Australian Biography

H C "Nugget" Coombs - full interview transcript

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You were born in Western Australia in 1906, what kind of a household were you born into?

Well my father was a country station master and we moved around a good deal, so that it was a household which was fairly close to being transient from time to time, but my father was ... well, he was born in England, came out to ... he was the son of a marine engineer. I don't know quite what a marine engineer was, whether that was a stoker or whether it meant someone who you know, did ... although he did have some kind of professional-technical qualifications, he was drowned at ... in a river in India and as a result, my father was educated at a school that was a kind of charity. It was established for the sons of Officers of the Merchant Marine, so that he got a fairly good education, and he came to Australia when he was about 19, I think, and - or just when the railways were being established and stuff and so on - that's how he came to be there. My mother was Irish, born in Ireland, the daughter of a very well-educated man, he was a scholar of Trinity College Dublin, and he came to Australia. I don't know if - the gossip was that he got into trouble at the University and, so to speak, was sent off to the colonies - and he became the Town Clerk of York, a country town in Western Australia where my mother grew up. As a result she was - although she had a fairly normal Australian country education - she had the benefit of growing up in the company of her father who was a very well-educated man, and a great reader, and his ... had a cultivated mind, and she, you know, acquired a great deal of quality, in a way, from which I benefited. So it was a household where the books were part of life, where conversation about intellectual and cultural things was normal. And I think that had an influence on the way I grew up.

What were their aspirations for you?

Well I don't know whether they really had any. I went to school but the fact that I ... it was not so much pressure from the family, as pressure from one of the headmasters in the school, who for some reason - he was a very good teacher, and he was very ambitious, and he ... There were a set of scholarships set up by the government; 50 scholarships to get into a secondary school and perhaps a whole lot of access to education in Western Australia at that time, and he was very anxious that the school should get some, and he picked me out and made me step out and miss a year of one class to move up one, so that I could sit for this examination and, well, give the right age. And he bullied me and incited me and stimulated me so I got the 49th out of the 50 scholarships.

Just made it.

Well I just made it, yes.

Had you done well at school? Did he pick you for that reason?

Well he thought I had potential, you know, rather than that I did. I was never very interested in school, even right through to secondary school when I was at Modern School, I was more interested in cricket ... games, than I was in - but I had continued to be a reader and to be interested in those things. But the first time I became interested in the education that was being provided was when I went to teachers college, where they suddenly were running the training course rather like what we would now call a university college. You know, the subject matter, and we did, oh, logic and psychology and philosophy and these things as well as educational theory and so on, so that and I got - and also economics - I got interested in those things because the subject matter was interesting. It wasn't just doing this to pass the examination on the top - that was quite an important thing - so I had good reason to be grateful to that particular headmaster at ... as I say who decided that I was going to confer credit on his school you see. Actually he did too, because we got several of those scholarships from the school while he was there, and it had never had done before, and, in fact, most of the scholarships used to go to the - the children from Perth of the big, you know, private schools and from the bigger state schools too.

So you went right through primary school and secondary school and got to tertiary level, and encountered a very good teacher without ever having connected education with ideas.

Well I began to connect them with ideas when I got into the teachers college, and then after that when I went out teaching I did my university course part time, you know by correspondence.

And how well did you do once you hit that ...?

I did ... that change of the subject of it you know, made a tremendous difference to the quality of my performance. I mean our primary school and secondary school, oh, I was a pretty ordinary scholar - I always passed but ...

Never came top.

Never came top, but once I got into teachers college, I did come top for a number of things, and at the university, particularly in economics and philosophy and things like that I began to get occasional distinctions and credits and so on. So that I got a First Class Honours Degree from there and, on the basis of that, won the Hackett Scholarship to do postgraduate studies in England. There was nowhere in Australia where you could do postgraduate work in economics in those days.

Going back to your parents.


You said they didn't have any particular career ambitions for you.


What sort of values were imparted in the home?

Well as I was saying, it was a home in which - it was a pretty happy home, my father and mother were very affectionate, affectionate towards one another and towards the children and ...

How many children were there?

There were five all together. I had an elder brother who died when he was about six, and I had four sisters all younger than me, so that for most of my life I was the eldest in the family, and ...

And the only son.

And the only son. Yes that ... And consequently I had fairly considerable domestic responsibilities, you know, I looked after the girls and nursed the babies and I learnt to be a good cook. At the age of about 11, I think it was, my mother had to go to hospital for an operation, the nature of which I don't - I don't think I've ever known, and she was in hospital for some weeks, and I kept house, did all the cooking, cleaned the house and all that - did the washing and all those things because my father was - he was a kindly man, but he thought that a husband was doing his performing properly if he stayed out of the kitchen, didn't interfere. 'I never interfere in the kitchen', he used to say, and so - so I interfered in the kitchen.

Not many men of your generation had that experience of being involved domestically.

I suppose not, but I think it was much more common in the country and, yeah well - I don't remember feeling that it was unusual, or - I think in the country all children, if they were on a farm, they had jobs to do: they did the milking, or they brought the cows in and that kind of thing, but if they didn't do those things, they had regular routine jobs and so on. I think every boy or girl that I knew at school, they all did those ... things like that, that was normal, and part of growing up.

What kind of children were in the schools that you attended?

Well, many of them were the daughters and children of people who ran farms in the area. The majority I think - well I could you know - [were] like us, my family, people who had functions in the town. They work you know, and their parents - fathers work in the post office, or the railway or they ... oh shire council or ... that and there were the butcher and the baker and that and those sort of things, so that and ... the policeman and ...


Yeah, there were a few in Bridgetown, not very many. The main thing I remember about them was that they were very good at football. But I didn't become aware of them in school really, until I became a teacher when I taught, in particular the first - when I started as a kind of pupil teacher, a monitor they used to call us and I was given a small group of students to teach myself, and the headmaster coming in from time to time to keep me on the right lines and so on, and there were a couple of Aboriginal children, brother and sister in that group, so I did see a bit of them but mostly the first real experience was in two places, Katanning and Pingelly, where I taught after I came out of teachers college, where there was quite a significant proportion of the children who were Aboriginal and I was horrified by the experience which they were subjected to. They didn't get any attention, educationally, they were usually thrust up the back of the class and ignored and they always passed at the end of the year because every teacher was determined to move them on out of their area of concern. So that that - and I became concerned about that - and it was during that time that I taught for a while on an emergency basis in a one-teacher school out of Katanning, where there were about, oh, nearly half the children in that school - the school only had about somewhere between twenty and thirty - but there were one or two Aboriginal families. And that was a very interesting experience because one, a girl I remember was really very able. She was a very good student and she mothered the brothers, bullied them into doing things but I was aware very much of the kind of handicaps that educationally, that Aboriginal children were suffering under, and also I became aware of the really bad racial antagonism that there was towards them in some of the country towns.

Why do you think you had a different approach to these Aboriginal pupils, what was it in your background that made you different from the others who had this attitude?

Well, my, both my parents would have been - not that they knew much about Aborigines - but they certainly would have been kindly and tolerant towards them. That kind of almost intuitive antagonism which seemed to be characteristic of country people wasn't characteristic of them. And certainly my mother was a very ... oh, I was going to say very religious; I mean religion was important to her, and well, we were a churchgoing family.

What kind of church?

Ah, it was an Anglican Church, although my father had been brought up in a nonconformist ... you know. But he, under my mother's influence, I think by the time I came around, we were going to the Church of England and I was in the choir and I went to Sunday School, all those things. But my mother had a very ... oh, I suppose our mother was ... can call her a kind of Christian Socialist. I mean, she believed that Christianity meant what it said about sharing and ... being - having care for other people and things like that, and that certainly influenced in my ways of thinking and was perhaps the reason why I was shocked by what seemed to me to be indifference and antagonism.

Did you feel there was anything you as an individual could really do about it?

No, oh I mean ah! Ah, no, I didn't think of it really in that way, I don't remember I - some of it of course was ... oh, I remember saying to a woman one of the things that puzzled me was that people, particularly women in this town, who were really very generous, kindly people in my relationships with them, still shared this hostility, this antagonism. And I said to one woman with whom I'd become friendly, not - she was a much older woman - but I knew her children and so on, and I asked her why, and I always remember what she said. She looked at me and said, 'Well I'll tell you. If you were a woman and you went down the street on shopping night, and you saw children whom you knew were your husband's children, how would you feel?'. I thought - I didn't think - I said, 'I might hate my husband, but I wouldn't hate the kids'. But that was a real factor in the little community in a kind of reserve I suppose, and many of the children who were black were the ones who were half-castes in that town. So that was part of this background to that hostility. It was very strange experience, but one of the things this has always struck me about that country life was the degree to which certain antagonisms were normal or expected. For instance in Bridgetown, the country town that I may have spent most of my formative years of childhood, the religious antagonisms were very very strong. It was proper to hate Catholics. Oh, I don't ... well we didn't have very many other varieties but they went to a different school, they went to a different church, and you didn't talk to them, you know. At least if you did you felt a bit guilty about it so ... and the stories would be you know; we used to go around about the terrible things that they did, so that - you grew up, if you were just responding to the kind of talk and so on that you heard, you grew up with [an] almost instinctive antagonism towards Catholics.

And that was something that you shared, unlike the feelings about Aborigines.

No I don't think I shared it because my mother didn't share it you see, and she was -

She was Irish?

She was Irish yes, but she was not a Catholic, she was - her father was a Protestant.

So she's an Irish Protestant who didn't hate Catholics.

Hmm hmm.

A remarkable woman.

Hmm? Yes I thought so. Still think so. Yeah, but so in a way I think the kind of atmosphere of the home and the sort of books that were lying around for me to read and so on, and conversations that took place over dinner were of a kind which ran counter to prejudicial kind of attitudes.

And really basically liberal-humanist.

Yeah I think so.

With a - with a Christian ...

Christian kind of ... say justification.



So then we got you and your life story up to London.


... and to the London School of Economics.


... on a special postgraduate scholarship.


What happened to you there, what was the seminal event there?

(intake of breath) Well it's very mixed. I was, in a way I was very disappointed. I went having ... with a passionately concerned about economics. It was the time of the Great Depression and the things that were brooded about when I was at the university in Perth and which were the motivation for my going to doing economics and I'd been really, so to speak, educated or brought up on the teachings of the Cambridge University teachers which included people like Keynes and so on, although he was just on his way up then. And I found when I got to the London School of Economics that the teachers of economics were very conservative. They were very much influenced by monetary kind of policy, theory based upon the teachings of Austrian economists and so on, with which I didn't feel much sympathy. But [the] main task of the PhD degree was, of course, the preparation of a thesis, and I had an idea when I went of what I wanted to do, you know, to write the thesis. So that was the major thing, and so far as the learning aspects of attending the lectures and participating in seminars and so on, that was very flexible. You could really plan your own course and I did that. I attended lectures to fill in gaps in my - what I felt to be gaps in my training and my experience, and I went to listen to people that I thought were interesting and one quite interesting thing was that it was the London School of Economics and Political Science, and these two parts of the University of the economists and the political scientists were really at daggers drawn. The political scientists were headed by Professor Laski who was a ... I don't know he - but I think he must have been European in origin or family was. He was Professor of Law really, oh, but he was a Marxist, and so were all the students in political science there, and so the university was a kind of hotbed of dispute between the conservative economists and the Marxist political scientists as they called themselves. And they used to run quite separate seminars, you know the whole course was ... where you either went to the economists' ones or you went to the whatyacalls, but Laski, who was a very interesting man, he used to have a seminar which you only got into by invitation and they didn't appear in the calendar, where he invited people who he thought were good students from economics and from political science to meet in his room and to argue with, to debate. And he used to lie back on a sofa you know, and just throw in a word when this argument seemed to be flagging see. So, it was great fun at any rate, and he invited me to go to one of these. And from then on I went regularly to this. So that was a very intellectually very stimulating thing because they read very widely and I was interested in politics, and well you can't be an economist if you're not. So that was amongst the most stimulating aspects of my period there. But I found doing the whole thing really quite a burden. See, I got married the day we left Perth to go to London. Our first baby was born nine months later so to speak, and well, as I say, I had the thesis to do, I had the work to do, I had to be quite a lot in the household with my wife pregnant and the rest of it. And also ... a whole lot of things we wanted to do to do. To go to theatre and to travel a bit here and there, and to visit relatives of my wife and myself and so on, so that I found the whole thing, while it was stimulating and I got great benefit from it, but I can't say that I enjoyed it, you know I found it a burden.

Nevertheless you managed to write your PhD thesis in only a couple of years, the shortest period that you could do it in.

Yes, yeah.

And what was the subject?

Well it was an examination of the policies adopted by the governments and central banks of the four British Dominions as we called them then - you know, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia - during the Depression, looking at the theoretical basis of the decisions that they made and working towards ... oh well, a kind of theory which linked trade cycle theory and but also ...

What year was that written?

That was 1931, '32 and a bit of '33.

Many people have remarked on the fact that when you wrote Trial Balance, instead of beginning it in 1906 'Herbert Cole Coombs was born in Western Australia', you begin in 1936. 'John Maynard Keynes published his General Theory and this was the seminal event in the life of ...'

Yeah, well it was you see, because by that time, the reason that in a sense I was being bullied into writing Trial Balance was that people wanted to know, to hear about the things that I had done during the War and then in [the] Post-War Reconstruction period and so they were ... they were looking for information about government and government policy I think, but also, of course, I think you know that all the best epics begin in the middle. Isn't that right?

Well, it could also have reflected the fact that your intellectual life seems to have been very central, and very important to you. And I suppose in some ways that was reflected in that that was where you began with what really had led you to form a lot of your own views, about what should be done in the world.

Oh yes, that's, yes, certainly true, but also I think even from the point of view of wanting to know about what happened - my childhood and education - in a sense you understand them better, I think, if you know something about where it's going.

You said that the importance of economics had become clear to you because of living through the Depression and, of course obviously, it was the Depression that pushed and forced the school of thought that finally gave rise to Keynes' General Theory to develop. I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the Depression as you experienced it in in Western Australia, and in London.

Well, personally, I was one of the very lucky ones that it, the Depression in Western Australia, imposed no personal hardship on me. I was by that time in the process of becoming a qualified teacher, I had a job and while I think I earned 78 pounds a year as a pupil-teacher, monitor or whatever, and I felt I contributed a pound a week of that to my units of the ... maintaining the household and so on, and thought I was maintaining it all really you see, but it was surprisingly adequate. But on the other hand my sisters, who did just as well and indeed better than I did at school, well one of them found that she qualified as a teacher but when she - her training course was over - there was no job for her in the school and she had a period of unemployment, or at least of employment other than as a teacher until the position changed a bit and they were recruiting teachers again. So that there was some degree of hardship in the family but it wasn't really serious. But I was aware of it as affecting other people and situations. But London was different from that because while London was spared the worst of the impact of the Depression in England, it was nevertheless much more obvious ... particularly to me than its effects in Western Australia had been. That was partly because one of the things that I did or had to do while I was in London, in addition to doing the thesis and the rest of these things, I registered myself at the London County Council School as a qualified teacher, which meant that they could offer me short-term employment. Now they'd ring me up or send a message saying there's someone away from Hammerstead High, or someone from Shoreditch Primary or something or other, would you be interested in a week's work or three weeks' work or such? Well I've - this was against the rules of the University to do that in term time - so I began by saying only to accepting it only during vacation times. But the vacations were quite a lot and you know I was supposed to be, I mean was working on my thesis but I did teach and after a while as things got on, and money became scarcer oh, you know, I used to take them for particularly the shorter term ones during term time too or see - not reporting this to the London School of Economics. As a result of which I taught in the slums of London, I taught in the middleclass - Highgate and Kensington and so on - but also in Shoreditch and all sorts of places so that I saw a cross-section of London life, kids, and it was not a very pleasant experience because the kids suffered very badly in the Depression. They were short of food, they - and they - rickets were common amongst the kids and, you know, they were pasty faced and skinny and miserable looking. And that was a distressing kind of experience and there must have been much, much worse in Wales and Yorkshire and the places where unemployment had hit the factories and so on. London - well, it was mainly at a town and government and the offices and shops and all - so that, you know, they didn't ... were not quite so badly off - but it was enough any rate to intensify my concern about the economic system and my, I think, conviction that - it wasn't operating either. Certainly not operating fairly but it was not even operating efficiently. So that it was - it intensified my anxiety to understand it.

[end of tape]

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