Geoffrey Bolton and the Writing of Australian History

 By Lyndon Megarrity



  1. Can you provide us with a broad overview of Geoffrey Bolton’s life and career?

Born in Perth in 1931, Geoffrey Curgenven Bolton was educated at Wesley College, Perth, with the assistance of a scholarship. As Bolton himself noted, his decision to become an historian was taken at around the age of 15 or 16 when ‘my schoolteacher had asked me my career intentions … he asked me if I was aware that there were people called university lecturers whose job it was … to teach history and perhaps to write about it. This was a revelation, and I acted on it promptly.’[1]

In 1948, Geoffrey enrolled at the University of Western Australia where he completed an honours thesis on explorer-politician Alexander Forrest (published as a book in 1958) and an MA thesis on the Kimberley pastoral industry. His teachers and mentors included nationally recognised scholars such as Fred Alexander, John Legge and Frank Crowley. Bolton studied at Balliol College, Oxford, between 1954 and 1958, completing a Doctor of Philosophy degree and marrying Carol Grattan. A university tutor in English for several years, Carol later retrained as a clinical psychologist. The Brisbane Courier-Mail reported of Carol Bolton (as she became) in 1959,

“An Oxford graduate, who met and married her Australian husband while he was studying for his philosophy doctorate at Oxford, [Carol] is ‘returning the compliment’ by reading for her Master of Arts degree in Australia.”[2]

In 1957, Bolton was appointed a research fellow at Australian National University, although finishing up in Oxford delayed his arrival to Canberra until September 1958. During his time in Canberra, he completed A Thousand Miles Away (1963), a work commissioned by the North Queensland Local Authorities Association.

Bolton was appointed Senior Lecturer at Monash University in 1962. However, from 1966, when he became Professor of History at the University of Western Australia, much of Bolton’s life and career was based around his home town of Perth. He had a long professional association with Murdoch University and ended his academic career as Professor of History at Edith Cowan University (1993-96). Bolton nevertheless had a large national network through committees and organisations such as the Australian Dictionary of Biography. He was also instrumental in establishing an Australian Studies Centre in London (1982-85) and was Professor of Australian History at the University of Queensland (1989-93).

While Bolton never achieved the ‘brand name recognition’ of Geoffrey Blainey and Manning Clark, he was a highly respected Australian historian whose reputation grew ever higher as he enjoyed a busy ‘retirement’ full of noteworthy publications and public commentary on history matters. His final book, Paul Hasluck: A Life, was published in late 2014. Geoffrey Bolton died in 2015. [3]

2. How did you get to know Geoffrey Bolton?

 Through his writings, to begin with. When I was a history student at James Cook University (JCU) in the 1990s, regional history was strongly encouraged. Despite being published in 1963, Bolton’s A Thousand Miles Away remained a useful guide to European settlement and industry in the north from 1861 until 1920 and I was among the many JCU history students who referenced it. Subsequently, from 1995 to 2015, Bolton and I occasionally exchanged letters, mostly related to historical matters.

The first letter I received from Bolton (9 April 1995) included a paragraph which says much about Geoff’s values as an historian and citizen. From memory, in my original letter I had asked why, in one his books, he had been somewhat lukewarm about the career of Liberal Opposition leader (1972-75) Billy Snedden (I had recently read a relatively positive biography of the man by Bernie Schedvin in collaboration with Billy himself). Bolton replied as follows:

‘As for Bill Snedden, I guess my attitude towards him is coloured by having known him at university. He was a big, good-humoured footballer, with the kind of bluff good nature which made him the best Speaker of the House of Representatives for decades, but I don’t think he had the originality or the intellectual grasp to make a first-class prime minister. The nice are not always the good, in politics anyway. Hawke was also at Uni of WA, and even then showed the ambition for high office. But he was less clear about what to do with it once having achieved it.’ [4]

Bolton’s response is representative of the man and historian. In the first place, the fact that he would spend some of his precious time thinking about and writing about a question posed by an obscure undergraduate he was barely acquainted with shows Bolton’s egalitarian instincts. He believed that everyone mattered and was worth engaging with and writing about. Secondly, the thoughts on Snedden and Hawke show his fascination with biography and how men play out their ambitions on the political stage. Bolton was an historian of the people: the environment, the economy and foreign affairs all had their place in his books, but in the end his narratives focused on human relations.

Bolton examined my PhD thesis. I also met and had conversations with Geoff Bolton at a number of conferences and events, and we once had a friendly chat about former politician Paul Hasluck on an ACT bus heading to the National Archives of Australia. My clearest memory of Geoff was his attendance at a military history conference in Armidale (NSW) in February 1999. I picked him up from the Armidale airport: tall, self-assured, bearded and sporting a straw boater,[5] he looked every inch an historian to be reckoned with. I found him polite and reserved, but with a keen sense of fun. During the conference dinner, Bolton delighted his table with a rendition of a song from the musical My Fair Ladywith words refashioned to suit an academic audience:

All I want is a Chair somewhere

Sydney, Melbourne, I don’t care …

Oh how respectable we would be

We’d even talk on the ABC

Oh wouldn’t it be lovely?[6]

I suspect many in the audience that night would have shared Bolton’s longing for a Chair in Sydney or Melbourne! It was only after Bolton had passed on that I learnt that the desire for recognition in Sydney and Melbourne was one of the driving forces that kept him ambitious and productive.

I cannot talk directly about Bolton’s work as an administrator, lecturer and mentor. Those interested in these areas should seek out a useful publication called A Historian for all Seasons: Essays for Geoffrey Bolton (2017) which includes detailed reflections on Bolton’s career and personal impact on the history profession. However, speaking as someone roughly 50 years’ Bolton’s junior, who encountered the man through letters and occasional personal encounters, I valued Geoffrey Bolton’s genuine interest in my work. The sense that Bolton took my work seriously was very encouraging to me as a young man, especially given the context of job insecurity and feelings of social isolation common within the profession. I was, of course, one of countless historians to whom he gave encouragement and support.

3. What was Geoffrey Bolton’s historical philosophy?

 If Geoffrey Bolton had an historical philosophy, it could be perhaps be narrowed down to the following instruction: ‘Collect and reflect upon the evidence, then make historical generalisations in a way that engages and enlightens the reader’. Historian J.W. McCarty noted in 1964 that Bolton and his near contemporary Geoffrey Blainey were part of a movement towards historical empiricism:

‘If there is such a thing as a ‘revolution’ at present under way in Australian history, it is simply that historians such as Blainey and Bolton have rejected the search for metaphysical grand themes in Australian history in favor of the systematic collection and interpretation of data. [7]’

Bolton might be described as an empiricist, but like all historians he had personal values and priorities that were reflected in the assumptions which guided his narratives. These assumptions included:

People are complex and need to be respected as such. Unlike Manning Clark, who often judged historical actors by comparing them to biblical characters, Bolton’s pen portraits tended to strike a balance between a politician’s weaknesses and their strengths:

‘Originally a bootmaker, [prominent 1920s WA politician Alex] McCallum … was a museum of the classic Australian working-class antipathies. He used to boast that if he went into a restaurant which employed a Chinese cook, he could smell it from the food. But he was well read, having persevered with his self-education, and respected intelligence; it was through his persuasion that [future Prime Minister] John Curtin moved over from Victoria to take up the editorship of Westralian Worker… .[8]’

Where possible historians should adopt a sympathetic or at least empathetic attitude towards their historical characters. This approach was exemplified in his biography of Paul Hasluck, a federal government minister between 1951 and 1969. While not shying away from discussing his flaws (including his failure to communicate effectively and respectfully with many public servants), Bolton actively sought out the more positive aspects of Hasluck’s character in a way which agreeably contributed to increasing the mystery of a political figure who could be both charming and cold. An example of this is where Bolton described Hasluck’s behaviour at an event celebrating John McDouall Stuart’s exploring achievements:

‘The formal ceremony [was] … followed by a dance. Before long Hasluck elbowed aside the drummer, seized the drumsticks and played for more than an hour with great skill and vivacity. It was a performance much at odds with the media image of a formal and stuffy politician.’ [9]

The historian needs to be able to step outside the ideology and values of the present and not judge people and events too harshly. This view permeated his attitude towards Australia and what it means to be Australian. While Bolton saw many flaws in Australian public and private life (such as a reluctance to display public emotions, greater interest in recreation that ambition, a belief that the best ideas are those which are imported), he took pains to highlight the country’s strong tradition of a ‘fair go’, a belief in equity that took the edge off the aggressive capitalist system. In highlighting his affection for the Australian people, he quoted from the migrant writer David Martin:

‘Foreigners easily – too easily – assume that Australia is a crude habitat. They do not understand that, on the contrary, it is a subtle one, home of a subtle people.’ [10]

4. What was the major turning point in Geoffrey Bolton’s career as an historian?

 I am rather biased because of my North Queensland background, but nevertheless, I believe that writing and research of A Thousand Miles Away: A History of North Queensland between 1958 and 1961 consolidated his existing historical skills and whetted his appetite for regional history. Bolton’s North Queensland study developed themes to which he had been introduced in his thesis work on the Kimberley (including the European settler’s impact on the environment) as well as the young man’s exposure to less Euro-centric approaches to colonial history while studying at Oxford: a group of emerging British historians in the 1950s were displaying an unprecedented historical interest in the Indigenous perspective on European colonisation. This was reflected, to a degree, in Bolton’s writings on Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders in A Thousand Miles Away. Bolton was also able to fill serious gaps in the literature by discovering rare resources in North Queensland towns and pastoral properties on his research trips, sometimes accompanied by his wife Carol.

 Local newspapers were often scattered or lost. The Queensland State Archives was only formed in 1959, and it took some years to accumulate the resources that enabled scholars to gain a more comprehensive perspective on the nature of European settlement and the spread of government oversight in mining and rural areas in the colonial period.

Bolton was fortunate in that the reports of colonial public servants and the speeches of Queensland parliamentarians were frank and idiosyncratic, qualities absent from twenty-first century bureaucratese. Immensely useful to an historian of North Queensland, officials such as mining wardens were quick to comment on what was happening around the town. One of the most readable public servants of the colonial period was Philip Sellheim, a mining warden on the Palmer River gold rush who rose to be Undersecretary for Mines. Bolton’s fascination with Sellheim, and his general interest in collecting information about his historical subjects, is seen a letter that Geoff wrote to me:

“Sellheim was from a background of minor Austrian aristocracy – He figures in Rachel Henning’s letters as having an unusual speech impediment … I’m sure Sellheim was confident about his own judgement. ‘You think you are God Almighty’ a disgruntled miner on the Palmer told him. ‘No’, replied Sellheim ‘but I am his First Lieutenant around these parts.’” [11]

Through his hard work and dedication, Bolton produced a detailed history of North Queensland as a European settlement between 1861 and 1920. Its publication must have given Bolton a boost in confidence and demonstrated the value of viewing Australian history through a regional prism.[12] 

 5. Based in Perth for much of his life, Bolton sometimes saw himself as ‘outsider’ in a profession dominated by historians who were firmly established through accident of birth in the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ (i.e. Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra; also referred to as the ‘Parliamentary Triangle’). How valid was this self-perception, and how did it influence Bolton’s work?

In a strictly material sense, Bolton rapidly became an insider in the historical profession. In the first place, he enjoyed the cultural, social, networking and educational advantages of spending his formative years in a capital city rather than a more isolated WA town such as Wyndham. Further, his career was marked by national (and some international) honours, a prestigious Oxford degree, fellowships, grants and professional opportunities. The ‘tyranny of distance’ did not prevent Bolton from becoming well known and highly regarded across the continent for his books, commentary and work on committees.

Nevertheless, there was at least some substance to Geoff’s geographical envy. Living in Perth limited opportunities to influence the national conversation because of the major concentration of Australia’s political and cultural elites in Melbourne, Sydney and Canberra. As Bolton wrote,

‘Even in normal circumstances, in comparison to residents of the south-eastern states, it took longer and it cost more for Western Australians to fly to Canberra, Melbourne or Sydney. This meant that, even with all the modern advantages of email and telecommunications, it was troublesome for Western Australians to participate fully in the national decision-making processes of politics, business and culture. Australia’s elites were concentrated in New South Wales and Victoria, and this had its effect on politics and the judiciary’. [13]

Bolton sensed that historians of the Golden Triangle could generalise too narrowly on Australian history based on the experience of the south-east corner of the continent. They could also assume, wrongly, that if an historical study was path-breaking and innovative, it would generally emerge from Melbourne, Sydney or the ACT. ‘Melbourne’s [historical] pre-eminence came at the cost of a certain myopia,’ Bolton insisted:

‘When … Ken Inglis related that his interest in Anzac Day and the memorials of Australians at war was stimulated by his curiosity that nobody at the universities was paying attention to these aspects of the Australian experience … my response was parochial. Melbourne may have overlooked the impact of the 1914-1918 war, but [Gordon] Greenwood at Queensland gave it some attention … and so did [Frank] Crowley in Western Australia. This is in no way to belittle the magnificent results which have followed Inglis’s immersion in the commemoration of Australians at war; but it is to suggest that Melbourne’s dominance of the field [of history] could stimulate reaction’. [14]

Bolton’s irritation with the Golden Triangle’s historiographical dominance probably influenced his decision to make a special effort to incorporate multiple state, territory and regional perspectives within the narrative of his The Oxford History of Australia Volume 5: The Middle Way 1942-1995 (1990; revised edition 1996). Many such perspectives in Bolton’s text merely illustrated a shared national trend or pattern, although he also identified the resource-rich states of Western Australia and Queensland as significantly challenging the political centralisation of national power. For example, he stressed how Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen was able to politically outsmart Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, with Joh possessing ‘the provincial’s tenacity and sure sense of local emotions.’[15] While clearly admiring Whitlam’s vision and imagination, Bolton, the West Australian, quietly suggested that Whitlam ‘often behaved as if the sun rose over Sydney and set over Canberra’.[16]

Bolton’s approach to national history incorporated a concern for demonstrating the reality of state/territory/Commonwealth relations over time. It could be argued that this emphasis was at least in part inspired by his knowledge of living outside the Golden Triangle.

6. Do you have any final reflections on the life and work of Geoffrey Bolton?

Bolton valued his social networks and gathered friends and acquaintances within the history profession over more than five decades.  I note that in several of his letters to me he would sign off with a variation of the phrase ‘keep in touch’. He also liked to ‘keep in touch’ with the past by reading manuscripts in archives and libraries, where he would invariably meet up with fellow researchers in the field. Further, especially for Bolton’s generation, the good historian always kept a good set of boots, useful for walking through the places they were writing about, as well as for ambling through major libraries in hope of unexpected discoveries. As Bolton told me,

‘For me, one of the great experiences was working in the Cambridge University Library … the great feature of it was that the reader had immediate access to the open shelves … so you could not only find the book you were looking for but also browse through the neighbouring shelves and discover other works in the field. I haven’t yet encountered a computer programme that facilitates that kind of serendipitous browsing.’ [17]

Bolton’s need to keep in touch with historians across Australia remains common among many historians today: ICT innovations like video-conferencing have their place, but they are less effective as a networking tool than meeting face to face at a café or conference.

The libraries and archives in which Bolton so enjoyed working now have an ambivalent attitude towards their physical collections. While much historical material has been placed online, this has created its own set of research problems, including greater popular reluctance, aided and abetted by cash-strapped cultural institutions, to engage with supposedly less ‘accessible’ sources such as microfilm reels, book collections and other non-digitised material. In this way, knowledge in an information age becomes artificially limited and the chance encounters with other historians that Bolton so highly prized are lessened.

On a more positive note, I think that reflecting on Geoff’s life and career has benefits for a new generation of historians. Bolton’s academic work suggests two specific principles for early career historians to follow:

  1. Dive in head-first into the unfamiliar: There is an understandable tendency for young historians to follow familiar paths and build on existing knowledge, perhaps believing that they will tackle that Big Subject in mid-career. Bolton’s career suggests that you don’t have to wait, and perhaps for your own sense of independence and professional development, you should not. Geoffrey Bolton’s work on North Queensland as a young man was challenged by huge gaps in the sources, and the way he was able to overcome these challenges gave him the ability to tackle even more gaps in Australian historiography.
  2. Keep learning from others while maintaining your own integrityBecause Bolton made it his business to keep in touch with new themes and revisionist work in history, his work never ossified. His later work on Indigenous issues was enhanced by his reading of Henry Reynolds and other scholars who became prominent during the 1970s and 1980s; he found ways of incorporating the arts, the environment and gender into his work; and, at one stage, Bolton took a special interest in counterfactual history as a means of better appreciating the significance of the events which actually happened.

Bolton never seemed to run out of ideas. Among his unrealised dreams was the notion of writing a history of Northern Australia, and, if my memory serves me correctly, he contemplated writing a new history of the Children’s Crusade of 1212. Other projects intervened, and the work that he did complete was enormous in its scope. Geoffrey Bolton was an historian and a man well worth knowing, and I’m pleased that I made the effort to keep in touch.


Dr Lyndon Megarrity completed his PhD at the University of New England (Armidale), which was awarded in 2002. In recent years, Lyndon has been a lecturer and tutor, teaching history and political science subjects. He was the inaugural history lecturer at the Springfield Campus at the University of Southern Queensland (2012-13) and since taught at James Cook University in Townsville, where he is currently an adjunct lecturer. His latest book is  Northern Dreams: The Politics of Northern Development in Australia (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2018).




[1]Geoffrey Bolton, The Kenneth Binns Lecture 2005, given by Bolton at the conference An Open Book: Research, Imagination and the Pursuit of Knowledge, held at the National Library of Australia from 29 April-1 May 2005

[2]‘Degree will be “a compliment”’, Courier-Mail, 13 May 1959, p. 14.

[3]For more details on Bolton’s life, see Stuart Macintyre, ‘Geoffrey Bolton: A Lifetime in History’, in Stuart Macintyre, Lenore Layman and Jenny Gregory (eds), A Historian for All Seasons: Essays for Geoffrey Bolton, Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2017, pp. 1-39.

[4]Geoffrey Bolton to Lyndon Megarrity, 9 April 1995, letter held by author.

[5]I suppose the straw boater was just a passing phase, as I never saw it again.

[6]I wrote what I could remember of Bolton’s lyrics down in a memo to my PhD supervisor, John Atchison, in February 1999. The reference to the ABC’s respectability probably dates the parody to the 1950s or 1960s, after which point the notion of the ABC as a conservative vehicle supporting the Establishment (however defined) began to fade.

[7]J.W. McCarty, ‘Prospectors and Planters’, Overland, No. 29, April 1964, p. 57.

[8]G.C. Bolton, A Fine Country to Starve In, Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press, 1972, p. 52.

[9]Geoffrey Bolton, Paul Hasluck: A Life, Crawley: UWA Publishing, 2014, p. 282.

[10]David Martin, cited in Geoffrey Bolton, The Oxford History of Australia Volume 5: The Middle Way 1942-1995, South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1996 (first published 1990), p. 291.

[11]Bolton to Megarrity, Letter dated 24 February 1998. Bolton here is paraphrasing from memory part of Sellheim’s evidence to the Queensland Mining Commission of 1897 (Queensland Votes & Proceedings, Vol. 4, 1897, pp. 459-60).

[12]For more details on Bolton’s interest in North Queensland history, see Lyndon Megarrity, ‘Geoffrey Bolton’s A Thousand Miles Away: Origins, Influence and Impact’, History Australia, Vol. 12, No. 3, 2015, pp. 7-29.

[13]Geoffrey Bolton, Land of Vision and Mirage: Western Australia Since 1826, Crawley: UWA Press, 2008, p. 198.

[14]Geoffrey Bolton, The Kenneth Binns Lecture 2005, given by Bolton at the conference An Open Book: Research, Imagination and the Pursuit of Knowledge, held at the National Library of Australia from 29 April-1 May 2005

[15]Bolton, The Oxford History of Australia Volume 5, p. 224.

[16]Ibid., p. 174.

[17]Geoffrey Bolton to Lyndon Megarrity, 31 October 2010.

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