top of page

The life & work of Russel Ward

The Australian Legend

John Hirst

Russel Ward’s classic book The Australian Legend (1958) avers that, from the 1890s, the Australian nation defined itself by the values and attitudes of the up-country bushman. Born in 1914, Ward grew up almost untouched by this bush ethos. His parents were Methodists and his childhood homes were the private schools of which his father was head. On completing his schooling at Prince Alfred College, Adelaide, Ward was, in the words of his autobiography, ‘as arrant a conservative, as loyal a Briton and as nasty a snob as ever left any great public school in Australia.’ All this was to change, but he remained always impeccably bourgeois in manners and appearance. The apostle of the Australian Legend looked like an English army officer.

At the University of Adelaide he spectacularly flouted the Methodist prohibition on alcohol. He lost the Christian faith but rediscovered Jesus as a man of peace and the champion of the poor. His nickname within the family was ‘softie’ and his tender nonconformist conscience carried him – like so many others – to political radicalism. This had as yet no clear form or object. In the midst of his roistering at the university, he wondered whether he should be a priest. Instead, he returned to the private schools, teaching at Geelong Grammar and Sydney Grammar. In the army during the war he served in the censorship and psychology units, both based in Sydney, and he remained there after the war teaching in state schools.

In Sydney in the 1940s, he found a radical milieu – the New Theatre, the Journalists’ Club, the Teachers’ Federation and the Communist Party, which he joined in 1941. Reading Ward’s account of his life in Sydney reminded me instantly of Graeme Davison’s depiction of radical Sydney in the 1890s – the Bulletin, the bookstores, the Freethought Hall – the urban environment in which, as Davison insists, the bush legend was born. For Ward, it had to be born again. He was completely typical of his class in being brought up on British history and English literature (which he loved) and learning almost nothing of the history and literature of his native land. As a radical in Sydney, he started to collect Australian folk songs. Until then, he had never heard one. He was introduced to them by a Scottish immigrant couple, neighbours of his in Sydney, who possessed a dog-eared copy of the 1905 edition of Banjo Patterson’s Old Bush Songs. He was invited to their home one night and found the Scottish couple and two visiting British sailors singing ‘Wrap me up with my stockwhip and blanket’. So wayward and attenuated were the conduits for the transmission of the bush ethos. Ward’s autobiography, whose theme is the author’s discovery of an Australian identity, shows how weak a hold the Australian Legend had on the respectable. In The Australian Legend he argues the opposite, against his experience, and uses a poem by John Manifold to clinch the case that the ‘noble bushman’ tradition ‘has captured the imagination of the whole Australian people’, for Manifold belonged to one of the ‘old squatting families in the Victorian Western District, traditionally held to be the most conservative and “aristocratic” social group in Australia.’

The Australian Legend in itself is a work of mythic power for it is an account of a revelation, of a moment when a people came to know fully what was previously half known or hidden. Ward wrote so compellingly because he was writing of his own revelation, which he projected onto the nation and backdated to the 1890s. Clearly he exaggerated the extent of the Legend’s influence, yet the book itself did much to repair this mistake. Having rediscovered the Legend in the 1940s, Ward became one of the chief vehicles for spreading it among the bourgeoisie. The success of the book became the best support for its claims. In his autobiography, Ward ponders why Australian folk songs enjoyed a revival in Australia in the 1950s but does not offer an answer. An answer would serve as well to explain why his book was so well received. In part, it was because the respectable or, more precisely, their children were becoming less British and more Australian in outlook and were abandoning the standards of respectability that made free-wheeling bushmen doubtful heroes.

The Australian Legend was written in the early 1950s as a PhD thesis at the Australian National University, which provided Ward, then a married man in his late thirties, with a scholarship. The thesis was entitled The Ethos and Influence of the Australian Pastoral Worker. Before it was accepted, Ward became a cause célèbre. An appointments committee at the University of Technology in Sydney unanimously recommended him for a lectureship, but the council overrode its committee on the urging of Vice Chancellor Baxter, who was concerned at Ward’s ‘seditious’ (i.e. communist) connections. The protests of Ward and his supporters were unavailing. The University of New England then offered him a position and he remained there for the rest of his working life, advancing from lecturer to professor.

Following the success of The Australian Legend, Ward wrote several general histories of Australia, which depict not a nation united in its attachment to the bushman but one of conflicting allegiances determined by class. Working-class people were nationalists; the middle class were imperial patriots. This depiction of the bourgeoisie was closer to Ward’s own experience but he drew the dichotomy too firmly, especially when he assumed that imperial patriots were careless of Australian interests. In this he took too savage a revenge on the world of the great public schools.

The general histories do not have the distinctiveness or force of The Australian Legend, elegant, lively and professional though they be. Ward remained a committed Marxist but a reader of these works would not know it. The mode of production is not presented as the dynamic force. Much of the account is of high politics, seen from a left-liberal position, spiced with social observation.

Ward’s claim to greatness rests on the one book. It is much more subtle than many of its critics have allowed: ‘It is not so much the bushman’s actual nature that matters, as the nature attributed to him by so many men of the day.’ Those who argue that the Legend was constructed rather than transmitted by the literary men of the 1890s should reread the final chapter where much of their case is conceded. It might be said that Ward should have allowed the insights of this chapter to exercise more control over the rest of the book. What Ward, rightly, would never concede was that the Legend was a complete fabrication. The thesis offers a better defence against this view than the book. It begins, not with a description of the national stereotype, but with a discussion of Australian folk ballads. Ward concludes that these clearly were not communal creations; they began life as adaptations or parodies of street ballads or popular music-hall and drawing-room songs or as published, literary verse. But one small group of men sang and reshaped and sometimes composed these ballads and created, as it were, the canon – and they were the outback pastoral workers.

The book has survived all its critics. Historians will never destroy it; it will become a relic only when the culture-hero whom it celebrates ceases to be recognised and valued.


This article is republished with the author's kind permission from Looking for Australia: historical essays, by John Hirst (Black Inc, 2010). The essay originally appeared as 'Russel Ward (1914-95): the life and the work' in Australian Historical Studies, Vol. 27, No. 107, October 1996. John Hirst is Emeritus Scholar in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at La Trobe University. First published in 1958 and republished in 1966, The Australian Legend (Oxford) remains in print; the 2003 edition (the 18th) with an introduction by John Hirst. 


Suggested citation

Hirst, John, 'The life & work of Russel Ward', Evatt Journal, Vol. 13, No. 7, October 2014.<>


bottom of page