Tag Archives: Australian Dictionary of Biography

Coral Lansbury, the PM’s mother

I think I’ve developed an unhealthy obsession with Malcolm Turnbull’s mother, not least because he was born in October 1954, more than a year before she married his father in December 1955. These things don’t matter a damn any more, but they probably cut quite deep for both mother and son back in the 1950s.

Most Australians know the general outline of the story, now covered in more detail in Paddy Manning’s new book, Born to Rule: The Unauthorised Biography of Malcolm TurnbullMalcolm Turnbull was the only child of Bruce Turnbull and Coral Lansbury. He was sent to boarding school when he was 8, in 1963, and ‘soon after’ – as her Australian Dictionary of Biography article discreetly puts it – the marriage fell apart. Coral left her son behind, but took the furniture. Turnbull talked a little bit about his mother on Annabel Crabb’s Kitchen Cabinet – an old program, repeated on ABC recently after the leadership spill. It’s available on iView until 23 December (in Australia only).

Image 6-12-2015 at 1.00 pm

From Trove Newspapers

From her teens, Coral  worked in radio as an actress and scriptwriter. She married 3 times. Her first marriage was to radio actor George Edwards, who played ‘Dad’ in the long-running radio series Dad and Dave. She was 23, while he was 64, and this was his fourth marriage. Two days after the wedding, Edwards was hospitalized with pneumonia, and died 6 months later in August 1953.

What interests me, though, is that Coral Lansbury was a historian. She was appointed a lecturer in History and Australian Studies at the University of New South Wales in 1963, and wrote articles for the Australian Dictionary of Biography, including one on her first husband, actor George Edwards, one on the trade unionist William Guthrie Spence (with her supervisor, Bede Nairn) and – oddly – one on Charles Dickens.

It is now more than 50 years since the original Australian Dictionary of Biography was conceived, and at present discussions are going on to work out how – and how much – to update the project, just as in the UK the original Dictionary of National Biography has been updated to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Web publishing makes such an update possible, though it is still a massive undertaking. It also requires policy decisions about who does or does not get included. These days I don’t think Charles Dickens would get the cut, although the ADB has included other British figures who never came to Australia, mostly politicians and bureaucrats who had a more obvious influence on the Australian colonies.

In 1970, Coral Lansbury published Arcady in Australia: the evocation of Australia in nineteenth-century English literature (1970), in which she argued that Charles Dickens

invented the Australian Bush Legend. In 1850 he was concerned, like most English people, with a great problem: what to do with all those distressed and unemployed, the rising mob in England. Well, you know what Dickens did. He sent Micawber off to Australia, and there you have him perspiring in the sun. The most unemployable character in literature becomes a magistrate… And the Arcadian legend is born not in Australia but (because) a great many English people… wanted to impose it on Australia.
‘Mum of ‘Spycatcher’ lawyer has regrets’, Canberra Times, 23 October 1988

Coral Lansbury’s academic career followed a strange trajectory, even by the standards of clever women of her day, struggling to carve out a place in the university system during the 1950s and 1960s. She went to the University of Sydney and did a BA with first class honours, but according to her ADB entry, ‘as an unmatriculated student, she was ineligible to graduate’. Why? How could that happen? She won prizes – the George Arnold Wood prize for history, and the Henry Lawson prize for poetry – but it took 11 years from starting an MA in 1952 to appointment as a lecturer at UNSW in 1963, the year that her son Malcolm was sent off to boarding school at the age of 8.

At about that time, her second marriage began to fall apart. She began an affair with a fellow historian, J. H. M. (Jock) Salmon, and they married when both their divorces were finalized. They moved first to the University of Waikato, New Zealand, and then to America, where Coral was appointed Professor and later Dean of Graduate Studies at Rutgers University. Her later academic publications include The Reasonable Man: Trollope’s Legal Fiction (1981), and Elizabeth Gaskell (1984). She also wrote a number of novels. She might have had an even more stellar career, but in 1991 she died of bowel cancer, aged 62.

Two years ago, the Australian Dictionary of Biography produced The ADB’s Story (ed. Melanie Nolan and Christine Fernon) to mark the 50th anniversary of the ADB project. Melanie Nolan also wrote the ADB entry on Coral Lansbury, which may be why Malcolm Turnbull, then Minister for Communications, was invited to launch the book. The full speech is here – but this is how he began:

Can I say at the outset how incredibly moved I was – I nearly burst into tears at the end of this room when I came here – because you were kind enough to mention my Mother was a contributor, not a high-volume contributor, but a contributor to the ADB (Australian Dictionary of Biography). But I was extraordinarily moved talking to you three and to others here, because I was for the first time I can remember, since my Mother’s death, in the company of historians. And I had forgotten what that felt like. And it is actually very different. And I can’t quite put my finger on it but I was nearly overwhelmed by a wave of emotion. So don’t think I’m just a flinty-hearted politician!

Some months ago, Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old archaeologist, was tortured and killed in Palmyra by ISIS thugs. Referring to this terrible event, Tony Abbott called al-Asaad an antiquarian. Now ISIS’s crime was so horrific that it seems churlish to mention in the same breath our former PM’s minor linguistic crime, but I must admit that it is a relief to have a new Prime Minister who knows the difference between an antiquarian and an archaeologist, and one who has expressed publicly his fondness for the company of historians.

Note: The original typescripts of Coral Lansbury’s radio plays are part of the Eunice Hanger Collection of Australian Playscripts in the Fryer Library, University of Queensland.

Phar Lap and the Australian Dictionary of Biography

The Sydney Morning Herald this morning carries an obituary for Ruth Frappell (née Teale).  From 1968, Ruth Teale worked for the Australian Dictionary of Biography where she appears in their ‘Authors’ Roll of Honour’ with 56 articles.

I didn’t know Ruth Teale personally, and it is a long time since I read her book, Colonial Eve: Sources on Women in Australia, 1788-1914 (1978), but various friends and colleagues of mine have worked for the ADB, and I know how important and under-valued such work can be.

Thank you all, for where would we be, as historians, without ready access to dictionaries of biography?  Today I use the ADB and the British Oxford Dictionary of National Biography every week, and American, Canadian and New Zealand equivalents fairly frequently.

So it is ironic but inevitable that, when I cleared out my office earlier this year, and gave away most of my books, nobody wanted my hardback copies of the ADB.  They are available on-line now, and all the more valuable for the added searching opportunities that gives.  (Though while the ADB is freely available on the web, the DNB is only available behind a pay wall.  Ready access is a relative term.)

In their electronic versions, these dictionaries of biography are forever works in progress, updated and corrected as necessary, but it wasn’t ever thus.  Each new hard copy volume of the Australian Dictionary of Biography arrived with an erratum slip, listing a little collection of mistakes from earlier volumes, which the conscientious owner was meant to hand correct.  I remember one such slip said, of some long forgotten sibling to the great man:

For ‘died young’, read ‘lived to a ripe old age in Orange’.

Meanwhile, things converge.

Jimmy Pike riding Phar Lap c. 1930

Jimmy Pike riding Phar Lap c. 1930, from Wikimedia Commons

Melbourne Cup is only 2 weeks away, and not coincidentally a new film, The Cup, has just been released, based on the 2002 Melbourne Cup.  And Black Caviar won her 14th race from 14 starts to equal Phar Lap’s record (and has her own website).

So here, for those who don’t know it already, is Phar Lap’s ADB entry – a great parody written by Barry Andrews for the first Making of Sporting Traditions conference in 1977, later reprinted in the Australian History Association Bulletin, and then in Sporting Traditions (1988).  The National Centre of Biography at the ANU has put it on line here.

LAP, PHAR (1926-32), sporting personality, business associate of modest speculators and national hero, was born on 4 October 1926 at Timaru, New Zealand, the second of eight children of Night Raid and his wife Entreaty, nee Prayer Wheel. The family had military connections, including Carbine and Musket (q.q.v.) although Raid himself had emigrated to Australia during the first World War.

A spindly, unattractive youth with chestnut hair, Lap was educated privately at Timaru until January, 1928, when he formed a liaison with the Sydney entertainment entrepreneur Harold Telford. With Telford, Lap moved to Sydney and established premises in the suburb of Randwick, a number of short term (distance) ventures were unsuccessful, although after James E. Pike (q.v.) commenced employment and Telford became a silent partner, the business flourished. A small, dapper man who dressed flamboyantly in multi-coloured coats and hats, Pike’s nervousness caused him to lose weight before each speculation with Lap; yet their affiliation lasted for over two years and proved beneficial to hundreds of Australian investors.

The most successful years were between 1930 and 1932, when the business expanded into Victoria, South Australia and Mexico. Pike and Lap received numerous awards for services to the entertainment industry, including an MC in 1930; they shared with Telford a gross taxable income of over 50,000 pounds. This income was substantially increased, however, by generous donations from several Sydney publishers, including Ken Ranger and Jack Waterhouse (q.q.v.)

Early in 1930 Lap journey to North America to strengthen his interest there; Telford, who disliked travelling, and Pike, who had weighty problems to contend with, stayed behind. Tall and rangy, known affectionately as ‘Bobby’, ‘The Red Terror’ and occasionally as ‘you mongrel’, Lap died in mysterious circumstances in Atherton, California, on 5 April, 1932, and was buried in California, Melbourne, Canberra and Wellington. A linguist as well as a businessman, he popularised the phrase ‘get stuffed!’ although owing to an unfortunate accident in his youth he left no children.

I. Carter, Phar Lap (Melbourne, 1971), and for bibliog; information from J. O’Hara and T.H. Mouth; inspiration from anon. ADB contributors.