Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Rusden, George William

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RUSDEN, GEORGE WILLIAM (1819–1903), historian of Australia and New Zealand, born at Leith Hill Place, Surrey, on 9 July 1819, was third son of the Rev. George Keylock Rusden and Anne, only daughter of the Rev. Thomas Townsend. While yet a lad he emigrated to New South Wales in 1834 with his father, who was appointed chaplain for the Maitland district.

Rusden first tried his hand at pastoral work, but he soon turned to politics; from 1841 onwards he wrote for the press and lectured. On 4 July 1849 he became under the New South Wales government agent for national schools at Port Phillip; later he was transferred to Moreton Bay. When in 1851 the new colony of Victoria was constituted, he was appointed (10 Oct.) chief clerk in the colonial secretary's office, and on 11 Oct. 1852 clerk to the executive council. On 18 Nov. 1856, when a full parliament of two chambers was established, he became clerk of parliaments. In 1853 he joined the national board of education for Victoria and the council of the Melbourne University. Always deeply interested in Shakespeare, he had much to do with the establishment of the Shakespeare scholarships at that university in 1864.

Having gradually formed the idea of writing a history of Australasia, Rusden visited England in 1874 with a view to finding support for the enterprise, and was much encouraged by Anthony Trollope; in the latter part of 1878 he visited New Zealand in connection with the history which he was writing of that part of the empire. In 1882, having retired on pension, he again visited New Zealand and then came on to England to take up his residence and see to the publication of his histories, both of which came out in 1883. Their publication produced an unfortunate episode : an action for libel was brought against Rusden by one Bryce, a member of the New Zealand legislature, respecting whose action during the Maori wars the historian had used severe and unguarded criticism. Some of the most eminent counsel at the bar were engaged, and the case lasted eight days during March 1886. A jury cast Rusden in 5000l. damages, afterwards reduced by consent to about half that amount on a new trial at which Rusden himself conducted his case with marked ability. At the second hearing Rusden retracted his statements. The press was on the whole unfavourable to Rusden, who was held to be guilty of serious indiscretion.

About 1893 Rusden returned to Melbourne to spend the rest of his life. He divided his time between his literary work and municipal affairs; but his health gradually failed, and he died at his house, Cotmandene, South Yarra, on 23 Dec. 1903. Rusden was of striking appearance and was a genial and interesting companion. Rusden's chief works were his 'History of Australia' (3 vols. 1883) and ’History of New Zealand' (3 vols. 1883); revised editions of both were published at Melbourne in 1895-7. These works offer a broad survey of the growth of two great colonies, but Rusden's defect of critical faculty better adapts them to the use of the public man than of the student. Rusden also published: 1. 'Moyarra, an Australian Legend,' a poem, Maitland, 1851. 2. 'National Education,' 1853. 3. 'Discovery, Survey, and Settlement of Port Phillip,' 1872. 4. 'Curiosities of Colonisation,' 1874. 6. 'William Shakespeare : his Life, Work and Teaching,' Melbourne, 1903. Among many pamphlets which he issued under his own name or the pseudonyms of 'Vindex' or 'Yitta-davin' the most interesting are his 'Character of Falstaff' (1870) and a ’Letter to "The Times" on the Law of Libel' (1890).

[Melbourne Argus and Age, 24 Dec. 1903; Athenæum, 6 Feb. 1904; Mennell's Dict. of Australas. Biog.; Early Victorian Blue Books; his own evidence in Bryce v. Rusden (pp. 264 seq.); Brit. Mus. Cat.; personal knowledge.]

C. A. H.