Robert Samuel Ross and Arthur Wesley Wheen

Robert Samuel Ross and Arthur Wesley Wheen
Some surprising comparisons and contrasts found in research in the lead-up to Keepsakes
9 September 2014

The Manuscripts Collection at the National Library of Australia represents a broad cross-section of people and organisations that reflect the diversity of Australian society, culture and politics. Although born a generation apart and raised in ideologically dissimilar families, the lives of Robert Samuel Ross (1873-1931) and Arthur Wesley Wheen (1897-1971), both of whose papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection, invite some surprising comparisons and contrasts.

Although educated in widely different circumstances, both men became associated with prominent cultural institutions and were acknowledged for their literary expertise. Ross, largely self-educated, founded and edited his own journal, received recognition as a council member of the University of Melbourne and a trustee of the Victorian public library, museums and gallery, and became recognised as an authority on D.H. Lawrence. Wheen, on the other hand, studied at the University of Sydney and became a Rhodes Scholar. He was to become Keeper of the Books at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. He was renowned for his translation of All Quiet on the Western Front and for extensively enhancing the Museum’s collections of Eastern European and Asian literature.

Ross was an active opponent of Australian involvement in the First World War. In his campaign for social justice and equality, he experienced the penalties of censorship law. Wheen, on the other hand, saw active service in major battles on the Western Front. He opposed conscription and spoke against the discriminatory application of wartime censorship, and ultimately became a pacifist in respect of the Second World War.

Robert Samuel Ross (1873-1931)

Born in Sydney and later raised in Queensland, Robert Samuel Ross was converted to socialism by the writings of William Lane (1861-1917) who established the New Australia colony in Paraguay in 1893. Ross promoted pacifist ideas through his editorship of newspapers and journals including The Barrier Truth, The Flame, The Socialist and Ross’s Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress. 

Portrait of Robert Samuel Ross

Portrait of Robert Samuel Ross (from MS 3222)

In the vanguard of organised anti-communist socialism, Ross favoured the political philosophy of the Fabian Society, believing that socialism could be achieved by 'permeating tactics' of parliamentary rather than revolutionary means. For Ross, the critical battles were being fought in Australia rather than abroad. The real fight was "creating a new order guaranteeing food, shelter, [and] clothing for all." His manuscript collection (MS 3222) is small, but contains important correspondence, cartoons, handbills and photographs of his role in the anti-war movement. 

Ross opposed censorship and conscription, for which he became a repeated disciplinary target. Together with colleagues like Henry Boote (1868-1949), editor of The Australian Worker and whose papers are held at MS 2070, he shared the view that censors suppressed where suppression was possible and distorted where suppression was impossible.

Letter from Henry Boote to Arthur Wheen noting unfairness of the censors

Letter from Henry Boote to Ross, 28 January 1916: "The censor is rottenly unfair to you even by his own rottenly unfair standards." (MS 3222)

Ross held that censorship had been subverted from its proper purpose of national security to become a tool of the pro-conscriptionists, whereby the only information voters received was from Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Correspondence in the collection refers to the inconsistency of the Official Censor. Another recurrent theme is of war being good for 'Mr Big Business' and the worker paying the ultimate price.

One of Ross's most significant literary achievements was the launch of his Ross’s Monthly of Protest, Personality and Progress magazine, which ran from 1915-1924. He died at Richmond on 24 September 1931. His sons Lloyd Robert Maxwell Ross (1901-1987) and Edgar Ross (1903-2001) followed in the trade union and socialist traditions of their father and are also represented in the Library’s collections.

Arthur Wesley Wheen (1897-1971)

Arthur Wesley Wheen was born at Sunny Corner, near Bathurst, NSW, the second of eleven children (7 sons and 4 daughters) of Wesleyan minister Harold Wheen and his wife Clara. He was studying for an arts degree on a teachers’ scholarship at the University of Sydney when he volunteered for service in October 1915.

Portrait of Arthur Wesley Wheen

Portrait of Arthur Wesley Wheen (MS 3656)

On enlistment, he immediately embarked on his life-long habit of letter writing. His letters form the basis of his papers now held in the Library's Manuscripts Collection.

In December 1915 Wheen was shipped to Egypt, where he was transferred to the 54th Battalion as a signalman. In June 1916, he was sent to the Western Front where he took part in battles at Petillon, Beaulencourt, Villers-Bretonneux and Passchendaele. He received promotions in the field from Private to First Lieutenant, and was awarded the Military Medal and two bars for conspicuous bravery. He was wounded twice and medically evacuated to Australia in early 1919.

Departing for Passchendaele including Arthur Wheen

Departing for Passchendaele. Wheen is second from the right at front (MS 3656)

In 1920, Wheen won a Rhodes Scholarship to New College, Oxford where he read Modern History. He was appointed Assistant Librarian, Victoria and Albert Museum in 1924 and Keeper of the Library from 1940 to 1962 and is renowned for his acquisition of Eastern European and Asian literature.

In 1929, Wheen translated Erich Maria Remarque’s novel Im Westen nichts Neues which he called All Quiet on the Western Front. The work was acknowledged by Remarque himself as more of a stand-alone literary work than a mere translation. He died in Buckinghamshire in March 1971. A compilation of his correspondence has been published as We Talked of Other Things: Life and Letters of Arthur Wheen 1897-1971 edited by Tanya Crothers.

During my years at Hornsby Girls' High School (1953 - 1957) our librarian was Miss Wheen. Is she a sister or cousin of Arthur Wheen?