The transition of Australia from a penal colony to civil society is a topic that continues to captivate historians in Australia and around the world.

It captivated one of Australia’s most famous historians and past University of New England (UNE) professor, Russel Ward, whose contribution to our knowledge on the subject is honoured each year in the public Russel Ward Lecture.

UNE historian, Associate Professor David Andrew Roberts, says Ward’s work was notable and controversial at the time, for the way he blended historical and folklore studies to trace the origins and development of the national Australian stereotype.

“Ward’s work looked at how the stereotype of the ‘typical’ Australian developed. He claimed that a distinctive Australian outlook emerged first among convicts, Irish and native-born working class white settlers,” A/Prof Roberts says.

Ward published the influential book, The Australian Legend, in 1958. It helped put nineteenth century Australian colonial studies firmly on the historical studies agenda which has remained an important theme at UNE.

“The Russel Ward lecture series has always been important to history at UNE because it helps promote UNE’s national reputation and leadership in the field of nineteenth century Australian colonial history, which we can trace back to Ward in the 1950s,” A/Prof Roberts says.

This national leadership continues through projects such as the Australian Research Council-funded UNE-led project, Landscapes of Production and Punishment, which examines the criminal records and court processes of the colonial era to better understand the social structures of the time.

This year’s Russel Ward lecture will be presented by visiting international historian Professor Barry Godfrey of the University of Liverpool, an expert in international crime history and partner on UNE’s Landscapes of Production and Punishment project. 

“Historians are preoccupied by processes of change, and the transition of Australia from penal colony to civil society is a rich and complex story. It encompasses conquest and violence, redemption and exploitation, the growth of socio-economic infrastructure, migration, the moulding of the landscape to suit population growth, and, above all, the development and manipulation of power. So, it’s a fascinating cultural and social landscape for historians to study,” Prof Godfrey says.

“My Russel Ward lecture will praise Ward for his research on the immediate post-convict period – a period which has been overshadowed by convict history – and show how important a realistic view of convict recidivism and redemption is for contemporary penal policy. Hopefully there will be something of interest in the lecture for criminologists and sociologists, as well as social historians.”

Also passionate about collating and preserving the historical record through digitisation, Prof Godfrey has collaborated with colleagues at the Universities of Oxford, Sheffield, Sussex and Tasmania to produce an online resource holding 50 million records of men and women who were either transported to Australia or who served out their penal servitude in English convict prisons between 1750 and 1925.

Today, he’s working with historians and social scientists in Australia, Canada and the US to investigate the use of new digital technologies to reveal the bureaucratic and archaeological history of prisons and penal colonies.

“I’m pleased to be in Armidale to discuss research with David Roberts, Martin Gibbs, and Richard Tuffin, who are all working on a marvellous project concerning Port Arthur penal station, and to collaborate with other leading digital researchers at the University of New England,” he says.

The free Russel Ward public lecture will appeal to anyone with an interest in Australian history, and particularly those wishing to understand the place of crime and convicts in the making of the Australian identity.

Event details

What: Russel Ward Public Lecture
When: Tuesday 16 July, 5:30pm to 6:30pm

Portrait image of Barry Godfrey in front of a bookshelf

Professor Barry Godfrey, University of Liverpool

Where: Lecture Theatre 3, Arts Building E11, Arts Road, University of New England.