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Howell, Peter Anthony (1938–2021)

by David Hilliard

Peter Howell, 2017

Peter Howell, 2017

ADB Archives

Peter Anthony Howell was born in Devonport, Tasmania on 25 December 1938, the only child of Alan Thomas Howell and Mary Alice Howell (née Tolhurst). He received his schooling at Catholic parish schools and St Virgil’s College in Hobart. After two years studying medicine at the University of Queensland, he realised that this was not for him and returned to his family in Hobart to begin a BA in History at the University of Tasmania. There he was taught and influenced by two significant historians: John McManners, who was soon appointed to a chair at the University of Sydney and ended up as Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, and Douglas Pike, who became the first general editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Peter then wrote an MA thesis on the Boothby case – the dismissal in 1867 of a difficult South Australian judge. From Tasmania he went, on a postgraduate scholarship, to Cambridge University where he undertook a PhD in History, supervised by Derek Beales. The book derived from his doctoral thesis, The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, 1833–1876 (Cambridge University Press, 1979) is still well regarded internationally and was reprinted in 2008. 

In 1968 Peter moved to Adelaide to take up a lectureship in History at Flinders University. He remained there until his retirement from teaching in 1999. In 1973 he married Louise Deakin of Melbourne, a graduate in medicine. Their marriage was underpinned by a shared religious faith. 

At Flinders, Peter continued his interest in constitutional, legal and political history, particularly that of South Australia. He embarked on a project to write a history of the social and political role of the governors of South Australia but sadly never completed it. However, it did lead to his writing ADB entries on ten governors. After the death of his colleague Jim Main in 1984, Peter took over Jim’s Honours topic on the history of South Australia; this drew students from Adelaide University as well as from Flinders. Peter was promoted to Associate Professor in 1985 and was head of the History department in 1989–90. His lively survey of South Australia at the beginning of the twentieth century, South Australia and Federation, was published in 2002 but it did not get the attention it deserved. 

In addition to his academic studies Peter was active in bringing history to the community and was an adviser on South Australian history to several organisations. He was a foundation member of the Historical Society of South Australia in 1974, president of the Society in 1979–80 and served on its council. Over the years he gave ten lectures to the Society, on a variety of topics: vice-regal lives, colourful individuals, and the origins of the Hills hoist rotary clothes-line. 

In addition, Peter contributed to public debate on constitutional, legal and political matters. He advised the Australian and British governments on legislative matters relating to the Privy Council, and in 1995 he chaired the South Australian Constitutional Advisory Council. 

Peter’s most enduring work was done with the Australian Dictionary of Biography. In 1974 he was appointed to the South Australia Working Party of the ADB. In 1996 he succeeded John Playford as chair and section editor, and as a member of the national editorial board. He played a major part in the selection of South Australian entries for the ADB, carefully reviewing the ‘blues’ and often doing additional research to correct errors or if he suspected that authors were whitewashing their subjects. Peter achieved a remarkable record of forty-six articles, on a wide variety of individuals connected with South Australia. He relished the opportunity to explore a completely new subject. He had at least one entry in each of the volumes published to date, with four entries in volume 19, launched a few days after his death. In recognition of his significant contribution over many years, in 2016 he was awarded the Medal of the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Peter’s strengths as an historian were his capacity for detailed research, his wide general knowledge and retentive memory, his willingness to challenge established orthodoxies, and his vigorous and witty writing style. He found it hard to write a dull sentence. He was widely regarded as a conservative. At Flinders when teaching he always wore a jacket and tie, he instinctively looked to tradition, precedent and the letter of the law, he enjoyed the company of top people and he was a member for twenty-five years of the Adelaide Club. In fact Peter was never quite predictable. A devout and well-informed Catholic, he was generous in his religious sympathies and supported some of the reforming movements within the Church. During the debate in the 1990s over whether Australia should become a republic, Peter began defending the monarchist side but came to support the case for a republic. He was willing to challenge those in authority when he felt they were wrong or had misused their position; indeed he rather enjoyed the ensuing debate. Peter’s daughter Catherine aptly described her father as a ‘Red Tory’. 

Several times, in our retirement, Peter and I went away together on trips to rural South Australia, to Yorke Peninsula and the Mid-North, exploring the region and visiting places associated with ADB subjects on whom he was writing. He was a congenial travelling companion – well informed and interested in everything we saw.   

During the last four years Peter’s health declined. In 2019 he reluctantly resigned as chair of the South Australia Working Party but he remained involved in its work and completed his final entry, on Ward McNally (‘criminal and author’). Finding the truth about this elusive subject tested all of Peter’s detective skills. He died at the Mary Potter Hospice in North Adelaide on 5 March, survived by Louise and their three children, Catherine, John and Elizabeth.

Original publication

View the list of ADB articles written by Peter Anthony Howell

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Hilliard, 'Howell, Peter Anthony (1938–2021)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/howell-peter-anthony-31826/text39284, accessed 25 September 2021.

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