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Nairn, Noel Bede (1917–2006)

by G. P. Walsh

from Life Celebrations: ANU Obituaries 2000-2021 (ed. by James Fox), Australian National University

Bede Nairn, who died recently after a long illness, will long be remembered as one of Australia’s leading labour historians, the leading authority on the New South Wales Labor Party, and as a notable editor and co-editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography (ADB), the largest historical project ever undertaken in Australia.

Born in 1917 at Turill on the Mudgee-Cassilis Road, the youngest of six children, he grew up in hard times, which did much to shape his sympathies and vision as a historian of the labour movement. His ancestry also underpinned his impeccable labour credentials. In the 1830s, one of his four great-grandfathers was a settler near Mudgee, one a convict who became a shepherd, one was an assisted migrant and the other a soldier. By the 1870s, all four families were gathered in the Mudgee area—Henry Lawson country. His four grandparents, all born in New South Wales, were of Irish, English and Scottish (Nairn) origin, and all Catholic. His parents were active members of the Labor Party’s 50-strong Turill branch representing the cause of the poverty-stricken battlers of the area.

In 1923 the family moved to Bathurst Street West in Sydney, ‘almost a slum’, close by the Trades Hall. His parents immediately joined the Millers Point branch of the party; Bede joined when he was 15. Leaving St Mary’s Cathedral School with his Intermediate Certificate, he joined the public service as a clerk at the Sydney Technical College—and by studying in the evening, he gained his matriculation and a good honours degree from the University of Sydney in 1945. He taught history at the Technical College from 1948 and then at the new University of Technology, now the University of New South Wales. After taking a Sydney first-class MA, he spent the year 1957 at Balliol College, Oxford, on a Rockefeller grant studying British trade unions, and in 1961 was appointed Associate Professor of History at the University of New South Wales. All this time, his research into the labour movement and his activities as a party member brought him into contact with every prominent Labor politician in New South Wales.

He joined the ADB project at The Australian National University in 1966; and after the death of the founding general editor, Douglas Pike, in 1974, he became joint general editor with the late Geoffrey Serle for the next 10 years. In addition to his exacting editorial duties, he also contributed about 80 articles to the project, writing mostly about Labor men; but he did also a few gems on sportsmen, including the cricketers Victor Trumper and Archie Jackson and the jockey Darby Munro.

He published many fine journal articles on 19th-century Australian political history, co-edited Economic Growth of Australia, 1788–1821, and wrote two significant books, Civilising Capitalism: The Labor Movement in New South Wales, 1870–1900 (1973) and The ‘Big Fella’: Jack Lang and the ALP, 1891–1949 (1986). Civilising Capitalism tells the story of the part played by the trade unions in New South Wales in forming the parliamentary Labor Party in 1891 at a time when triumphant capitalism was lurching out of control. He wrote it to ‘set the record straight’ and in response to the charge that the Labor Party had failed as a revolutionary party and was fatally compromised as a party of reform. The ‘Big Fella’ is a lively and definitive biography of the colourful and menacing Jack Lang, premier of New South Wales during the Great Depression. In it, Narin leaves us in no doubt that Lang was wrong: it was John Curtin and J.B. Chifley who were right!

A skilful teacher, writer and editor, he possessed the historian’s necessary qualifications of thoroughness and accuracy, and wrote characteristically with passion about the labour movement’s achievements, ‘from the bottom up’, as he championed the Labor Party as the main civilising political force in Australia. Humility and firmness of principle shine through his writings. He was critical of those historians who combined the search for truth with dubious constructs and fads derived from sociology, political science and psychology. These, he held, deflected historical research and writing away from their true purpose into arid problematical arguments about the definition of such concepts as ‘class’ inapplicable to Australia. He wrote history according to the evidence and not according to an ideology: his canons were integrity and common sense. To him, honesty was never old‑fashioned, and certainly not to be abandoned to the pursuit of some post-modernist artifice.

A humble, gentle and lovable scholar, Bede Nairn was always willing to share his great knowledge of his craft with young and upcoming historians. A good cricketer in his day, he was an avid follower and student of cricket, rugby league (South Sydney) and the turf. He is survived by his wife, Jean, three sons, three daughters, many grandchildren and great‑grandchildren.

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Citation details

G. P. Walsh, 'Nairn, Noel Bede (1917–2006)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/nairn-noel-bede-32839/text40866, accessed 6 December 2022.

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