Geoffrey Curgenven Bolton

Emeritus Professor, AO, FASSA, FAHA

Geoff had an illustrious academic career. After first class honours and an MA degree at the university of WA, he won a Hackett Studentship to Balliol College, Oxford, where he completed his doctorate. He returned to Australia to take up a research fellowship at the Australian National University, followed by a senior lectureship at the newly established Monash University before being appointed to his first Chair of History at the University of Western Australia in 1966. He took up the Foundation Chair of History at Murdoch University in 1973, later becoming head of the Australian Studies Centre at the University of London, Professor of Australian History at the University of Queensland and then Professor of History at Edith Cowan University and in 2006 was named West Australian of the Year.


​Geoff devoted his life to history. It was of unceasing interest to him and, in turn, many histories flowed from him in books, articles, interviews and talks - at least fifteen books as well as a great many other publications of all sizes in which he assisted. His output was abundant and continued until his death, with his authoritative biography of Paul Hasluck (2014) his last major work. Few scholars could claim such a prolific and varied output, one that testified to his intellectual ability, energy and dedication.


​Like other leading historians of his generation he spanned imperial and Australian history, a man of wide knowledge which he always wore lightly and with wit. He has been Western Australian's leading historian of his time and will be sorely missed.


​Open-mined and ever alert to new approached to history, Geoff pioneered many new areas in Western Australian historical writing. His 1953 MA thesis, 'A survey of the Kimberley pastoral industry form 1885 to the present', and his first book Alexander Forrest. His life and Times (1958), were path-breaking regional and biographical studies. A Fine Country To Starve In (1972) tackled the devastating impact of the 1930's depression on a primary agricultural state, drawing on oral interviews to capture the personal experience of the catastrophe. He became an early practitioner and leader of the oral history movement.

Spoils and Spoilers: Australians Make Their Environment, 1788 to 1981 (1981) introduced environmental history. Daphne Street (1997), his close-grained biography of the street where he grew up, was another departure into new (and personal) territory. He wrote on Aboriginal-settler relations with sensitivity.


​His biographical studies, both lengthy and brief, captured the characters and influence of a multitude of past West Australians. Her was central to the life of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, writing 86 entries over the years. He made major contributions to the State's political history, notably in the form of collaborative biographical dictionaries. Following in the footsteps of Kimberly, Battye and Crowley, his brilliantly-titled Land of Vision and Mirage: Western Australia since 1826 (2008) was his endeavour 'to summarise and interpret the history of Western Australia since British occupation and settlement' for his generation. In all these ways he shaped the understanding of WA history.


​Geoff was a brilliant lecturer with such an encyclopaedic knowledge and prodigious memory that he could step into any breach at the last minute and deliver an erudite and entertaining talk. Some amazing talks were delivered from the back of an envelope! He rarely said no to the continuous flood of requests for leactures, book launch speeches, interviews on diverse topics, after-dinner speechers, committee membership or chairing, and so forth. He seemed to enjoy making himself available and giving his time and considerable authority to worthwhile enterprises. If his support could help, he provided it. His intellect and the speed of his mind enabled him to undertake far more than others could. He collaborated on so many projects at the same time that it would have been difficult for anyone else to keep track!


​He mostly had admirers, but listened carefully to those who occasionally disagreed and was always a kind and supportive senior historian. Geoff was not only respected but also held in great affection. He was warm and friendly, a favourite with students. His histories are widely read because he could engage his readers with knowledge, charm and a splendid turn of phrase. Although Geoff was already in his 80's, he had numerous histories in the planning stage in his head and intended to keep writing. We will never learn about these topics, alas, or read the fascinating memoirs he planned. And there will be no more interesting talks or endless flow of anecdotes and aphorisms; no more nuggets of information instantly recalled and appropriate to the occasion. It is very hard to believe that such a wealth of knowledge and such a lively mind has gone. We will miss him so much!


​Dr Lenore Layman


[A long time colleague, Dr Lenore Layman, wrote a fine memoir of her friend for the Royal Western Australian Historical Society and kindly let us reprint it here.]