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RAHS Day Lecture – Virtue in Australian Capitalism

Event Date & Time: Wednesday, 6 March 2024 @ 1.00 pm – 2.00 pm

Event Location: Online via Zoom

Cost: Free

Event Description:

In 1868 Miss Lucy Osburn, a trained nurse, read a book on board the ship Dunbar Castle. She and six Nightingale nurses were travelling to Sydney to take up their posts in the Sydney Infirmary. They arrived on 11 March to a strange small town known to be peopled by criminals and an infirmary that stank of sewage. Miss Osburn’s book was a gift intended to help her prepare for life in the colony. It was much-needed, though ‘she was afraid’, she wrote to Florence Nightingale, that the book was about a different colony. It was very easy to get them mixed up, partly because all of the settler colonies shared a shaky, anxious goal of building a new kind of economy, based on virtues that often seemed overshadowed, at home in England, by the excesses of the old aristocracy and an entrenched class system. Nurses like Osburn, and also medical doctors, lawyers, accountants, clergy, teachers, charity workers, engineers, architects and surveyors were the vanguard of the moral-economic goals of these ‘social laboratories’. Although many professions were modelled on those established in Britain, such white-collar work grew much faster in the Antipodes and in the other English speaking settler colonies of Canada and the United States than they had in the home country. Over the following decades, this professional class invested a combination of financial capital and morality into the economies of Australia and the rest of the settler world, building a model of ‘virtue capitalism’ that would take over the global economy by the mid-twentieth century. In this lecture, Hannah Forsyth will talk about the ways virtue was imagined and built into Australian capitalism, how it went wrong and what has happened to professional expertise and morality in the economy in recent decades.

About the speaker:

Hannah Forsyth is a writer and historian. She has written two books, Virtue Capitalists (Cambridge University Press, 2023) and A History of the Modern Australian University (UNSW Press, 2014). Hannah holds a PhD and an MA in History. She did her BA Honours in Near Eastern Archaeology and has a qualification in educational design (GradCert Learning Science and Technology). Hannah has taught (both in person and online) global history, historiography, Indigenous histories, Australian history, politics and the history of capitalism and has supervised postgraduate students. She has also facilitated adult learning and workplace training, run focus groups and conducted research interviews.