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Melbourne, Alexander Clifford Vernon (1888–1943)

by Malcolm I. Thomis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Alexander Clifford Vernon Melbourne (1888-1943), historian, was born on 10 June 1888 at Hackney, Adelaide, son of William Clifford Melbourne, printer and trade union official, and his wife Elizabeth Agnes, née Braidwood. Alexander was educated at Norwood Public School and the Adelaide Pupil Teachers' School. For three years he taught at Unley Public School; then in 1908 he attended the University of Adelaide, winning the Tinline scholarship in 1908 and first-class honours in history in 1910. He accepted a temporary assistant lectureship in the department of history and economics at the University of Queensland in 1913. Melbourne soon became honorary secretary of the newly formed Historical Society of Queensland and delivered its inaugural address.

With ten years experience in the citizen forces, on 20 August 1914 he enlisted as captain in the 9th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, left with the first contingent, shared in the horrors of Gallipoli and was wounded on 25 April and 4 June 1915. Invalided out of active service in October, Melbourne returned to his previous position at the University of Queensland in 1916, but for much of 1916-18 worked in censorship and on troop-ships. On 20 November 1916 he married Ellen Mary Lowenthal in the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Kangaroo Point, Brisbane.

Melbourne returned to the university as lecturer in history and industrial history from 1919. He gained his M.A. in 1921 from the University of Adelaide for a thesis on the constitutional development of Queensland. He failed in 1922 to secure the foundation McCaughey chair in history and economics for which Henry Alcock, an Oxford graduate, was preferred.

Regarded as a man of 'brilliance, bonhomie and restless initiative', 'always on the best of terms with his colleagues', Melbourne in 1920 was the first secretary of the University of Queensland academic staff association and the first non-professorial academic to be elected to the university senate in 1926-28 and 1932-43. He was a strong advocate of the St Lucia site and became heavily involved in the planning and construction of the new buildings. Vice-Chancellor J. D. Story was to remember Melbourne as 'one of the most virile and progressive members of the Senate' with 'a flair for organisation'.

In 1928 he was awarded a Laura Spelman Rockefeller fellowship, enabling him to study at the University of London for a Ph.D. (1930) under A. P. Newton, Rhodes professor in Imperial history. This was an unusual and imposing achievement for a Queensland scholar in humanities. His work in London led to his writing two chapters in volume 7, part 1, of the Cambridge History of the British Empire (1933), his John Murtagh Macrossan lecture in 1932 on William Charles Wentworth (Brisbane, 1934) and his classic study, Early Constitutional Development in Australia (Oxford, 1934). Returning to Queensland by early 1931 and without a party political affiliation, Melbourne was invited by Premier A. E. Moore to submit a scheme which would ensure reintroduction of a second chamber into the parliament. Melbourne's proposal was placed before Moore's party but nothing came of it.

At the suggestion of the public service commissioner and with financial support from the Moore government, the university senate sent him to Japan and China in 1931-32. Melbourne published his Report on Australian Intercourse with Japan and China (Brisbane, 1932). He was Queensland government representative on the Queensland and Federal advisory committees on Eastern trade (chairman of both in 1933-35).

Having failed in attempts to secure chairs in Sydney (1929) and Adelaide (1934), Melbourne was appointed part-time foundation librarian and promoted associate professor. He was a frequent and fine public lecturer and broadcaster.

In 1935 his application for the Australian trade commissionership in Tokyo was unsuccessful; the Japanese minister of foreign affairs, K. Hirota, supported him. Backed by the government and the university, Melbourne returned to East Asia in 1936 and compiled a Report on a Visit to the Universities of China and Japan (Brisbane, 1936). He also wrote several pamphlets on foreign policy for the Australian Institute of International Affairs. In 1937 he failed to secure the chair of history at the University of Melbourne. He was largely responsible for the engagement of a Japanese national, Ryonosuke Seita, to lecture in Oriental civilization in the University of Queensland's history department; Seita was interned soon after his arrival.

World War II brought Melbourne back into national service as a deputy district censor. He died, childless, of cerebral haemorrhage at Glenrowan Private Hospital, Brisbane, on 7 January 1943 and was cremated with Congregational forms. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Introduction, A. C. V. Melbourne, Early Constitutional Development in Australia, R. B. Joyce ed (Brisb, 1963)
  • M. I. Thomis, The University of Queensland Academic Staff Association—a Historical Outline (Brisb, 1985)
  • Australian Library Journal, Jan 1961, p 73
  • Chronicle (Adelaide), 28 Jan 1932
  • Queenslander, 24 May 1934
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 8 Jan 1943
  • H. Bryan, The University of Queensland 1910-1960 (Syd, 1966, roneoed typescript, University of Queensland Library)
  • Melbourne papers (University of Queensland Library)
  • staff file for A. C. V. Melbourne, and University of Queensland Senate minutes (University of Queensland Archives).

Citation details

Malcolm I. Thomis, 'Melbourne, Alexander Clifford Vernon (1888–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/melbourne-alexander-clifford-vernon-7552/text13177, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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