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Geoffrey Robinson (Geoff) Chapman (1930–2010)

by Edmund Campion

from Sydney Morning Herald

Sydney seminarians were Geoffrey Chapman's best customers in the Commonwealth when he began publishing Catholic books in the late 1950s.

Their support enabled him to build a small suburban press into the leading English language purveyor of the ideas that led to Vatican II.

When the council concluded, its documents, translated into English, aptly bore the imprint of Geoffrey Chapman. By then, he was the publisher of choice to the Vatican II generation of Catholics.

Geoffrey Robinson Chapman was born in Melbourne on April 5, 1930, the son of Norman Chapman and his wife, Ella. When Geoffrey was four, Norman, an early Qantas pilot, was killed in an outback plane crash.

Geoffrey was educated in Melbourne by the Jesuits and graduated in law from Melbourne University in 1953. Early the next year, he married Suzanne James and sailed with her to London, where he worked first in a law office, then as a teacher. His was a tough school — in one year four teachers committed suicide — but the pupils warmed to Chapman's knockabout Aussie charm and gave him no grief.

At university, the Chapmans had been part of the vibrant Catholic subculture energising the Newman Society of Victoria. They had resisted B. A. Santamaria's attempts to take over the society. In London they made contact with like-minded Catholics in the church's main youth movement and offered to see through the press two collections of vanguard writings. Thus they discovered a vocation to be publishers.

On borrowed money Chapman travelled to the US, where Fides Publishers took him in and taught him the trade. ''They fed him, lodged him, encouraged and gave help, ideas, information and friendship,'' his wife later said. On his return to London he raised £1000 in capital from the head of an old English Catholic family and began publishing under his own name, in February 1957. His first book was a Fides title.

Soon, however, he and Sue were seeking authors of their own. An outstanding editor, Sue scoured the Catholic world to find writers who could explore the new territories opening up in church life. Many of her authors were French and all of them looked forward to a better church. Among these early books were essays by the Melbourne group gathered around the poet Vincent Buckley and lectures given in Sydney by an English scholar, Alexander Jones.

The Australian connection remained strong. Living frugally in Wimbledon near the office, the Chapmans were open-handed in their hospitality. Their home became a London base for generations of Australian postgraduate students at Cambridge and Oxford, who sometimes found work in the publisher's office.

The opening of the Second Vatican Council, in 1962, took Chapman to Rome, where he got to know and assess bishops and the experts brought to the council. Never overawed by bishops, he yet found lifelong friends in the hierarchy. One was the Archbishop of Durban, Denis Hurley, a courageous opponent of apartheid. Others were the Archbishop of Hobart, Guilford Young, star of the Australian bishops, and Cardinal Augustin Bea, the Vatican's point man on ecumenism.

When the Herald's Rome correspondent Desmond O'Grady alerted Chapman to the publication of a diary kept by the late Pope John XXIII, he rushed to Rome and sealed a deal giving him exclusive world rights to an English translation. Competitors were kept at bay, making its publication, in 1965, a coup for the Chapman firm. By request, first copies went to Buckingham Palace and to Pope Paul VI's personal library.

By then, Geoffrey Chapman publishing was well known throughout the English-reading world. Needing recapitalisation, in 1969, the firm was sold to a US conglomerate. A few years later, both Chapmans joined the William Collins firm as the nucleus of a liturgical publishing enterprise. Their task was to mass produce missals and service books in English in line with the Vatican II reforms of Catholic worship. Later they would do a broad ecumenical hymnbook for Australia and a multilingual prayerbook for South African Anglicans.

In the Collins firm, Geoffrey became a troubleshooter, travelling to Australia as needs arose. He liked to stay in a Manly hotel that had seen better days (''Hiltons are for Africa,'' he said). After an early morning surf he would take a ferry to the city office. At lunch he was known to ask for a second plate of Sydney rock oysters.

His retirement was busy with sailing — he completed two Fastnet races — and with international good works, such as monitoring the post-apartheid election in South Africa. His place in history is assured by the fact that no one can tell the story of Vatican II without reading the books he published.

Geoffrey Chapman is survived by Sue, six children and 12 grandchildren.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Geoffrey Robinson (Geoff) Chapman

Additional Resources

Citation details

Edmund Campion, 'Chapman, Geoffrey Robinson (Geoff) (1930–2010)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


5 April, 1930
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


9 May, 2010 (aged 80)
London, Middlesex, England

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.

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