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Robin Allenby (Bob) Gollan (1917–2007)

by Stuart Macintyre

Bob Gollan, n.d.

Bob Gollan, n.d.

ANU Archives, 1885/13019

The Depression was a formative experience for many Australians who never forgot the hardship and humiliation it inflicted. World War II was their time of sacrifice but also of hope for a better world.

Postwar reconstruction implemented plans to banish unemployment, poverty and insecurity, and to enable ex-servicemen and women to pursue study and fulfil their talents. The Cold War dashed the earlier hope, and exposed those on the left to intense suspicion.

Bob Gollan's book Revolutionaries and Reformists (1975) gave the best account of this era of intense ideological conflict.

It does not evade the errors and excesses of left-wing activists, for it seeks to learn from the past.

It was his past. His youthful experience of the 1930s led him to the Communist Party of Australia. He was a beneficiary of the postwar expansion of universities. And he was the senior member of the generation of radical historians — including Russel Ward, Ian Turner, Miriam Dixson and Eric Fry — who broadened Australian history to incorporate the experience and aspirations of the labour movement.

Robin Allenby Gollan, who has died aged 89, was born on December 8, the day news reached Australia that Jerusalem had fallen to the Australian Light Horse, commanded by General Allenby. His father William's family came from Scotland and had settled Woodburn, on the Richmond River. His mother, originally Jeannie Maclean, was also of Scottish descent. Both were members of the Salvation Army and Jeannie worked for it on the West Australian goldfields.

The family moved to a dairy farm at Dorrigo, and later to a mixed farm on Cambewarra Mountain, near Nowra, though they had spells shopkeeping unsuccessfully in Sydney. Bob was the last of five surviving children; his sister Myra became a Salvation Army officer and his brothers Bill and Ken schoolteachers. Their success — despite notoriety as a leading communist, Bill became a high school principal — helped Bob pursue his own career.

His education began at a single-teacher bush school, which he reached on a horse. He attended secondary school in Wollongong, then Fort Street, and in 1939 completed an honours degree at Sydney University, sharing the history medal with his academic and political antithesis, John Manning Ward. He taught in NSW schools until enlistment in the RAAF in 1942.

After wartime service, Gollan lectured at Sydney Teachers College and completed a masters thesis that formed the basis of his book Radical and Working Class Politics (1960), which traces the emergence of the Australian labour movement. He won a scholarship to the London School of Economics, where Harold Laski supervised his doctoral thesis.

Gollan had joined the Communist Party at university and was prominent in the Teachers Federation, whose president, Sam Lewis, wanted him to accept a union post. However, Gollan took a research post at the new Australian National University even though it was untenured and paid less, a risky step since he had married the historian and communist Daphne Morris, and they had two children, Klim and Kathy.

The early ANU made scant provision for wives and ASIO vetted academic appointments. To its credit, the university resisted pressure to block Bob's appointment and eventually found a place for Daphne to teach. Gollan flourished in the Research School of Social Sciences, especially after Keith Hancock returned from London to direct it. The two men differed in their politics but both enjoyed bushwalking and fishing; Hancock valued the younger man as a historian of "great integrity" and arranged for him to write a history of the Commonwealth Bank.

Gollan also produced The Coalminers of New South Wales (1963), the first research-based study of an Australian union, establishing a model for the genre. That led him to collect union records and with the economic historian Noel Butlin, who gathered company records, he helped establish the ANU archives as the chief national repository. With Eric Fry he established the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History in 1961. The society's journal, Labour History, became the principal forum for a new kind of history, from below, that enlivened the discipline.

He left the Communist Party after Khrushchev's admission of Stalin's atrocities and the Australian party's refusal to allow discussion of them. He had joined "because it seemed to me the only party fully committed to a struggle for socialism and against fascism". He left in 1957, "because that no longer seemed to be the case". Yet he maintained those principles and his activism revived with the campaign against the Vietnam War and in the peace movement.

Bob and Daphne's marriage ended in the 1960s and he found the research school uncongenial after Hancock's retirement. He was rescued from personal unhappiness by Anne Ayrton, whom he married, and was appointed history professor.

Retiring from the chair in 1981, he moved with Anne to Armands Nook, near Bermagui, where, with help from friends, they built a house. They returned to Canberra at the end of the decade, travelled widely by campervan, and remained active in community life.

Intensely Australian in speech and manner, Bob Gollan was an internationalist. His first overseas trip was in 1941 to a conference in Mexico, rallying support for the war. His incisive mind cut through cant. He was not impressed by academic preening, but his contributions at seminars and conferences were invariably telling. He was a gifted raconteur, who delighted in telling stories that deflated pomposity, and a lively drinking companion. His voice was seldom raised, though instances of bullying or humbug roused him. His decency and sincerity made him a bridge for scholars and activists seeking guidance and support; and through his own scholarship he created the bridge that allows us to understand his generation of activists.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Gollan, Robin Allenby (Bob) (1917–2007)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 22 July 2024.

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