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Ritchie, John (1941–2006)

by John N. Molony

John Ritchie, son of John and Evelyn Ritchie, was born on 4 April 1941 in East Melbourne and educated at Northcote High School and Trinity College, University of Melbourne (BA Hons). He was a middle distance runner of some distinction, once competing against the great athlete Herb Elliott. After graduating with honours in history, he obtained a Dip.Ed. and then in 1964 became a teaching fellow at Monash University. When he had completed a Ph.D. at the Australian National University, Manning Clark appointed him to a lectureship in history in 1969. On 20 December that year he married Joan McDermott. Ritchie became a legendary teacher, first in British history. Then for many years he taught first-year students a survey course in Australian history that for scores of them became the foundation of their later knowledge, even through to doctoral level. From the 1970s he was a key member of the team of teachers of Australian history that flourished at the ANU around Manning Clark and included Don Baker, Bob Gollan, Barbara Penny, Eric Fry, Ian Hancock, John Merritt and John Molony. They were inspiring times and the ANU's history department became a leader in the field.

Ritchie, attired in his old university gown, gave meticulously prepared lectures to an ever growing number of students. His lectures were a model of presentation. Structure and the development of an argument emerged through a flowing narrative, which became a form of high entertainment in itself. In that way he attracted a multitude of students to the discipline of history. His tutorials were tightly controlled exercises designed to encourage the first steps in the systematic use of primary sources. The students' essays, rigorously marked both as to content and structure, were employed by Ritchie not merely to develop their knowledge of the subject but also to ensure that they carried into later life a conviction that to write English with clarity, correct spelling, proper punctuation and a sense of direction was a hallmark of an educated person. Later-year teachers only had to look at the bibliography in an essay to recognise Ritchie's share in the making of the student. He ensured that students went to their sources and made a proper record of their use.

Convinced that a sense of place was fundamental to the study of history, Ritchie took great pains to organise for his students field trips to Sydney, the 'Macquarie towns' and Victoria's north-east. He also played a major role in offering weekend residential study sessions for teachers and pupils from local schools and the outlying country areas. The university, as well as his department, benefited from a subsequent growth in enrolments.

During the twenty years Ritchie gave to teaching he did not neglect his obligation to research and write. He first turned to the material of his Ph.D., from which two notable publications were drawn: Punishment and Profit (1970) and The Evidence to the Bigge Reports (1971). A popular history, Australia as Once We Were, followed in 1975. Enriched by several years of thought and research, some of it on sabbatical leave in the British Isles, his masterly work, Lachlan Macquarie: A Biography, appeared in 1986. He wrote the introduction to A Charge of Mutiny (1988). During those years Ritchie successfully edited the journal Labour History and helped thereby to establish it on a national footing as a scholarly publication. He made a wide contribution to the life of the university from 1971 to 1975 as deputy warden of Burton Hall and became acting warden in 1976. He undertook the responsible duties of acting dean of the Faculty of Arts in 1986 and 1987 and remained mindful that his proper function was to serve the faculty rather than control it.

In the 1980s Ritchie taught a stimulating fourth-year honours course in the theory and practice of biography. This activity ceased when, in 1988, he was appointed a professorial fellow (professor 1992) in the Research School of Social Sciences and general editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, in succession to Geoffrey Serle. His experience as an author and editor had equipped him admirably for this task, but nothing could have prepared him for the rigours of a position that had contributed to the ill health of the three previous editors. Ritchie threw himself totally into the seemingly endless grind of seeing thousands of short biographies through the process of their development from draft manuscripts to polished entries in the ADB. By 2000 he had seen Serle's Volume 11 through the press and edited Volumes 12 to 15. He co-edited Volume 16 with Di Langmore.

After some years at the ADB Ritchie had decided to cease working on weekends, and in whatever spare time he could muster he researched and wrote The Wentworths, Father and Son (1997). The volume dealt thoroughly with the father, Darcy Wentworth, but was able to take the son, William Charles, only through his formative years and then touch lightly on the vast contribution to colonial Australia made by that lion of our early history. Volume 2 of this monumental work had not progressed far when, in 2001, Ritchie was forced to lay down his pen after a stroke. No man had come to know W. C. Wentworth as Ritchie had done and Wentworth stood fair to be highly honoured by his biographer.

Ritchie was a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia and the Royal Historical Society, and an honorary fellow of the Royal Australian Historical Society. Retiring in 2002, he was appointed AO that year and emeritus professor, ANU, in 2003. He died on 10 May 2006 at his home in Aranda, Canberra, and, after a Requiem Mass, was cremated.

Throughout his life John Ritchie was not one to play for popularity among his peers and even less towards those above him. Thus he stuck by his convictions and uttered them without fear. A man with a generally conservative outlook, he never cherished the past for its own sake or rejected its values when the prevailing wind blew against them. In his devotion to work and to what he saw as his duty, he spared neither himself nor others. A lover of good food and fine wine, of the opera and ballet, of literature (above all Dickens), and a creator rather than a teller of jokes, Ritchie was loyal to his God, to his friends, to his country and to his football club, Carlton. Before all else Ritchie preserved his private life in the sanctuary of his home. There, with his beloved wife and son, Joan and Christopher, John Ritchie, editor, historian and genuine Australian, lived out the roles he truly held dear on earth: those of husband and father.

Original publication

  • Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol 17, 2007, pp xv-xvi

View the list of obituaries written by John Ritchie

View the list of ADB articles written by John Ritchie

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John N. Molony, 'Ritchie, John (1941–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 September 2020.

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