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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Currey, Charles Herbert (1890–1970)

by J. M. Bennett

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Charles Herbert Currey (1890-1970), educationist and legal historian, was born on 25 May 1890 at Ulmarra, New South Wales, fifth child of Frederick Charles Currey, a schoolteacher from Maryland, United States of America, and his Australian-born wife Alice, née Garven. Attending a school where his father taught Aboriginal children, Charles received—through Frederick's American-inspired views—a sense of the importance of liberty in civilized societies. He did well at Grafton and Ballina Superior public schools, and in 1904 won a bursary to Sydney Boys' High School.

In 1908 Currey began a lifetime's association when he entered Teachers' College, Sydney, where K. R. Cramp thought him his best student. Currey attended the University of Sydney (B.A., 1912) on a scholarship, graduating with first-class honours in English and history, and the Frazer scholarship. He obtained his M.A. (1914) with first-class honours in history and the Nathan prize (1915) for his essay, 'British Colonial Policy from 1783 to the Present Time', a modified form of which he published in 1916. Like Cramp, he was drawn to Australian history by Professor G. A. Wood, who, as Professor J. M. Ward observed, 'enlivened [Currey's] passionate belief in liberty—and in history as the story of liberty'. Unlike Cramp, Currey went on to study law at university; his 1917 Beauchamp prize essay, 'Industrial Arbitration in New South Wales', was seminal. He graduated LL.B. (1922) and attained Sydney's rare LL.D. (1929) by thesis, his 'Chapters on the Legal History of New South Wales' entering a previously unexplored field.

In 1912 Currey had succeeded to Cramp's Teachers' College lectureship, eventually as senior lecturer in charge of history and political science. Eschewing academic administration, he devoted himself to teaching, research and writing. Although he became an inspector of schools, he only briefly taught children. Similarly, although admitted to the Bar on 1 September 1922, he did not practise law. His powerful influence over the exposition of history in New South Wales schools was achieved not only by devising new teaching methods, but also through writing numerous 'primers' that dealt with notable figures, European history, the British Commonwealth and the growth of Australia. In 1930 he offered a weightier methodological dissertation, Study and Teaching of History and Civics. He presided over the Teachers' College Lecturers' Association and, as president (1933-34) of the Teachers' Federation, tried unsuccessfully to turn back waves of political activity that would soon alter the federation's course.

On 10 January 1916 at St Anne's Anglican Church, Strathfield, Currey had married Linda Wise; they lived at Strathfield and were to remain childless. He was fond of gardening and 'motoring', and enjoyed his Blue Mountains retreat at Mount Wilson. Actively involved in local affairs, he published Mount Wilson in 1968.

Having been a member (from 1925) of the Royal Australian Historical Society, he served as a councillor, contributed numerous lectures and papers, and was made a fellow in 1945. Currey was president (1954-59) in turbulent times, exacerbated by his own argumentative temperament. He fell out with many councillors over a proposed sale of the society's Sydney premises, while disputes raged over such other issues as the composition of the council and the filling of honorary offices. His public, 'viperine' clashes with Malcolm Ellis were remarkable, alike for venom and want of ratiocination.

Interested in international affairs, Currey belonged to the Sydney group of Round Table. After retiring from Teachers' College in 1951, he continued until 1961 his part-time lecturing, begun in 1933, at Sydney University Law School. His domain, English and Australian legal and constitutional history, led naturally to his major books. The Irish at Eureka (1954), The Transportation . . . of Mary Bryant (1963) and The Brothers Bent (1968) were important, if relatively small, studies. His greatest work, Sir Francis Forbes (1968), a monumental review of the early social, political and legal history of New South Wales, vindicated Chief Justice Forbes's constitutional position in his relations with Governor Darling. Currey's wit as a lecturer rarely showed in his books where he preferred a stilted and ponderous vocabulary. He contributed to the Australian Dictionary of Biography. Professor Douglas Pike wrote to him: 'good men are very scarce and we are very keen to have the distinction of your name and mark'.

At work on a life of Sir William Denison, Currey died on 2 March 1970 at Mount Wilson; his wife survived him. He willed half his residuary estate to the Public [State] Library of New South Wales 'to promote the writing of Australian history from the original sources'; his bequest endowed the library's annual C. H. Currey memorial fellowship.

Select Bibliography

  • L. Foster, High Hopes (Melb, 1986)
  • J. and J. Mackinolty (eds), A Century Down Town (Syd, 1991)
  • Canberra and District Historical Society Journal, 1970, pt 2, p 13
  • Historical Studies, 55, Oct 1970, p 480
  • Newsletter of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 91, Apr 1970, p 4
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, vol 73, 1988, pp 243, 267, vol 76, 1990, p 190
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Mar 1970, p 9
  • Currey papers and file (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Royal Australian Historical Society Archives (Sydney)
  • Currey letters, Sydney Teachers' College papers (University of Sydney Archives).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

J. M. Bennett, 'Currey, Charles Herbert (1890–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 27 September 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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