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Sir  (William) Keith Hancock (1898–1988), by unknown photographerSir (William) Keith Hancock (1898–1988), by unknown photographer
Hancock, Sir (William) Keith (1898–1988), historian, was born in Melbourne, Australia, on 26 June 1898, the youngest in the family of three sons and two daughters of the Revd William Hancock, incumbent of St Mark's, Fitzroy, and later archdeacon of Gippsland, Australia, and his wife, Elizabeth Katharine McCrae. He was educated at Melbourne grammar school, the University of Melbourne, and, after a short spell lecturing at the University of Western Australia, as a Rhodes scholar at Balliol College, Oxford, where in 1923 he gained first-class honours in modern history and became the first Australian to be elected to a fellowship of All Souls College (1923–30). From that base he wrote Ricasoli and the Risorgimento in Tuscany (1926). Like much of his later work, the book was about the complexities of nationalism. Already the prose was fluent, supple, and elegant. From 1924 to 1933 he held the chair of modern history at the University of Adelaide. There he wrote Australia (1930), which remained the most professional and profound single volume about the country. The young professor had mixed feelings about his native land. Having been accepted at the heart of empire and now returned to a province, he would never be completely at home in either place. His speaking voice was neither quite English nor quite Australian. An account of his life to 1954, entitled Country and Calling, signalled the tension.

Birmingham University called Hancock to the chair of modern history in 1934 and Oxford to the Chichele chair of economic history in 1944. He was again a fellow of All Souls from 1944 to 1949. Dearly though he loved Oxford, he was not wholly comfortable in that chair, and left it for the University of London in 1949. Here he directed (until 1956) the new Institute of Commonwealth Studies, which was a monument to his own work. Hancock's Survey of British Commonwealth Affairs (3 vols., 1937–42), blending general perspectives with brilliant case histories and exhibiting what he often declared to be the historian's three cardinal virtues of attachment, justice, and span, had transformed the study of empire. The British Commonwealth was in his vision the most benign of modern polities, able, if wisely led and liberally inspired, to deliver democracy and welfare not only to Australians and Canadians but also to Indians and Africans. Jan Smuts, the subject of his two-volume biography Smuts: the Sanguine Years (1962) and Smuts: the Fields of Force (1968), appealed to Hancock as avatar of the new Commonwealth: a former enemy who freely chose imperial loyalty.

In the First World War Hancock was too young to join up without permission, which his bereaved parents refused, his brother Jim having been named among the missing on the Somme. Like many young British men of his generation who missed the war, he lived after 1918 with a sense of shame and a high appreciation of bravery. In London during the Second World War he threw himself into the most active service he could find, by day directing (1941–6) the production of a thirty-volume civil series of official war histories, by night watching for fires from German bombs. Margaret Gowing, his co-author of the official volume British War Economy (1949), thought that by 1945, though not yet fifty, he looked venerable, with ‘white hair and end-of-war exhaustion’.

Theaden, daughter of John George Brocklebank, farmer, was even more exhausted. Like Jan Smuts, Keith Hancock had fallen in love with a fellow student of great ability who had had to settle for country school-teaching and then, in 1925, married a man needing (Hancock's words on Sybella Smuts) unfaltering support and heroic constancy. Theaden had been the wife of a busy, prolific, and preoccupied professor ever since their marriage in 1925. In Country and Calling he convicts himself of ‘barbarous insensitiveness’ to her. She found rewarding employment in wartime London as a producer of talks for the Overseas Service of the BBC, but collapsed into depression under the burdens of life and work. Her ill health was among reasons why Hancock did not accept until 1957 an invitation first extended some years earlier to go to Canberra as professor of history (until 1965) and director of the Research School of Social Sciences (until 1961) at the new Australian National University. In Canberra, country and calling were now as nearly reconciled as they would ever be.

Colleagues and postgraduate students in awe of a legend discovered that Hancock was short, slight, charming, and playful; he was also intellectually exacting, and tough and wily (some called him Sir Fox) in his determination to win resources for his school and distribute them according to his own judgement of quality. He had an undisguised sense of his own achievement, no envy, and a humble curiosity. He was good at coaxing under-producers to get on, as he would say, with their scribbling. He encouraged interdisciplinary and intercultural studies before they were fashionable in his world. He had blind spots, among them an Anglophile disdain for many things American and a patrician distaste for trade. He became a kind of archbishop among Australian historians, at a time when most of the bishops, the professors of history in state universities, were Balliol men. The earliest and most enduring project of archiepiscopal inspiration was the Australian Dictionary of Biography modelled on the British Dictionary of National Biography, which he had served in Oxford as a member of the central committee; eleven gratifying volumes appeared during his lifetime.

Hancock and his wife lived happily in Canberra, enjoying both bush and society, until Theaden was stricken by cancer; she died in 1960. In the following year, as she had counselled, Hancock married Marjorie Eyre (daughter of William Henry Eyre, of Enfield, Middlesex), who had worked for him on every project since the civil war histories, and who gave him support and constancy for the next quarter of a century; she died in 1995. There were no children from either marriage.

After retirement in 1965, country and calling led Hancock to the region south of Canberra, on which he wrote a pioneering study in environmental history, Discovering Monaro (1972). He became an activist in the cause of conservation, a member of an alliance which tried in vain to prevent a telecommunications tower from being installed on the forested peak he loved just behind the university, and he served as the group's war historian in The Battle of Black Mountain (1974). In a post-imperial epoch, and in his own eighties, he was attracted by the idea of armed neutrality for Australia, and campaigned against the presence of American communication bases on his country's soil. He went on writing, and talking in seminars and on the radio, almost to the end. ‘Beyond all else’, wrote his close colleague and friend Anthony Low, ‘he was the academic animateur’.

Hancock was knighted in 1953 in recognition of a successful mission to Uganda as a negotiator, and appointed KBE in 1965. He was a fellow of the British Academy (1950) and universities and academies in four continents conferred honours on him. When asked to list his achievements, he might leave some out but he included a medal of the Royal Humane Society won at the age of nine for rescuing another child from drowning. He died on 13 August 1988 in Canberra.

K. S. Inglis, rev.


W. K. Hancock, Country and calling (1954) · W. K. Hancock, Professing history (1976) · D. A. Low, ‘William Keith Hancock, 1898–1988’, PBA, 82 (1993), 399–414 · personal knowledge (1996)


Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with L. G. Curtis · NL Aus., corresp. and papers relating to Smuts · TCD, corresp. with Thomas Bodkin · U. Lond., Institute of Commonwealth Studies, Smuts and Buganda papers and corresp.


J. Mendoza, portrait, Australian National University · photograph, British Academy [see illus.]