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Ward, Russel Braddock (1914–1995)

by Norman Abjorensen

Russel Ward, by Louis Kahan, 1982

Russel Ward, by Louis Kahan, 1982

University of Melbourne archives, 11343/​205055

Russel Ward — the quietly spoken academic larrikin who died on Sunday aged 80 — was not only a fine historian, but a high-profile victim of a shameful and disturbing McCarthyist episode in Cold War Australia.

An outspoken radical with a genuine concern for the underdog until the end of his days, he taught history at New England University, Armidale, until his retirement as Professor of History in 1978.

In 1941, the young Russel Ward — born in Adelaide on November 9, 1914 — and his then wife, Margaret, joined the Communist Party, and even though Ward left it in 1949, he was constantly harassed by informers and secret police, even to the extent of having a job application at the University of NSW rejected on the grounds of his "subversive activities".

These, he wrote many years later, probably included his many visits to the then ALP leader, Bert Evatt, when he was at the ANU working on his philosophy doctorate thesis.

After taking a Master's degree, he was appointed lecturer at Wagga Wagga Teachers' College in 1951 only to be called in to the principal's office two days later to be told he had been described in a "security report" — almost certainly from the NSW police Special Branch — as a communist and a dangerous person.

His appointment, it seemed, had not been confirmed by the NSW Public Service Board — a euphemism for being blackballed for having been a Communist.

"That I had left the party a full year earlier was supremely unimportant, even in my own mind," he was to write many years later in his autobiography, A Radical Life. "In pre-war Japan people had been jailed and tortured for committing the statutory crime of 'harbouring dangerous thoughts'.

"In Menzies' Australia the same kind of troublesome persons, irrespective of party labels or of none, were naturally the quarry of those I was beginning to think of as our very own patriotic, self-effacing Australian Thought Police. It would have been surprising if this had endeared me to them — then or since."

Agitation by supporters elicited an explanation of sorts: a government official granted him an audience, explaining that he was too highly qualified for the job and it had been given instead to a lesser qualified man.

Later investigating the processes at work, Ward was able to discover that the Education Department was itself blameless, at least of the dirty business; he had in fact been denounced for his views by a right-wing member of the Secondary Teachers' Section of the Teachers' Union to a member of the Special Branch who had, officially or otherwise, duly passed on the information to the Public Service Board.

This all took place, it has to be said, in the tense Cold War battle of the Labor Party and the Groupers.

Ward was not cast to the winds, but perhaps to a fate even worse: banishment to Belmore Junior Technical School in Sydney, "the worst school in Australia". Later, armed by then with a PhD from the ANU, Ward sought an academic post with the then University of Technology (now the University of NSW) in Sydney, but again the processes were subverted.

The selection committee, comprising men of uniformly conservative views, overlooked Ward's radicalism and unanimously recommended his appointment, but instead of the university council routinely approving the appointment it resolved to make no appointment and to re-advertise the position.

This, apparently, was the work of the new vice-chancellor, Professor (later Sir Phillip) Baxter, who had told the council that Ward had been "active in seditious circles in Canberra".

It was, however, later made clear to Ward that it was the university chancellor, who was also chairman of the NSW Public Service Board, Wallace Wurth, who had "picked him off".

More than a year later, while he was teaching in Canberra, a terse letter arrived from the university bursar informing him that he had not been successful in his application and inviting him to apply for future positions.

The cant was too much and Ward responded with a sharply worded letter attacking the university's "contempt for traditional academic freedom and impartiality".

The letter, as it turned out, nearly had him removed from his teaching job by none other than the same Wallace Wurth. The situation was later relieved with a telegram from New England offering him an appointment.

In 1984, Ward was to recount some of his experiences to the Hope Royal Commission, telling how his then wife had been driven to distraction by the surveillance of security men and he had found it disturbing that even as late as 1958 he was still being watched and so were his students.

Ward's best-known book, The Australian Legend, is both provocative and tendentious, amply living up to his dictum that history has to be more than a chronicle; it has to impose an interpretation of events into a coherent pattern.

Apart from his academic work, he maintained a life-long interest in folk music and rowing.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Norman Abjorensen, 'Ward, Russel Braddock (1914–1995)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/ward-russel-braddock-29606/text36941, accessed 14 November 2019.

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