1935 • Thetis and Achilles

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Eleanor Madeline Whitfeld (back row, centre) with other Sydney University graduates, c. 1893. Madeline “entered Sydney University in 1892, being the second student enrolled at the Women’s College.” (Tribune, 13-05-50, p. 7) She married Arnold Wood in 1898.

There’s still no word from “the ’Varsity” as Madeline calls the place that has long been a cause of ambiguous feeling in her family. Sydney University is the optimistic setting of her youth, when she was among the first handful of women graduates. [RED, page 22]

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Madeline Wood c. 1910

Madeline Wood (1873–1967) was a world peace advocate and feminist, writing magazine articles and speaking on these subjects at meetings of the League of Nations Union, the Australian Institute of International Affairs and the Feminist Club.

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Arnold Wood, bushwalking with friends (detail), c. 1893, two years after his arrival in Sydney

Sydney University’s first history professor, George Arnold Wood (1865–1928), arrived in Australia from Oxford in 1891. He married Madeline Whitfeld, one of the first women students at Sydney, in 1898. A “Manchester Liberal” in politics, Wood opposed the South African (“Boer”) War, especially after reading reports in the Manchester Guardian, c. 1902, of child deaths in British concentration camps. Arnold Wood was the only member of his department until 1916. His book-length manuscript, “The Foundation of the Colony of New South Wales”, whose chapter on convicts questioned his generation’s silence on the importance of the convicts in colonial Australia’s early history, was rejected by several English publishers, perhaps in part because of his attacks on the British aristocracy under George III, who were “pagan plutocrats” and the true “atrocious criminals” who “remained in England”. (R. M. Crawford, A Bit of a Rebel, p. 336)

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Arnold Wood, late 1920s

Her husband Professor Arnold Wood took his life six years ago, after months of suffering a painful skin disease and long periods of exhaustion and depression caused in part by overwork. [RED, page 21]

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Fred Wood, as a young man.

Madeline’s oldest son, F. L. W. (Fred) Wood, was studying history at Balliol College, Oxford, when his father died in 1928. She suggests that he apply for his father’s position.

Madeline’s favourite son was often an ill child who has now become a hesitant, deeply thoughtful, somewhat self-doubting man. Fred’s clearly dubious about his chances of the Sydney job. These are doubts his mother doesn’t share, though she is careful this time not to say all she might be thinking. [RED, page 23]

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Fred Wood on vacation, while in Oxford, c.1926–28

When Dr Stephen Roberts is offered the position, he brought to Sydney an approach to history that was the opposite of Arnold Wood’s.

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Stephen Roberts soon after taking up the history chair, c. 1929.

So all soft notions that a history education might be, as Arnold Wood imagined, a learning about life and how to live, must now give way to what’s admired as the new professor’s “hard school”, a school of calm detachment, a stepping back from sentiment and “taking sides”. Roberts is opposed to almost everything that Arnold stood for … [RED, page 24]

For the distinguished career of Sir Stephen Roberts see the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Madeline Wood’s unpublished letters offer other insights into Roberts as a teacher and writer of history.

Arnold Wood’s ideas on “the moral responsibility of the historian” are summed up in R. M. Crawford’s “George Arnold Wood” (Lecture in Commonwealth Literary Fund series, 28 June 1946): “We must tell what we believe, and we must tell the reason of our belief.” (p. 3) He despised the “wise man” who “never tells” what he believes. Such a scholar is “a criminal of the worst sort”. A historian’s “first duty” is helping others “to live rightly.” (p. 4) This view was at odds with Arnold Wood’s fellow academics at Sydney University, who believed that politics and personal opinions should not be discussed at all in a university.

In 1935, after five years in the Sydney History Department as a lecturer, Fred Wood became the first professor of history at Victoria College, Wellington, NZ (now Victoria University).