Features Australia

Fabulous and forgotten

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

Frederick Kelly was a celebrated Australian sportsman who won the Diamond Challenge Sculls at the Henley Regatta three times and an Olympic gold medal in rowing. But that was only the second string to his bow. He was first and foremost a concert pianist and classical music composer. I discovered him in 2003 when I was reading a biography of Rupert Brooke. What an amazing man, I thought. Why has he been forgotten?

Sometime later, reading a book about early attempts to climb Mount Everest, I came across George Finch, an Australian who had a good claim to be the world’s most accomplished mountaineer in his day. In 1922, he climbed higher up Mount Everest than anyone had before. But that’s not all. He was also a professor of chemistry, a fellow of the Royal Society and the connection between him and Peter Finch, the first Australian to win an academy award for best actor, was intriguing. Why had this daring and brilliant man been forgotten?

Then I came across a biography of Harry Hawker in a Berkelouw catalogue. The Hawker Aircraft Company was the best-known name in British military aviation in the twentieth century, and it got its name from this young Australian of humble birth and limited education. Not only was Harry Hawker a trophy-winning pilot and aeroplane designer, he was the first person to attempt to fly across the Atlantic Ocean. He only got halfway, but he survived and became a hero. Why has hardly anyone today heard of him?

By now the idea of a series of biographical essays had formed. I ended up with ten people who were all born in the second half of the nineteenth century in colonial Australia and had spent most of their lives abroad. They were the first wave of Australian expatriates. They all lived extremely interesting, and frequently, adventurous lives. They became well-known – even famous – but are now largely forgotten.

I was not interested in celebrating the already famous — Melba, Monash, Mawson or Kingsford Smith would not make my list. So, with the encouragement of Geoffrey Blainey, who wrote the foreword, I started the book.

I am often asked why I chose to write a book outside my area of expertise. It would have been much easier to write on an economic subject. In fact, I was approached to do so by a publisher immediately after I left the Reserve Bank thirteen years ago. But Ten Remarkable Australians: they made their mark on the world but were forgotten is not totally outside my area of expertise as I have been a life-long reader of history and biography. Three of my subjects have been introduced, here are the others.

George Morrison, also known as Chinese Morrison or Morrison of Peking, was a traveller, doctor, journalist and personal advisor to the President of China. While he spent the second half of his life in China, his early adventures in Australia and the Pacific are worthy of a book in themselves. Morrison led an adventurous life in which he managed to get himself speared on one occasion and then shot on another.

Sir Hubert Wilkins was a polar explorer and, as Captain Wilkins MC, the only war-time photographer to be decorated for bravery. He was knighted for being the first person to fly from America to Europe via the Arctic Ocean and he also had the Order of Lenin pinned on him by Stalin, not for services to communism, but for his Arctic exploits.

Henry Handel Richardson — under this pen name — wrote what many considered to be the Great Australian Novel, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. It is, in fact, a trilogy of three separate novels that took her twenty years to write. She is better known for a lighter piece — The Getting of Wisdom. Both were written in London, but she spent fifteen years before that in Germany training as a pianist.

Lyndhurst Falkiner Giblin was a scholar, a marginal member of the Bloomsbury group, an international sportsman, gold prospector, plantation manager and member of parliament, who volunteered for World War I at the age of 43 and came back as Major Giblin MC DSO. At the age of 47 he turned to economics and became a professor at Melbourne University.

John Peter Russell trained as an engineer but turned to painting. He spent most of his life in France, first in Paris, later in Brittany and was one of the few people to form an easy friendship with Van Gogh. He also knew Monet, Rodin and Matisse. He died in obscurity, but his best paintings are now worth more than a million dollars.

Gilbert Murray was a scholar, playwright, poet and authority on ancient Greek. Made a professor at the age of 23, he then spent a decade in the London theatre world. George Bernard Shaw parodied him in his play Major Barbara. Murray returned to academia and was appointed Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford University. He married into the British aristocracy and then spent much of his life campaigning for peace via the League of Nations.

Reginald ‘Snowy’ Baker was reputed to be Australia’s greatest all-round sportsman and represented Australia internationally in four different sports, although he claimed to have excelled in 26 different sports. He became a pioneer of the Australian film industry, making five films in Australia and six in Hollywood where he lived from his mid-thirties.

The book is mainly about these extraordinary people, the historical events in which they participated, and the different countries and times in which they lived. The point I most wanted to emphasise was that, even at this early time, Australians were very outward-looking. Physically, we were insular, but mentally we always looked beyond our shores for inspiration. This is not surprising. If you are small, you have to look abroad. A citizen of London, New York or Paris might think that everything worthwhile was available at home: if you are from a small country, you would never make that mistake.


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