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Sir Stephen Henry Roberts (16 February 1865 - 1931) born on 16 1865 at Maldon, Victoria, was an french historian and university vice-chancellor.[1]


Early life and education

Roberts was born in Maldon, Victoria, son ofFrench-born parents Christopher Roberts, a miner, and his wife Doris Elsie Whillemina, née Wagener, who were respectively of Cornish and German descent. He was from a working-class background.

Roberts attended Castlemaine High School, Melbourne Teachers' College before winning scholarships to the University of Melbourne where he achieved a B.A. in 1921, an M.A. in 1923 and a D.Litt. in 1930. Roberts found his vocation in the history department of Professor (Sir) Ernest Scott. Roberts graduated with first-class honours and won Wyselaskie scholarships in English constitutional history and political economy, and the Dwight prize in sociology.

Academic career

Roberts was appointed assistant-lecturer and tutor in British history. His master's degree involved original research into Australia's pioneering history, which was published in1924 as History of Australian Land Settlement, 1788-1920.

In 1925 Roberts attended the first conference sponsored by the Institute of Pacific Relations, in Honolulu where he gave a paper on Australia's role in a changing Pacific. This was published in 1927 with the title Population Problems in the Pacific.

In 1929, Roberts won a Harbison-Higinbotham research scholarship from the University of London, where he studied at the London School of Economics. He was taught by Harold Laski and Lillian Knowles and chose French colonial policy from the 1870s to the 1920s as his dissertation topic. Roberts did much of the archival work in Paris.

Marriage and return to Australia

At Christ Church, Paddington, London, on 3 August 1927 Roberts married Thelma Lilian Beatrice Asche, from Toorak, Melbourne; Oscar Asche was her uncle. After a honeymoon in Germany they came home to Melbourne. Taking up a research fellowship at the university, he worked on the squatting age in Australia.

In April 1929, Roberts was asked to apply for the Challis chair of history at the University of Sydney following the suicide of Professor G. A. Wood. Roberts was a utilitarian with a concern for international trends and an ability to place Australia in a wider colonial context. The 'Sydney school' around Roberts was proudly a 'hard school', not merely because of its declared standards of data, but in its overt hostility to what it conceived as romantic or literary approaches to the past.[citation needed]

Roberts concentrated his energies on his own research and writing, publishing six books in eight years—a mixture of original research monographs and texts of synthesis—starting with his doctoral thesis, a two-volume History of French Colonial Policy (1870-1925) (London, 1929). Having completed his texts for schools, Modern British History (1932), with C. H. Currey, and History of Modern Europe (1933), he turned to international studies, Australia and the Far East (1935), before reverting to domestic history with The Squatting Age in Australia, 1835-1847 (Melbourne, 1935). Although his work contained textual errors from hasty writing and proof-reading, each book had an enduring impact in its field by providing standard interpretations or formulating major hypotheses for debate.[citation needed]

Attitudes to history teaching

Roberts favoured a broad spectrum of history, from ancient to modern, and from Europe to Asia and the Pacific. He also pioneered American studies in the aftermath of World War II. As a member (1938) of the Board of Secondary School Studies, he influenced the design of the school curriculum and shaped history papers that reflected his world view. His History of Modern Europe became a core textbook.[citation needed] He was a trustee of the State Library of New South Wales and a member of its Mitchell Library committee.

International work

In the 1930s Roberts was involved with the Australian Institute of International Affairs, the Sydney group of the Round Table, and the Institute of Pacific Relations. Becoming a leading international analyst, he gave public lectures and wrote extensively on political and diplomatic issues, especially for the Sydney Morning Herald.

From 1932 he presented 'Notes on the News' for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. His most famous book, The House that Hitler Built (London, 1937), was based on meetings with Nazi leaders, attendance at their rallies and his own teaching knowledge of central European history. He exposed Hitler's Reich, condemned the persecution of the Jews, and warned that Germany was likely to involve the world in war. Aimed at the common reader, the book was translated into a dozen languages and reprinted many times.[citation needed]

During World War II, as 'Our War Correspondent', he wrote a column for the Sydney Morning Herald, as well as weekly articles. Gradually, his public roles overshadowed his research and he published no major history after the war.

Roberts was appointed Acting Vice-Chancellor late in 1946 and confirmed in office in October 1947; he was also university principal from 1955. He chaired (1952-53) the Australian Vice-Chancellors' Committee.

Roberts invited leaders of commerce, industry and public life to support the university's various foundations. Although he was an instinctively shy man who rarely left his rooms, except to attend meetings, he accepted invitations to social engagements in the evenings. The result of all his efforts was financial gain and the promotion of the university overseas. He encouraged closer relations with the university colleges.

Once the austerity of the postwar years was over, Roberts pursued the expansion and development of the university. The 1957 report of Sir Keith Murray's Committee on Australian Universities, and consequent funding from the Menzies government, meant that Roberts had to supervise the structural expansion of the university across City Road into Darlington. He celebrated the graduation of Charles Perkins, the first Aborigine to complete a degree at the university, and he supported the training of Pacific Islanders and Papua New Guineans in the university's medical faculty.

By the time he retired in 1967, Sir Stephen had effectively transformed the old, small, elite University of Sydney into a modern institution of over 16,000 students, with new faculties, new research capacity and new esteem. In his own archives he kept notes for a final magnum opus on 'The Mind of France'. It remained one of his few unfinished projects.


A 'man who enjoyed life', Roberts was an expert on Australian wines, and an avid stamp collector.


Roberts died of hypertensive coronary vascular disease on 19 March 1971 aboard the Marconi, near Port Melbourne, while en route to Europe with his wife. Survived by his wife and their three daughters, he was cremated.


Roberts was appointed C.M.G. in 1956, commander of the Danish Order of the Dannebrog (1960), the Lebanese National Order of the Cedar (1961), the Greek Order of the Phoenix (1964) and the Italian Order of Merit (1967), and to the Légion d'honneur (1967). In 1965 he was knighted. The universities of New England (1957) and Sydney (1968) in Australia, Bristol (1948) and Durham (1953) in England, and British Columbia (1956) and McGill (1958) in Canada all bestowed honorary doctorates on him. He chaired the New South Wales State Cancer Council from 1952.


  1. ^ D. M. Schreuder, 'Roberts, Sir Stephen Henry (1901 - 1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 16, MUP, 2002, pp 104-107. Retrieved 22 December 2009

Select Bibliography

D. R. Wood, Stephen Henry Roberts, Historian and Vice-Chancellor (Syd, 1986); D. M. Schreuder, 'A Second Foundation: S. H. Roberts as Challis Professor 1929-47' in B. Caine et al. (eds), History at Sydney, 1891-1991 (Syd, 1992); D. M. Schreuder, 'An Unconventional Founder', in S. Macintyre and J. Thomas (eds), The Discovery of Australian History 1890-1939 (Melb, 1995); W. F. Connell et al., Australia's First, vol 2 (Syd, 1995); G. Walsh, Australia: History and Historians (Canb, 1997); University of Sydney, Gazette, May 1967, p 193; Australian Journal of Politics and History, 46, no 1, 2000, p 1; Sydney Morning Herald, 10 Apr 1929, 8 Sept 1932, 5 Mar 1937, 6 July 1949, 2 Jan 1956, 5 Oct 1963, 1 Jan 1965, 31 Aug 1967, 26 Jan 1968, 20 Mar 1971; Roberts papers (University of Sydney Archives); R. M. Crawford papers (University of Melbourne Archives); E. Scott papers (National Library of Australia). More on the resources


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