Serle Award – Previous Winners

2022 Serle Award Winner

Karen Twigg, ‘Along Tyrrell Creek: An Environmental History of a Mallee Community’  

This thesis is an exceptional historical account of a small farming community along Tyrell Creek in the Victorian Mallee. Karen Twigg tells the stories of farming families and their engagement with the land, chronicling their struggles and victories, hopes and fears, spanning six generations. It challenges previous histories that view this life through the binary trope of heroes and victims, while presenting a much more complicated picture of farming families trying to live off the land. It is, fundamentally, an environmental history but it is also informed by the approaches of microhistory and oral history. It is in this way that Twigg masterfully weaves a deeply nuanced analysis of memories discerned from oral interviews with a wide array of historical and environmental records to present a history that is at once personal and at the same time focussed on the deep history of the landscape. The thesis is also beautifully written and deeply moving; it challenges readers to thoroughly understand the relationship between farming practices and agricultural landscapes in the past in order to imagine new relationships in the future. 

Highly Commended: Matthew Birchall, ‘Company Colonisation and the Settler Revolution, 1820-1840′

This thesis reframes our understanding of some of the key motors of settler colonisation in Australia. Tracing the history of ‘company colonisation’ across the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian colonies between 1820 and 1840, Birchall reveals how it was joint-stock companies, rather than the imperial state, that were crucial drivers of dispossession and emigration in this period. With a truly impressive depth of research into the records of these often-neglected companies, this thesis throws open a new site at which to consider how Britons understood and managed settler colonisation. The thesis deftly handles a dizzying and complex set of national and imperial historiographies to critically reflect on their silences and differences, and then makes significant interventions across these fields with an original and persuasive analysis of the ideas and practices of these colonising capitalists. The thesis thus reveals previously subterranean influences over the debates and concerns that characterised the settler colonial project in Australia, while also placing the history of settler colonisation at the centre of the history of globalising capitalism. 

Judges: Ian Hesketh (UQ), Tiffany Shellam (Deakin), Leigh Boucher (Macquarie) 

2020 Serle Award Winner

Winner: Annemarie McLaren, ‘Negotiating Entanglement: Reading Aboriginal- Colonial Exchanges in Early New South Wales, 1788 – 1835’. 

Citation: The judges assess this thesis as fulfilling the selection criteria. Conceptually, it is a remarkably rich and sophisticated social and cultural history of the colonial contact zone in New South Wales between 1788 and 1835. Forced, as we often are, to defend the reality of colonial violence and massacres, McClaren helps us understand cultural interactions profoundly shaped by asymmetrical power but nonetheless moments where the colonial contact zone saw shared exchanges and mutuality. Her work challenges us to rethink our understanding of colonial frontier scenarios. She presents an informed and brilliantly rendered version of the dynamic intercultural exchanges that occurred in NSW between 1788 and 1835. Methodologically, the author draws on ethnographic traditions of social and cultural history to explore the nuanced meanings of interactions, exchanges, events, and gestures, revealing a complex co-created world of Indigenes and colonists. She also employs contemporary depictions of Indigenous people as seen through the eyes of the early colonists. The thesis makes a significant Historiographical contribution. Whilst acknowledging the rapid disruptions to Aboriginal life in specific times and places, McClaren presents an engaged social world at once ‘fragile, unstable and nervous’ (p.14) but nonetheless identifiable in its interactive cultural dynamics, where ‘Aboriginal people and colonists made lives both alongside and entangled with each other.’ (p.1) McLaren presents a history in which Aboriginal people are agents, rather than merely victims, albeit people whose way of life was transformed by the tide of colonisation even as it continued. Literary. The thesis is a beautifully written, logically structured, competently and clearly argued work, which would require very little adaptation for publication as a book.

Commendation: Mia Alexandra Martin Hobbs, ‘Nostalgia and the Warzone Home: American and Australian veterans return to Vit Nam, 1981-2016’. 

The judges also assess this thesis as fulfilling the selection criteria. This study of the comparative return experiences of Australian and US veterans of the Vietnam war is ambitious in its scale and scope, offering new insights into war, public, and private memory. Ranging across a sizable transnational historiography, Martin Hobbs has delivered important insights into the reasons why veterans returned to Vietnam and how this changed over time. Her research shows a detailed engagement with the existing literature on veterans’ experiences, film and radio documentaries as well as her own oral history sample of 69 interviews. Her use of the interviews is theoretically informed as well as cautious and respectful of her subjects and their experiences. Martin Hobbs’s research reveals some interesting distinctions between both the reasons for and circumstances in which American and Australian veterans returned to Vietnam and their attitudes to the country and the people during their visits. The work is well written. We hope to see it published. 

Judges: Bobbie Oliver (UWA, Chair), Erik Eklund, (Federation).

2018 Serle Award Winner

Anne (now Yves) Rees, ‘Travelling to Tomorrow: Australian Women in the United States, 1910–1960’

The judges selected this beautifully written, widely sourced study of Australian women who influenced, and were influenced by, living and working in the USA. It stands as a worthy contribution to several areas of Australian history including migration, gender, race relations, professional practice, urbanisation and mobility. Its well-balanced set of conclusions draw on a large number of individual cases and combine a statistical frame with enriching personal experiences.

Highly Commended: Steven Anderson ‘Death of a Spectacle. The Transition from Public to Private Executions in Colonial Australia’

This compelling and highly readable account of the transition from public to private execution in Australia carefully explains why the change came earlier in Australia than elsewhere in the British Empire. Its solid conceptual framework is developed logically by analysing British penal ideas and attitudes through to a ‘forensic’ examination of the execution practices of individual colonies.

Judges: Simon Ville (University of Wollongong), Clive Moore (University of Queensland) and Kate Fullagar (Macquarie University)

2016 Serle Award Winner

Laura Rademaker, ‘Language and the Mission: Talking and Translating on Groote Eylandt, 1943–1973’

Laura Rademaker offers a subtle and sophisticated interpretation of the encounter between Christian missionaries and the Anindilyakwa people of Groote Eylandt in the middle decades of the twentieth century. She shows how the Church Missionary Society used language in an effort to shape the Anindilakwa people’s thoughts and beliefs, both by teaching them English and by translating Biblical texts into their native tongue. Yet at the same time, missionary reliance on Anindilyakwa interpreters ensured the persistence of Indigenous agency, with consequences unforeseen by all concerned. From the specifics of interactions on Groote Eylandt, Rademaker moves adroitly into explorations of bigger themes: assimilation policy, inter-cultural exchanges and the phenomenon of colonisation itself. This is superb scholarship, weaving together historical, linguistic, anthropological and musicological studies to illuminate the cultural politics of translation. Not only dextrous in her interdisciplinarity, Rademaker distinguishes herself for her careful, yet sympathetic, deployment of oral history, using texts collected from both Anindilyakwa people and the missionaries who worked among them. Fluently written and finely nuanced, the thesis makes an original and insightful intervention into the history of missionary enterprise and the historiography of colonialism. The resultant book will resonate not only among historians but also – as good history should – among a broader spectrum of scholars and the wider populace.

Judges: Russell McGregor, Melissa Bellanta

2014 Serle Award Winner

Carolyn Holbrook, ‘The Great War in the Australian Imagination Since 1915’, University of Melbourne, 2013

Carolyn Holbrook’s ‘The Great War in the Australian Imagination Since 1915’ traces the shifting representations of the Great War in Australian historiography and popular culture, from the Gallipoli campaign to the present. In doing so it offers a timely, original and important contribution to our understanding of the historicization of the meanings of the First World War in Australia, and indeed more broadly of the relationship between histories of war and the construction of national identity. Dr Holbrook shows how the memory of the War has fluxed over time in response to political and social changes, grounding present-day debate about its commemoration in a longer historical perspective. The judges were impressed by the author’s poised yet lively prose, and by her masterly command of the arguments embodied in a wide range of historiographic sources, from the work of Australia’s major historians to popular films, from the rhetoric of politicians to the earnest reflections of family historians. Dr Holbrook is to be commended for the ambitious task she has taken on and handled with considerable dexterity and sophistication.

Judges: Alistair Thomson, Jenny Gregory

2012 Serle Award Winner

Bill Garner, ‘Land of Camps: The Ephemeral Settlement of Australia’, University of Melbourne, 2011

Bill Garner’s ‘Land of Camps: The Ephemeral History of Australia’ is an ambitious, wide-ranging and original study of a neglected facet of Australian history. Camping, or ephemeral settlement as he calls it, offers a fresh perspective on the history and mythology of European settlement. From Sydney Cove to the Aboriginal Embassy, Eureka to Barcaldine, the experience of living under campus, he argues, has been a formative aspect of Australian life. Through an astute, often robustly critical, examination of an impressive range of primary sources, Garner opens up fresh topics, such as the origins of middle-class recreational camping, and challenges some well-entrenched historical orthodoxies. He incorporates insights from wider scholarship with discrimination while maintaining a voice and standpoint of his own. When published, his thesis is likely to generate wide interest, and provoke spirited debate. ‘Land of Camps’ is attractively, often wittily, written and enhanced by carefully chosen, well-integrated illustrations.

2012 Serle Award Commendation

Marie Kawaja, ‘The Politics and Diplomacy of the Australian Antarctic 1901-1945’, Australian National University, 2010

Judges: Graeme Davison, Joy Damousi

2010 Serle Award Winner

Simon Sleight, ‘The Territories of Youth: Young People and Public Space in Melbourne, c.1870-1901’, Monash University, 2008

Simon Sleight’s thesis is an original and sophisticated study of Melbourne’s urban history. His elegant prose evokes the people and townscapes from the refreshing and subversive perspectives of Melbourne’s youth. His work combines a remarkably lucid use of historical and sociological theory with an impressive diversity of archival sources ranging from cartoons, photographs and paintings to police records citing child offences on the streets and in the parks of Melbourne. The thesis pays particular attention to the use of public space and is attentive to the relationship between discourses of youth and youthful experience.

2010 Serle Award Commendations

Malcolm Allbrook, ‘Imperial Family’: The Prinseps, Empire and Colonial Government in India and Australia’, Griffith University, 2008

Macolm Allbrook’s study of the Prinsep family and their lives in colonial India and Australia challenges our understandings of Australian imperial history. His transnational approach demonstrates the value of viewing Australian history within the wider frame of British imperialism. In this case connections with British India are explored to show the ways in which the Prinsep family imbued their activities in Australia with orientalism drawn from Indian experience. As the first Chief Protector of Aborigines in Western Australia, Henry Prinsep was an agent of colonialism, but he was also a man whose family was imbued with a firm belief in colonialism adhering to humanitarian principles. Using private letters and personal accounts, Allbrook provides us with a balanced and subtle biography of the man and his family, reminding us that the practice of colonialism was influenced not only by broad visions of empire, but also by the individual’s intimate, family experiences.

Claire McLisky, ‘Settlers on a Mission: Faith, Power and Subjectivity in the Lives of Daniel and Janet Matthews’, University of Melbourne, 2008

Claire McLisky demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of new imperial scholarship, drawing on Stoler’s study of the intimate as a site where colonial power was played out. Her historical exploration of Christian missionary work in Australia is largely biographical, drawn from the rich archive of letters, diaries and reports from the Matthews themselves and the Maloga mission that they founded. McLisky shows how Janet’s romantic involvement with Daniel encouraged his decision to begin a school for Indigenous children on the Murray. Her work makes an elegant contribution to the literature on settler colonialism and notions of virtue, arguing persuasively for a nuanced reading of colonial subjectivities so as to allow for a more critical usage of missionary reports in the context of Native Title claims.

Judges: Stuart Macintyre, Julia Martinez

2008 Serle Award Winner

Marina Larsson, ‘The Burdens of Sacrifice: War Disability in Australian Families 1914–1939′, La Trobe University, 2006

Previous studies of repatriation have focused on government policy or on returned soldiers themselves. This thesis breaks new ground with its examination of the experiences of the families of men who returned ill or disabled. Parents, wives, children and others shared the burdens of the soldiers’ suffering for many years afterwards and indeed a strength of the thesis lies in its focus on the entire interwar period. The care the families offered, the comfort and solace they provided, the torments they endured, their struggles with repatriation authorities and the successes they achieved have previously remained largely hidden from historians’ view behind the walls of the family home. In Larsson’s thesis they are revealed with startling clarity.

Several features of this thesis stood out for the judges. As well as the originality of the topic, the judges were most impressed by the breadth of research, which ranges across a diffuse variety of archival sources, a large number of contemporary publications, and interviews with surviving family members. Repatriation policy, veteran activism, private experience and memorialisation are all handled astutely. The author displays a near total mastery of the secondary and theoretical literature in these diverse areas, and makes valuable contributions to them all.

The judges were also impressed by the author’s writing talents. Personal vignettes are used to excellent effect, and her research findings are relayed in prose that is exact, evocative and at times emotional. Well-chosen illustrations are also enlightening.

This excellent thesis represents a considerable advance in our understanding of Australia’s experience of World War I and its legacies. It will make a fine book.

2008 Serle Award Highly Commended

Olwen Valda Pryke, ‘Australia House: Representing Australia in Great Britain, 1901-1939’, University of Sydney, 2006

Olwen Valda Pryke explores the history of Australia House in London as a realisation of the new Australian Commonwealth’s dream of placing the Australian nation at the centre of the British Empire. Debates over the physical form and functions of Australia House are embedded in a cultural history which vividly illuminates the part the building played in the ‘performance’ of Australianness in Britain in the first half of the twentieth century. A complex web of empire is revealed: Australian sensitivities to its public image in Britain and its promotions aimed at the British public; rivalries with other Dominions, notably Canada; and ongoing tensions with the Australian States via the Agents General.

The judges were particularly impressed by the combinations of cultural, architectural and political history employed by the author as she explores Australia House as building, as performance and as function.

This history of Australia House enriches our understandings of an evolving Australian national identity in the first half of the twentieth century and the way it was presented and performed at the Imperial centre.

Robert Bollard, ‘The Active Chorus: The Mass Strike of 1917 in Eastern Australia’
Victoria University, 2007

This strongly revisionist history of the mass strike in eastern Australia in 1917 situates the event in a long period of labour militancy from 1916 to 1919. In a lively narrative Robert Bollard convincingly demonstrates the crucial role played in the strike by the rank and file and is genuinely revisionist in its ‘history from below’ perspective on the causes and course of the strike, the reasons for its defeat, and the inevitability and totality of that defeat. The ‘rank and filist’ explanation draws effectively on that historiographical debate and brings its theoretical insights to bear on a case study of one of the key events in Australian labour history. The provocative thesis argues principally that it was not the undisciplined militancy of the mass ‘active chorus’ which doomed the strike but the failures of union leadership, and further that the strike’s defeat was not, as most historians would have it, even close to inevitable. This is an original and largely successful thesis, which should find a wider readership.

Judges: Lenore Layman, Martin Crotty

2006 Serle Award Winner

Jessie Mitchell, ‘Flesh, Dreams and Spirit: Life on Aboriginal Mission Stations 1825–1850 A History of Cross-Cultural Connections’, Australian National University, 2005

This thesis makes a major contribution to the historiography of colonial Australia. Displaying an enviable command of the historical and associated literatures, Dr Mitchell deploys a massive body of archival source material in order to reconstruct the complex patterns of interaction between Aborigines, missionaries, Protectors and other white colonists on three mission stations and a protectorate established in New South Wales and Port Philip Bay during the first half of the nineteenth century. The various ways in which Indigenous peoples negotiated with European intruders on their lands, at a time when frontier conditions were far less heavily weighted against Aborigines than would later be the case, are analysed with sensitivity in clear and engaging prose.

Emphasising the importance of Evangelical and humanitarian influences before the rise of a purportedly scientific racial thinking, Dr Mitchell situates relationships in ‘the contact zone’ as ‘conversations’, where the possibility of Aboriginal agency was always acknowledged and cultural learning was on occasion two-way. She also rejects the previous assumption of outright failure in relations between missionaries and protectors and the Aboriginal people with whom they interacted.

This remarkably mature piece of historical scholarship advances understanding of the complexity of the colonial situation, moving beyond simplistic models of conflict and resistance to a more nuanced and realistic approach. While Dr Mitchell’s reflexive writing touches very lightly on theoretical perspectives it nevertheless displays an awareness of the most recent literatures on sexuality, post-colonialism and critiques of grand narratives. Besides adding to Australian colonial historiography it is a worthy contribution to international histories of colonial frontiers and to the broad field of mission studies. We congratulate Dr Mitchell on a fine achievement.

Judges: Alison McKinnon, Wilfrid Prest

2005 Serle Award Winner

Bartolo Ziino, ‘A Distant Grief: Australians, War Graves and the Great War’, University of Melbourne, 2003

This sensitive and lucid thesis enriches our understanding of the ways in which Australians responded to one of the great national and personal traumas of the twentieth century. It is well known that the bodies of the 60,000 Australians who died on the battlefields of the First World War were never returned home. Ziino takes this truism and makes its central concern with distance his key interpretive framework. The result is an original contribution to the international cultural history of bereavement. By examining the effect of distance from grave sites on the experience of grief, and its attempted resolution at both the individual and national level, Ziino unsettles easy assumptions about war, loss and commemoration. His assertion of the nexus between civilian and soldier experiences of war is at once poignant and powerful.

Bereavement appears in this work as one path across that potential breach. Pilgrimages, memorialisation, grave photographs, flora samples  – all are read here in new ways as expressions of shared grief and obligation. They are shown to provide a potential salve for individual grief, the basis for communal sensibilities and the wellspring for particular forms of memorialisation adopted in some measure by the nation state. This is an admirable thesis, and a credit to intellectual rigour of the author and his skill as a narrator. Like all the best history-making, it furnishes the interested observer with not just a keen view of the historical terrain; it is also a roadmap for contemporary preoccupations.

2005 Serle Award Commendation

Catherine Mary Gilchrist, ‘Male Convict Sexuality in the Penal Colonies of Australia 1820-1850’, University of Sydney, 2004

Judges: Andrew Brown-May, Christina Twomey