin, former Head of the Department of Economic History in the Research School of Social Sciences and a University Fellow since his retirement at the end of 1986, delivered the valedictory at the funeral of Emeritus Professor Sir Keith Hancock at St John's Anglican Church, Reid, on 16 August. The following is an edited version of his address.

Keith Hancock, born 1898, died 1988, was a very great Australian, a man of rare quality, a man apart.

Many will have known him longer than I. Others, like me, became acquainted with him from 1957, when he returned after a quarter of a century's exile in Britain to be Foundation Director and Professor of History in the School of Social Sciences at the ANU.

He came back to Australia with his first wife Theaden and his long-term personal assistant Marjorie Eyre to a staff group more than a little apprehensive about a world-renowned scholar taking charge. Who was this emigre Australian, attached to precious British scholastic values, ignorant of Australia and an Imperialist to boot? Born in Moonee Ponds, of all places, he was the son of an archdeacon and became a star of the highly prestigious Melbourne Grammar School. He had starred at Melbourne University, achieved fame as the first Australian to be elected to a fellowship at All Soul's Oxford, and had become an erudite Italian scholar with his book on the risorgimento. There seemed to be good reason for this apprehension.

He had, it was true, written in the 1920s a remarkable book called Australia during his brief sojourn as Professor of History at Adelaide. Those with more perspicacity than I would have realised from the extraordinary achievement of that book what sort of Director we were to have. This was history written in and for the present, drawing big pictures, exposing the central issues of Australian society, trying not in the tired modern phrase to be relevant but in a much more vital way to be effective. This, indeed, turned out for us to be Keith's concept of an historian.

But, in the meantime, achievement, success and honours had been heaped upon him. Chairs successively at Birmingham, Oxford and London, the directing of the 28 civilian volumes of the British Official War History, the directorship of the Institute of Commonwealth Affairs in London, a knighthood and academic honours — all these testified to success at the centre. His massive works on British Commonwealth affairs transformed the way in which not only studies but the actuality of Empire and Commonwealth were perceived.

Those awaiting his arrival in Canberra needed have had no fear. The reality was in startling contrast to the expectation. There were some British blinkers. But Keith turned out to be a highly intelligent, cultured, generous and kindly man with an innate simplicity. He was lively and witty, even sometimes naughty. But in all his work, in his relations with colleagues and subordinates and in his administrative activities, he is properly described as a true Christian in all the best and none of the bad senses of the word.

He demanded of himself and of others the fulfilment of talent. That surely must have come from his father's presbytery. But he spent himself without stint in supporting those who shared his ideals of performance. This did not mean an exclusive selection of excellence. He affirmed against the highest university authority the right of dissent and he found means to encourage many to find abilities that they had not yet discovered. He would not compromise on matters of principle. He spent great effort in bringing people together, to associate the work of individuals so that through co-operation larger endeavours were started. All these characteristics showed in his adept handling of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, now a national monument.

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Noel Butlin, 'Hancock, Sir William Keith (1898–1988)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hancock-sir-william-keith-460/text461, accessed 28 August 2014.

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