The historian W. K. Hancock, a review

Australian historian believed loss of faith at root of world sickness

A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian W. K. Hancock, by Jim Davidson (University of NSW Press, $59.00)

Why should a subscriber to TMA buy and read this book? I imagine that many subscribers are members of the clergy. These folk may well be interested in how thoroughly Keith Hancock, a son of an Anglican divine, incorporated that spiritual and intellectual inheritance into the fabric and narrative of his own life. The offspring of today’s Anglican clergy, idling a damp afternoon before the family bookshelves, may find a clear reflection of their own lives in the understated passions of an astute, sceptical and enormously influential Australian intellectual.

Surveying the wreckage of the twentieth century from the slightly premature vantage point of the 1930s, Hancock observed: “The disintegration of religion. That is the root of the world’s sickness: it will not recover health until it discovers a new faith or rediscovers the old one by reinterpreting it in the new idioms of life and thought. Without a deep religious change, the politicians will build on sand.” One hardly needs reminding that the world grew progressively sicker as the twentieth century ground on. Jim Davidson’s deeply engaging and enormously erudite exploration of Hancock’s engagement with this sickening tells a story of an individual who did what he could to lay down firm foundations for his world, and ours.

Yet, at more or less the same time we see Hancock pining for a new or reinterpreted faith, he crystallised in his own mind the importance of Machiavelli’s amoral prescriptions of statecraft as an antidote for his “very British preoccupation with right conduct”. And just in time. For in 1941, Hancock’s reputation as a scholar and dominion devotee of the British Empire recommended him as Supervisor and Editor of the Civil Histories of the Second World War. Davidson tells a cracking tale of historians, “Thucydides among the Mandarins”, serving as the corporate memory of a beleaguered empire embroiled in total war. Quoting Jose Harris, Davidson demonstrates how as “[p]erhaps never before or since” the discipline of history “enjoyed higher practical status, both as an indispensable element in wider civic culture and as a potential tool of well-informed public policy.” Perhaps Hancock’s compliance with the stern provisions of the British Official Secrets Act was the price that Hancock and his colleagues had to pay for access to knowledge and to power. As Davidson demonstrates, by being the purveyor of secret information, Hancock was simultaneously less than Thucydides, and much more. These must have been heady days.

For two generations after 1930, every student of Australian history at least perused the pages of Hancock’s elegant Australia. At a time when Australian historians also enjoyed “higher practical status” than they do today, Hancock’s insights hovered at the backs of the minds of thousands of Australian administrators, educators, politicians and intellectuals. Generations of right-thinking Australians would come to agree with Hancock’s gentle admonitions against two of the three dogmas of the Australian civic creed – trade protectionism and state socialism. The third, the White Australia Policy, appealed to Hancock, Davidson acknowledges, as a bulwark against “the internal decomposition and degradation of [white Australians’] own civilisation.” What credit can Hancock take for the fact that all three are now in the rubbish bin of history? Hancock’s opinions on the first two survived the Menzian consensus. Australia is more the child of his sympathies in the year 2011 than it was in 1930. On White Australia, Hancock changed his mind, but not publicly, until after the policy had been abandoned. As a published historian, against the fashions and passions of the day, Davidson demonstrates, Hancock told the truth as he saw it.

Hancock lived long enough to witness the beginning of the eclipse of the “practical status” of the discipline of history. Davidson shows him deploring the gathering darkness of historical amnesia that enveloped Australia by the mid 1970s. But never fear, Hancock perceived a destiny, based on Christian eschatology, whose trajectory was benign, despite any indications to the contrary.

However, contrariwise, Davidson’s last view of Hancock is of a man fearing hellfire, clinging to the door jamb of an ambulance as he was carted away to his deathbed.

Davidson has revealed the life of an intelligent and learned man confronting the Age of Doubt. This is a book that any clergy should leave lying about for their children to find and for any other intelligent person living in this world built on foundations of sand.
Peter Newbury retired last year after 30 years as Head of History at Melbourne Grammar School.


A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian W.K. Hancock
by Jim Davidson
UNSW Press, $59.95, pp 624
ISBN 9781742231266

Reflecting on his life’s work, W.K. Hancock once recalled that during the years from 1925 to 1935 the study of nationalism was his ‘main preoccupation’. He ‘felt that nationalism was the main driving force behind the anarchic sovereignties of the 20th century, and… believed that the optimistic liberal verdict upon the national movements of the 19th century called for revision’.

Jim Davidson’s masterly biography shows that much of Hancock’s greatest work was written in that decade. Even his first and least well-known book — a study of Ricasoli and the Risorgimento in Tuscany (1926) — was animated by the contemporary context; in this case the rise of fascism in Italy. ‘After Mazzini,’ Hancock often asked himself at that time, ‘how Mussolini?’ His classic one-volume work, Australia (1930) was followed by the magisterial first volume of his Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs (1937), a thesis which epitomised his liberal imperialism and elaborated on the tension between empire and liberty, particularly in hotspots such as South Africa, Palestine and Ireland.

Hancock enjoyed a stellar rise through the academic ranks: a graduate of the University of Melbourne, he was a Rhodes Scholar and the first Australian Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He successively held chairs in history at the Universities of Adelaide, Birmingham, Oxford and London and at the ANU in Canberra.

In addition to the aforementioned works, he edited the multi-volume Civil Series of the Official British History of the Second World War, produced a two-volume biography of the South African statesman Jan Smuts and wrote a pioneering environmental history of the Monaro district around Canberra. He also had a good pair of boots. Hancock held fast to the maxim of the great French scholar and second world war resistance hero, Marc Bloch, who once opined that historians had to be more than just ‘useful antiquarians’. He was active in public life, from keeping watch on the roof of St Paul’s Cathedral during the London Blitz to leading a constitutional commission to Uganda in the 1950s, from protesting the construction of the Black Mountain Tower in Canberra in the 1970s to arguing against the presence of US defence installations on Australian soil. It was an active pattern of civic engagement. Hancock, as Davidson shows, was never one to miss an opportunity. He was adept at seizing the moment.

And yet for all the stunning intellectual achievement and public visibility, Hancock’s name now struggles for recognition in Australia. The very fact that the book’s title is compelled to identify him as ‘the historian W.K. Hancock’ suggests that beyond the halls of academe, and perhaps a few of the more historically conscious bureaucrats in Canberra, his name is now barely known — eclipsed, it would seem, by the name and legacy of Manning Clark.

After reading this work, however, few would disagree with Davidson that Hancock has the stronger claim to be the best historian that Australia has produced. Today Clark’s works are barely seen on reading lists in history departments across the country, and if they are, it is more often to examine the way in which Clark changed so dramatically from being a critic of the radical nationalist myth to becoming one of its chief standard-bearers. Hancock could never have opted for the pretentious and self-indulgent prophecy that epitomised some of Clark’s later writings and antics.

More to the point, Hancock’s Australia (1930) continues to resonate: it remains the most influential work written about the country and, unlike Clark’s works, is still debated in undergraduate tutorials. In it Hancock ranged widely, looking at questions of politics and population, the economy and education, agriculture and the Aborigines. He brought to the task many fields of social inquiry, including town planning, constitutional law, geography and literary criticism, as well as a crucial international context: ‘For good or ill,’ he wrote in the early pages, ‘Australia has had enforced upon her the inheritance of all the ages.’

That book has not only had a seminal influence on how Australians understand the role of the state — ‘to the Australian the state means collective power at the service of individualistic rights’ — it has had no less an influence on the question of national identity and loyalty: ‘Among the Australians,’ Hancock observed, ‘pride of race counted for more than love of country… Defining themselves as Independent Australian Britons they believed each word essential and exact, but laid most stress upon the last.’ It was a formulation which eschewed the idea that Australian nationalism and British race patriotism need be inherently contradictory. Rather they could be mutually reinforcing. Radical nationalists chafed at it then; some still do so today.

But in the end even this academic who rode the ‘red carpet to the heart of empire’ had to watch as the rapidly shifting dynamics of the postwar world brought about its dissolution. And Hancock had his own blind spots. He showed little interest in India or indeed America and gave little away about his reaction to the end of empire both in Australia and across the globe. Beyond his lament for Gough Whitlam’s brutal excision of the word ‘Commonwealth’ from official Australian nomenclature, it is hard to discern how Hancock dealt with the increasing obsolescence of the imperial ideal in Australia and elsewhere.

But Davidson does chart the remarkable transformation in Hancock’s world-view: from his membership of the Round Table — an organisation whose ideal was an Imperial Parliament sitting in London to govern for all the Empire (though Hancock himself never subscribed to that particular pledge) — to being an advocate of a neutral, nuclear-free Australia in the 1980s. That in itself was quite an intellectual and ideological odyssey.

Davidson has produced a richly textured work, a meticulously researched and elegantly written study of a life and mind. It cannot have been easy. Hancock, cunningly enough, left no consolidated set of personal papers, and Davidson has had to piece together that life across archives in Australia, the UK, South Africa and elsewhere. It is a stunning achievement, a classic account of the forces that shaped this scholar and the forces he himself helped to shape.

Davidson portrays a historian ultimately fascinated by power, craving acceptance from the British elite, but ever keen to remind his peers that despite his global roaming he retained his Australian essence. That tension between Country and Calling, the title of the first volume of his autobiography, animates Hancock’s life. But Hancock knew, like all good historians, the danger of absolutes. ‘An Historian,’ he once wrote, ‘is not a smart person who knows all the answers, but a persistent one who has come to grips with a few very difficult questions.’


Jim Davidson, A Three-Cornered Life: The Historian W. K. Hancock (University of New South Wales Press, 2010)

Reviewed by Selwyn Cornish1

W. K. (Sir Keith) Hancock, a founder of the Australian National University, is sometimes regarded as Australia’s pre-eminent historian. His work, however, is not as well known as that of some other Australian historians, among them Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey. And while he produced a number of autobiographical works, important details of his life remained obscure. This new biography by Jim Davidson, comprehensively researched and beautifully written, should help to make Hancock’s life and work better known, though the scale of the book, and the academic nature of its contents, will doubtless limit its readership. Even so, it deserves to be widely read. Australians are generally reluctant to praise tall poppies, preferring instead to cut them down. But as we mature as a nation our failure to accord due recognition to those who have achieved excellence in intellectual pursuits might change. This book will assist us, for Hancock deserves our admiration for his outstanding historical research, which Davidson discusses at great length and superbly well.
Hancock was born in Melbourne in 1898 and died in Canberra in 1988. The son of an Anglican clergyman, he spent his early years in Bairnsdale, Victoria. He attended Melbourne Grammar and later the University of Melbourne, where he was a resident at Trinity College. Majoring in history, he graduated with first-class honours. Upon the completion of his degree he accepted a temporary lectureship at the University of Western Australia, a position offered to him by Edward Shann, the university’s professor of history and economics. Shann urged him to apply for a Rhodes scholarship, which he did, and he was successful. Hancock then went to Balliol College, Oxford, where he was influenced by the Master of Balliol, the redoubtable A. L. Smith, and by the historians Humphrey Sumner and Kenneth Bell. Taking first-class honours in modern history, he was immediately elected to a Prize Fellowship at All Souls College, the first Australian to become a Fellow of All Souls, one of the most prestigious academic appointments in the world. After a visit to Tuscany he became interested in nineteenth-century Italian political history and wrote his first book on Ricasoli and the Risorgimento in Tuscany (1926). After marrying an Australian, Hancock returned to Australia to take up the chair of modern history at the University of Adelaide. Aged 24, he was the youngest professor in the British Commonwealth.
In Adelaide, Hancock wrote his second book, and perhaps his most enduring work, a history of Australia since the foundation of European settlement. It remains, as Davidson rightly adjudges, ‘one of the classic accounts of this country’. More recently, the book, entitled Australia (1930), has acquired something of a cult status, especially among those who are opposed to government intervention in the economy. In it, Hancock was critical of key elements of the ‘Australian settlement’, the collection of economic policies that were adopted in large measure after the devastating depression of the 1890s. They included tariff protection, compulsory arbitration and state socialism. These policies, Hancock contended, had restricted competition, inhibited productivity growth, and would lead ultimately to stagnation. He preferred the more open society that had emerged in Australia during the nineteenth century, dependent as it was on an economy devoted to international trade, free markets and private ownership. This form of economy had transformed Australia from a penal settlement to a nation possessing the highest standards of living in the world, a remarkable feat that had taken scarcely a century to achieve. Hancock’s pursuit of this central theme owed much to his earlier association with Shann, whose Economic History of Australia, published in the same year as Hancock’s book, followed a similar theme. Shann had disparaged policies underpinning what he called a ‘hermit economy’; Hancock shared the same disdain for excessive regulation. It was also Shann, it seems, who opened Hancock’s eyes to the critical importance of economic history for the comprehension of historical processes.
After tiring of Adelaide, and disappointed with the limited engagement by Australians in intellectual discourse, Hancock returned to England, where he was appointed to the chair of modern history at the University of Birmingham. There he was invited to undertake a survey of political, economic and social affairs in the British Commonwealth. This work entailed extensive international travel, especially to such trouble spots as Ireland, Palestine and South Africa. It resulted in the Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs, a massive work published in two volumes between 1937 and 1942 (volume 2 was so extensive that it had to be published in two parts). This acclaimed work led to his recognition as the world’s leading authority on the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth. It led as well, in 1941, to his appointment as General Editor of the civilian volumes of the Official History of Britain in the Second World War. From an office in Whitehall he commissioned and edited 27 of the 28 volumes in the series and, with Margaret Gowing, he wrote the volume on the British economy during the war. In 1944 he was appointed Chichele Professor of Economic History in the University of Oxford.
When the war ended, Hancock was invited to become one of the four so-called maestros appointed to advise the Interim Council of the newly established ANU. Hancock was assigned responsibility for planning the creation of the Research School of Social Sciences (RSSS), one of the original four research schools. It was expected that he would become the Foundation Director of RSSS, but he initially declined the offer, finally taking it up in 1957, when he was also appointed inaugural Professor of History. His reluctance to join the ANU at its foundation arose in part because of problems he encountered when attempting to recruit staff of the quality he thought should occupy senior academic positions in RSSS (this reviewer has written about Hancock’s difficulties with the appointment of the first professor of economics at ANU).2 There were also disagreements with the Interim Council, among them its rejection of Hancock’s idea that the RSSS and the Research School of Pacific Studies should have the same director (namely Hancock), at least in the university’s formative years.
Instead of joining the ANU in the late 1940s, Hancock became the director of the new Institute of Commonwealth Studies, and Professor of British Commonwealth Affairs, in the University of London. There he wrote and edited historical works on the British Commonwealth. In 1954 he was invited by the governor of Uganda, Sir Andrew Cohen, to conduct a mission to resolve a constitutional dispute between the governor and the Kingdom of Buganda. The mission was a success, with Hancock brokering an agreement that was acceptable to the parties involved. Before he embarked on the mission, he had accepted an invitation by Cambridge University Press to write a major biography of the South African Prime Minister and statesman, Field Marshall Jan Christian Smuts. After completing the biography, and following his retirement from the chair of history at ANU, Hancock wrote a pioneering work of regional and environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972). In his retirement he also wrote several books of essays on various topics, historical and political, as well as additional autobiographical pieces. Before his retirement, he had taken the leading role in the creation of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, one of the great national publishing enterprises arising from the ANU, and was one of the founders of the Academy of the Humanities. In his later years, he became an environmentalist and a peace activist, opposing the building of the telecommunications tower on Black Mountain in Canberra, and writing and speaking against the spread and use of nuclear power and weapons.
Davidson devotes a separate chapter to Hancock’s difficult marriage to Theaden, his first wife. They had met at Melbourne University in 1918 when they were both studying history; they graduated in the same honours class. The marriage lasted for 40 years, ending with Theaden’s death from cancer after a long illness. Both wanted to have children but they remained childless, their hopes finally being dashed when Theaden was advised to have a hysterectomy. Hancock’s career dominated the marriage. He dedicated himself to his work and Theaden felt neglected. She began to paint, and was moderately successful. Within hours of her death, Hancock destroyed all their letters to each other, and he quickly remarried his research assistant. This correspondence, had it survived, would have opened up Hancock’s private life to greater scrutiny; as it is, we know little about it.
From the available biographical material Davidson distils a number of central themes. One is the difficulty Hancock experienced when coming to grips with the fact that he was both an Australian and an historian, what Davidson refers to as Hancock’s ‘attachment to Australia and advancement in England’. Hancock himself confessed that he was ‘in love with two soils’. He called his major work in autobiography Country and Calling, which illuminates this ambiguity. Hancock was an Australian historian but, unlike Clark and Blainey, he never wanted to be regarded simply as an historian of Australia. His writing embraced a number of countries, and he worked for most of his professional life outside Australia. Davidson seeks to capture the essence of this ambiguity, between love of country and desire for professional recognition overseas, in the phrase, A Three-Cornered Life, which he adopts as the title of his book: England, Australia and Italy (later replaced by South Africa) were the three corners of Hancock’s world. He frequently referred to himself as an ‘independent Australian Briton’, a phrase that had been coined by Alfred Deakin, Australia’s second prime minister.
Attention is also drawn to Hancock’s upbringing in a strong Christian household and the influence of his father in the moulding of his ethical and moral outlook. Hancock’s ‘Christian-based liberal humanism’ is mentioned several times in the book. ‘Liberalism’, Davidson contends, ‘was the projection of such values into the public arena; it had become predicated on an applied Christian ethic’. According to Davidson, ‘Hancock provides a text-book stance of how old-fashioned liberalism was predicated on traditional Christian values’. A senior Oxford historian (Reginald Coupland) wrote of Hancock that ‘Any book of his is — as he puts it — a confession of faith’. An ANU colleague (Robin Gollan) wrote that Hancock was ‘driven by a moral impulse which found expression in his work as a rare mixture of science and art’.
Davidson’s coverage of Hancock’s work, and his recording of the major events in Hancock’s life, is generally done well. And yet, Hancock remains an enigma. His autobiographical writing, like Davidson’s biography, rehearsed aspects of his work and career. But not much was revealed about his inner thoughts and motivations. The same can be said of Davidson’s biography. We are told that Hancock was ambitious: one his colleagues at All Souls (A. L. Rowse) said about Hancock that ‘If a door opened before him, he could not but go through it’. We know that he was a brilliant historian: an Australian historian (Stuart MacIntyre) has said that ‘If there were a Nobel Prize for history, Hancock would surely have won it’. He was knighted twice and received from the Republic of Italy the Order of Merit; nine universities conferred honorary doctorates upon him. He was strongly committed to his academic work: his impressive list of published work is testimony to that. As to his private thoughts and feelings, they remain a mystery.


Cornish, Selwyn 2007, ‘The Appointment of the ANU’s First Professor of Economics’, History of Economics Review 46: 1–18.
1 Research School of Economics, College of Business and Economics, The Australian National University;


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