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Hopkins, Lister George (1910–2008)

by Peter McCullagh

from Newsletter (Association of Rhodes Scholars in Australia)

Lister Hopkins, 1982

Lister Hopkins, 1982

photo supplied by Richard Hopkins

Lister Hopkins has died after a very long life – 98 years filled with many quiet achievements.  As his son Andrew observed at Lister’s memorial service, his father’s life had encompassed the start and the finish of the Soviet Union.

Lister was born in Toowoomba the second son of Quaker parents who were pacifists, committed to the extent of moving into a rural area in order to preclude Lister’s elder brother from being required to undertake compulsory military training. Lister remained a pacifist throughout his life, a conviction which may be seen in retrospect as having been reinforced by service in some of the twentieth century’s more violent locations. After attending public primary schools, he continued his education at Toowoomba Grammar School. He was awarded the medal for top boy in the State in examinations at the end of primary school, and topped the State at midway and at the end of secondary school. He undertook a course for a degree in Civil Engineering at the University of Queensland (achieving first class honours) from 1928-1931. Throughout those years he was a resident of Emmanuel College. A contemporary then was Fred McKay who became Superintendent of the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Fred, in preparing in 1998 for a talk on their time at Emmanuel wrote to Lister, ‘I frankly believe that Lister Hopkins was the greatest Emmanuel achiever of that period in the unpretentious way you fused your academic, social, sporting and religious life within both College and University.’ In a talk at his Rotary club in recent years, Lister recalled an early brush with history when, in 1928, he witnessed the landing by Ulm and Kingsford Smith near Brisbane at the completion of the first trans-Pacific flight.

Awarded the 1932 Rhodes Scholarship from Queensland, Lister opted to study mathematics, again with a first class honours outcome. In a letter at that time to Lister’s mother in Toowoomba, G. P. Barbour, headmaster of Toowoomba Grammar School from 1910 to 1935 wrote, ‘I felt that the finest intellect I had met in 50 years of teaching must prove itself.’ Lister competed in inter-collegiate rowing, coxing a Balliol crew and travelled extensively on the continent. He visited Russia twice, writing later on the political system there that the first time he was impressed favourably but the second time disillusioned. After graduation, he recounted how, after unsuccessfully seeking an academic appointment in mathematics, the university employment agency drew his attention to a Colonial Office position for a statistician with the British administration in the League of Nations mandated Territory of Palestine.

Lister served in Palestine from 1936 until 1944. He wrote later that there he met many missionaries and tourists and absorbed much of the many layers of history of Jerusalem through Old Testament times, Gospel times, coming of Islam, Crusades, Turkish and modern times. He returned on leave to Australia twice and, on the second occasion met Edna Leven at a Student Christian Movement conference. In 1941, Edna joined him in Palestine where they were married. In response to a request from the Colonial Office, Lister undertook, in 1945, the organisation of a census of British West Indian colonies and British Guiana and British Honduras which was not concluded until 1950. This was recognised by the award of an OBE. Two sons, Andrew and Richard were born in Jamaica.

At the conclusion of his West Indian assignment, Lister undertook census activities in Lebanon under the auspices of the United Nations Organisation before coming to Canberra in 1951 to take up a position in the Australian Bureau of Census and Statistics. During the following decade, two more sons, David and Nick were born. In 1958-60, Lister was seconded to Trinidad to conduct another census of the West Indies, on this occasion under the auspices of the United Nations Technical Assistance program. On his return to Australia, he continued in the Bureau oversighting demographic and social statistics until his formal retirement in 1975. When Lister was told that including Aboriginal people in the census was too difficult because of constitutional impediments, he is said to have replied, ‘Then let’s change the constitution.’ Immediately following retirement, Lister undertook two United Nations assignments, as usual in politically interesting locations. Following Sudan (1976-77), he worked in Cyprus (1977-78).

There was much more to Lister’s life than his professional career, although his other activities were entirely consonant with his career achievements. While in Jamaica, he followed in the footsteps of earlier generations of his family, joining the Society of Friends. On arrival in Canberra, the Hopkins family was one of four involved in establishing a community of Friends. In 1968, he became a foundation member of the Canberra North Rotary Club and, following his retirement, he became an active member of the United Nations Association of Australia.

Lister was widely read in poetry and was invariably able to produce an appropriate quote from a prodigious memory. His interest in numbers extended well beyond his work in the Bureau. On the occasion of a period in a coronary care ward in the 1980s, he made the somewhat unusual request of a visitor to bring in a mirror. Her curiosity was assuaged when, having produced the item, it was used by Lister to read the monitor behind the head of the bed.

On the occasion of the annual dinner of ACT Rhodes Scholars accompanying the Australia-at-Large election, Lister would take meticulous notes about the new Scholars and their achievements and aspirations. To meet someone who had been, between the two World Wars, at the university that they were soon to attend was a memorable experience. He will be sincerely missed on future occasions.

Edna Hopkins was largely responsible for establishing the teaching of English as a Second Language in the ACT and her contribution was recognised in her selection as the Canberran of the Year in 1980 and the award of an AM in 1993. In addition to leading lives of productive service and being parents, Lister and Edna Hopkins enjoyed themselves with frequent refreshing weekends at the coast near Canberra and occasional holidays further afield, including the Aegean, Russia, and Rockhampton.

After Edna’s death in 1996, Lister continued to live in the house that the family had occupied since coming to Canberra.

Lister’s memorial service took place on a bright Spring day in the Friends’ Meeting House and its courtyard to the establishment of which he had contributed half a century previously. Two contributions recalling events in his life were especially memorable.  One person who had been a child in Palestine at the time when Lister was there recalled how, years later in Australia, Lister had been able to explain the significance of much of his childhood experience. An email from another person recounted how, as a new employee of the Bureau in 1967, he had concerns about possible adverse career consequences of attending a peace protest.  These rapidly resolved when, on arrival, he found his boss participating.

In a testimony on his life, fellow Quakers recorded,  ‘Lister was quietly spoken, knowledgeable, accessible and amiable – he missed nothing. He was a generous, humble man of peace;  an extraordinarily good listener, gently enquiring and demonstrating a great appreciation of other people’s life experiences. His wisdom and integrity, including candid insights of his own frailties, inspired great respect and affection.’

(Account of Lister’s life prepared by Peter McCullagh, ACT Secretary of the Association of Rhodes Scholars in Australia from information provided by Lister and members of his family, with edits to 4 September 2013.)

Original publication

  • Newsletter (Association of Rhodes Scholars in Australia), no 15, February, 2009

Other Obituaries for Lister George Hopkins

Additional Resources

Citation details

Peter McCullagh, 'Hopkins, Lister George (1910–2008)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hopkins-lister-george-17108/text28942, accessed 13 November 2019.

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