Augustus Wolskel (1867-1949) was a technical chemist, General Manager of the Phosphate Co-operative Company of Australia until 1938, and a Fellow of the Royal Australian Chemical Institute.
He also happened to be keen on history and joined the Historical Society of Victoria as a member in 1921. He became a Council member in 1926, and Vice President in 1931. For four of the war years (1939-42) he was President of the RHSV. When he died in 1949 he left a £3000 bequest fund whose beneficiaries were the Economics Institute, the Royal Australian Chemical Institute and the RHSV.
In practice the three bodies received a distribution once every six years. RHSV was initially encouraged by the Trustees to use its share ‘for the purpose of awarding sextennially a prize or prizes for the best essay or essays upon such subjects as the change in the economic and/or political positions of the masses of the peoples as shown by the history of the State of Victoria.’
From the 1960s successive Councils of the RHSV interpreted the terms of the bequest broadly to sponsor a featured lecture by a prominent historian. In the 1980s a policy statement by the RHSV recorded:
“The terms of his bequest to us specified that it be used for educational purposes and some years ago Council decided that the best way of implementing his wishes was to use the income to establish a series of lectures in conjunction with our Biennial Conference.”
Although the funds were received six-yearly, the lectures were at two-yearly intervals.
Lecturers have included Manning Clark (the inaugural lecturer in 1967), Russell Ward, Michael Roe, Senator Douglas McClelland, Mr Justice Else-Mitchell, Geoffrey Blainey, Ken Inglis, Geoffrey Bolton, Eric Willmot, Peter Milner, Bill Russell, David Merritt, Patricia Grimshaw, Graeme Davison and Bart Ziino.
Manning Clark said in his own inimitable way of Wolskel, ‘It was not my good fortune to know him, but I gather that, like his friend Bernard O’Dowd, he cared passionately about Australia – that he was sustained by the great dream that millennial Eden might one day dwell here.’ This might give a clue to the sorts of lecturers or topics that have been invited to deliver the Wolskel Lecture.
After 2012 in view of the smallness of the remaining capital, the Trustees decided to wind up the fund. The RHSV Council decided to continue the Augustus Wolskel Lecture as its pre-eminent biennial lecture to be given by a distinguished speaker on some aspect of Victoria’s history. Keeping Wolskel’s reputation alive is also the Society’s way of recognising the great contribution made to preserving and valuing our history not only by professional historians but also by amateurs – those who love history. Wolskel’s diverse interests also highlight the ways in which history always should have reference to other intellectual disciplines and the practical world.
– Dr Andrew Lemon, 2015
Manning Clark (Inaugural lecturer)