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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

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Fry, Eric Charles (1921–2007)

by Peter Love

With the death of Eric Charles Fry on Wednesday 3 October 2007, the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History (ASSLH) lost one of its founders and most staunch supporters. Remembered by all who knew him as an unfailingly courteous and encouraging comrade, Eric played a major part in sustaining the society’s organisation since its foundation in 1961 from his base at The Australian National University. He had a significant influence on the early transformation of the society’s Bulletin into a serious scholarly journal. His PhD research at the ANU into the Australian urban wage-earning class in the 1880s provided inspirational foundations for many later studies. He supported a legion of students and colleagues in their work and applied his acute insights and gentle diplomacy to resolve many a spat between people who had lost sight of the larger issues. He was one of the ASSLH’s foundation stones, and we are the weaker for his slow, sad decline and recent death.

Eric Fry was born in Broken Hill on 21 August 1921, the son of an engineer. Although his family endured some tough times, young Eric barely noticed, enjoying a country childhood that ‘was straight out of the pages of Henry Lawson’. Their circumstances improved when his father found a job in Sydney, a city that Eric came to love and always thought of as his real ‘home’. He attended state schools in the 1930s and, as he grew through adolescence, began to notice ‘the contrasts of wealth and hardship’. He concluded his schooling at North Sydney Boys High where he was both a good scholar and very handy rugby player, going on to play for Gordon in his adult years. After leaving school, he worked as a junior clerk in the Customs Service and, having won a free place scholarship to the Economics Faculty at Sydney University in 1938, attended evening classes. In 1941 he entered the Army and later joined the Air Force, serving as a flying officer in the Pacific region. After demobilisation in 1946, he returned to Customs and then to the Commonwealth Office of Education, which a year later awarded him an ex-service training scheme scholarship to study arts at Sydney. By this stage, his sharp sense of the inequality and injustice of the capitalist system impelled him to join the Communist Party. Disillusioned with Andersonian philosophy, he turned to the study of history, which grew from an interest into an avowed vocation. He graduated with a first-class degree in 1950, and married a first-class wife, Sheila Williams, on 19 May that year. They moved to Melbourne where he worked for a short while in the Department of Labour and National Service with another old comrade, Lloyd Edmonds. Eric and Sheila returned to Sydney where he completed a Diploma of Education at Sydney Teachers College in 1951, and began serving his term of bonded employment with the NSW Education Department.

In 1952 he won a PhD scholarship to the newly established Australian National University. Inspired in part by Engels’ writing on the English working-class and T.A. Coghlan’s books on Australian conditions, he researched and wrote a thesis on ‘The Condition of the Urban Wage Earning Class in the 1880s’. During the early stages of his candidature there were some changes of supervisor and department, but, with the arrival of Bob Gollan, he found a sympathetic supervisor and congenial comrade who helped him shape and sharpen the thesis. A pioneering work of meticulous scholarship, it was accepted for the PhD degree in 1956 and, although it was not published as a book, became a foundational work for many subsequent researchers in the field.

His first academic job was a temporary lectureship at the University of Western Australia during 1956. He took up a post at the University of New England in 1957, and in 1959 was appointed a Senior Lecturer in History at Canberra University College, which was incorporated into The Australian National University in 1960. Promoted to Reader in 1967, Eric remained in the department until his retirement in 1986. During this long period at the ANU he left an enduring legacy with students and colleagues who benefited from his teaching, supervision and collegiality. He was a patient, methodical and encouraging teacher of undergraduates, a supportive and reassuring postgraduate supervisor with the capacity to challenge without deflating students’ self-confidence, and a thoroughly congenial colleague. Eric’s remarkable capacity for empathetic engagement with students was widely known and deeply appreciated. It went so far as a brief period in the Canberra lock-up in July 1972 for backing them in their protests against national service for the Vietnam War. This brush with the law did him no academic harm, despite his ASIO file. He was Dean of the Arts Faculty from 1973 to 1975. As the very first non-professorial Dean, his election to the Deanship confirmed the high regard in which his faculty colleagues held him. And as Dean, though he had some excellent non-professorial successors, none of them ever bettered the standards he set.

When Eric returned to Canberra in early 1960, he continued his lifelong love of rugby. When his playing days were over, he was not content to be a mere spectator (with a hip-flask of whisky for sipping and sharing during stoppages and at half-time). He served for many years as a fair and well-respected referee. Even when that, too, was no longer possible he continued to attend games with his old rugby mates, who grew increasingly sympathetic at the sight of a collapsing scrum.

In 1961, Bob Gollan and Eric were the prime movers in establishing the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. Over the years, he held every position in the society, including being its first Secretary and President in 1984–86. He was a wise and measured advocate of the more progressive tendencies in history writing, encouraging feminist colleagues in their campaign to broaden Labour History’s horizons and supporting the editorial board’s decision to embrace social history, while all the time retaining a commitment to politically engaged scholarly rigor in research and writing. Eric helped build the society’s fraternal links with like societies, particularly with the British, and especially at the University of Warwick. Up until his retirement, and for a while after, there was hardly a part of the ASSLH that had not benefited from Eric’s constructive and unobtrusive work.

While he did not leave a large body of authored works, he maintained a steady stream of writing that ranged from an oral history monograph on Tom Barker and the IWW, numerous bibliographical studies, some of which were quite extensive in their coverage, and two edited collections of essays on Rebels and Radicals and Common Cause: Essays in Australian and New Zealand labour history. In retirement he wrote An Airman Far Away, a biography of Sheila’s brother, who was killed in the Dambusters’ Raid in 1943. But Eric’s work is, more than most, to be found in other people’s writing—in his nurturing, support and encouragement of their projects, completed in the secure knowledge that he cared about what they were doing and what they had to say. Indeed, one of Eric’s great skills as historian, teacher and organiser was his ability to listen and hear what was being said, and implied.

When he retired as Reader in History at the ANU in 1986, he and Sheila rejoiced in the wide circle of friends they had attracted over the years, continued their golfing interests—and rugby in Eric’s case—travelled a little, and enjoyed entertaining. Their most regular guests, however, were several generations of magpies and currawongs who maintained a continuing if uneasy relationship with a succession of the Fry’s corpulent cats. In recent years, their health declined to the point where they had to leave their Condamine Street home in Turner and move into Morshead veterans’ nursing home, where Sheila died on 4 May this year and Eric on 3 October.

He graced the University with his learning, teaching and quietly gracious collegiality. In many ways, Eric Fry personified all that is admirable about the Labour History Society in his self-effacing commitment to its common cause, his steadfast support of its various activities and, above all, in his loyal and congenial comradeship. He might be gone, but it will be a long time before he’s forgotten.

View the list of ADB articles written by Eric Charles Fry

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Citation details

Peter Love, 'Fry, Eric Charles (1921–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/fry-eric-charles-32609/text40471, accessed 8 December 2022.

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