Emeritus Professor Ronald Godfrey Tanner & Collected Papers

Composed By Peter Vincent Langton, University of Newcastle
(Student, Bachelor of Arts)


Godfrey in Academic Attire

Listen here to ABC1233 RADIO INTERVIEW with Peter Langton about Godfrey Tanner, Tuesday 5 July 2017   Interviewer Jenny Marchant.

Ronald Godfrey Tanner was born on the 24th of September, 1927, in Brisbane Queensland, Australia. He was an only child and very little is known about his parents.

Godfrey’s education began with his attendance at Melbourne Grammar throughout the war years, before he further continued his higher education at the Melbourne University where he graduated with a First-Class Master’s Degree in Classics in 1950.

Furthermore, he completed his tuition at Cambridge University in Cambridge, England in the July of 1952, where he was awarded First-Class Honors in Classical tripos a program that encompassed the anthropology, language and philosophy of the ancients. This is confirmed by Godfrey himself in a letter written to the Vice-Chancellor in 1962 in prelude to being promoted to the rank of Associate Professor where he gives a clear summary of his curriculum vitae. Upon leaving Cambridge he returned to the University of Melbourne in November 1952 where he was a lecturer in Classics.  In January 1957 he moved to Sydney, New South Wales, to take up the position of senior class master at The King’s School in Parramatta; he finished there in the December of 1959.

After moving to Newcastle Godfrey began his tenure at Newcastle College of the University of New South Wales as it was named at the time, this was in February 1960, as the Senior Lecturer in charge of the Classics.  At this time and barely a year after he first started teaching, he was leading “freedom marches” demanding that the Newcastle College be granted autonomy as an independent University, which at the time it was a provisional branch of the University of New South Wales; eventually autonomy would be achieved in 1965.  Godfrey was appointed Associate Professor of Classics in September 1963; then in September 1964 he became Foundation Professor of Latin and Head of Classics Department, he held this position until February 1993.

Professor Tanner was Dean of the Faculty of Arts several times throughout his tenure at the University, firstly from January to July in 1973, then again from January 1979 until January 1981; and lastly from January 1984 to January 1986.  He was described as enthusiastic and colourful in his position of dean.  Also, in February of 1993 he was honoured with title of Emeritus Professor of Classics.  In early 1993 he retired, but not a full retirement as he was still teaching Sanskrit up until his death in 2002.  In 1994 he was awarded by the University of Newcastle an Honorary Degree, a Doctor of the University; a distinction and honour of which he was very proud to have received.

The commitment that he had towards the University was well known and undoubtable, he was highly involved in and supportive of the sporting life of the University.  Godfrey was the founder of the Boating Club at Raymond Terrance, was Patron of the Rugby League, Surf Riding and Rowing Clubs.  The Vice-President of the University Rugby Club, a member of the Venerable Gentlemen Cricket Team.  He was the President of the Sports Union from 1970 to 1974.  Also attained the position of Vice-President of the Australian Universities Sporting Association (AUSA).  Furthermore, for his commitment and service to sport he was awarded Life Membership of the Sports Union.

Prof Godfrey at a Uni event

Moreover, he was committed to the student life at the University where he set up debating and Union Nights and helped to organise the 1965 Universities Drama Festival that was held at the University grounds.  Tanner was a member of the Union Board of Management from 1975 to 1988, Trustee in 1981 through to 1989, and was Patron from 1990 onwards.  He was awarded Life Membership of the Union in the year of 1992.  The Godfrey Tanner Bar which was thus named in the year of 1992 is named in his honour, and it was due to his frequent visits and enjoyment of a decent chat over a glass of red with decades of students that they eventually named it after him.

Additionally he was an elected Member of University Council under the old Act, 1984 to 1988 and was thus re-elected in 1999 under the 1989 Act as Convocation Member of University Council for a term.  In 1996 he was awarded Distinguished Membership of Convocation, and months later he was elected Deputy Warden of Convocation, this position he held for two consecutive years.  From the year of 1997 Godfrey was ambassador of Alumni development for the University.  Godfrey in 1998 gave his approval to the establishment of the Godfrey Tanner Scholarship Fund.  He himself contributed to this greatly.  The scholarship was set up to assist students who had been disadvantaged in one way or another; this showing his generosity which was well-known throughout the University and wider community.  His contributions to a variety University committees was as mentioned quite extensive and, for him, an important, if not tiresome duty.

“He was one of the founding fathers of the University and saw it as his duty to dedicate his life to its growth and evolution.”  – Gionni Di Gravio, Godfrey Tanner Opus.

Professor Tanner was also a major part of bringing about the Faculties of Law and Medicine into the University. In an interview undertaken in 1995 he mentions that upon his arrival to the University in 1960 he suggested to James Auchmuty that the University needed academically two things; firstly it was in need of a Law Faculty, and secondly was in need of a Medical Faculty. He also continues to mention that culturally it needed residential colleges.  This showing his commitment and dedication towards the University from the very beginning of his tenure.  He was also the Patron of the Engineering Fraternity and enjoyed close relationships with the Faculty of Engineering who later provided him with an office after official retirement.

Listen to Godfrey speaking on the topic here…

Furthermore, he was the Australian Representative on the International Federation for Classical Studies. Also elected President in October 1992 of the Australian Society of Classical Studies. He was a stout monarchist, and a card-carrying member of the Australian Liberal Party.  He campaigned during the early 70s for gay rights, as he himself was a homosexual.  Godfrey opposed the Vietnam War before it was even fashionable to do so.  During this time he suspended his Liberal Party membership and gave sanctuary to draft dodgers, secreting them in the Bestiary his home and helping to finance their run from duty.  He was a Christian, a believer in salvation and religious tradition, and although he was openly homosexual this made him an unlikely lay official of the Anglican Church, he was a member of the synod and as such was a long standing one at that.  He was a dedicated believer in God.

Many at the University of Newcastle both students and staff knew Professor Tanner more colloquially as ‘the Beast’, and his off campus home was called the Bestiary.  It is mentioned in the Godfrey Tanner Opus compiled after his passing that Godfrey was generous, he was known for his outrageous humour and that he had a zest for life.  Described by Alan Roberts as ‘a man for all seasons’, because while he had his own beliefs and sense of values, he was ready to accept (maybe with some reluctance) the changes that are brought on by modern society.  Above all, Godfrey Tanner was a strong advocate for the traditions of the collegiate culture and standards that are the hallmark of the great universities of the world. He is undoubtedly one of the University of Newcastle’s greatest icons.

Godfrey argued that universities should be “places of public conscience” committed to “passing on the great cultural traditions and the wisdom of the past.” – Troy Duncan, from Godfrey Tanner Opus.

An interest of his was philosophy and even though it was outside of his own department he indulged himself in partaking in philosophical discussions due to his own well-formed philosophical interests, and partly because he liked the dialectical involvement of the sort that is provided by such discussions.  Particularly he greatly enjoyed talking with students at Philosophy Club meetings, and the Philosophy Camp always found a place within his schedule.

He was well traveled and was an international character, as it is described in the opus dedicated to him; he would travel to British Academy institutions scattered around the Mediterranean and the Middle East.  The most significant of these was the British School at Athens (BSA), he regularly spent Christmas at the BSA.  He traveled to locations throughout Turkey and he journeyed to Cyprus.  Most of the time these travels to place for academic purposes with some room for the non-academic pursuits.

One of the things that many people who knew Godfrey remember is that of him riding his bike, which was named Charlotte the Harlot, around the Callaghan Campus of the University with his academic robes flowing behind him.  He was considered a remarkable linguist, willing and able to write articles for foreign journals in any language.  More often than not he would arrive to his lectures to the surprise of his students wearing a faded polo t-shirt, short shorts, sandals and an academic gown.  To him gender or age was no boundary for friendship as he treated with affections and respect, and gave support and acceptance to all.  He was known to have been able to recite Shakespeare at age of eight, and attended school in Melbourne with Barry “Edna Everage” Humphries and Former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser.

“If there is one legacy I can take from Godfrey’s teaching, it is that he taught me to value and enjoy ‘the university experience’.” – Jeff Tillitzki, from Godfrey Tanner Opus.

Sadly and regretfully the one and only Emeritus Professor R. Godfrey Tanner died on the night of Wednesday the 10th of July, 2002, at the age of 74.  However, his memory and legacy lives on in the hearts, minds and souls of those that knew him and met him.  Unfortunately he never had married, nor had sired any children.  He did however, leave behind a great many intellectual and social debtors.  As such his legacy shall live on in their minds and hearts.

Recollections & Memories of ‘The Beast’

Other than a generous and kind man he was also “a man of brutal frankness” in the words of Troy Duncan. In 2012 this statement was given, “As soon as you say Godfrey, you think of a man who encapsulated an idea of a university…”, they were words spoken on reflection of Godfrey Tanner at the 2012 Godfrey Tanner Scholarship Awards ceremony at the bar named in his honour.

Please note: Dr Troy Duncan, in the video above, states that Professor Tanner died on the 13 July 2002, when in fact he died on the 10 July 2002.

Gionni Di Gravio of the University of Newcastle Archives is one of those people who knew Godfrey, he would regularly catch the 100 bus with him.  On these rides Gionni would often listen to the wise words and ramblings of the “Beast” on the many topics that he would talk about.  He remembers him as a “true scholar” and that Godfrey was always willing to answer any question that you had, and took the time to answer it.  When speaking about collecting the library of Tanner from the “Bestiary” Di Gravio remarks that he “could feel Godfrey leaving with him when leaving the house”.  In his mind every book from the personal collection of Godfrey Tanner has a bit of his spirit attached to it.

“As far as I can ascertain, Godfrey held the rare distinction of being the only lecturer at the university to fall asleep in his own lecture, and I was there when he did it.” – Stephen Date, from Godfrey Tanner Opus.

Dr. Troy Duncan of the University of Newcastle has many fond memories of Godfrey from when he knew him from his own days as a student.  He remembers a time when Prof. Tanner arrived to a lecture so heavily intoxicated that he got Hugh Lindsay to take the lecture on his behalf, which he obliged.  Moreover, both Troy and Hugh look back on the way that he never used lecture notes, and more so never even took them with him; every lecture was done from memory.  Personally, Troy would partake regularly in dinners with Godfrey on Friday and or Saturday nights.  He was a great impromptu speaker and had a gift for it as remarked by Troy; and furthermore he was a very approachable man, if any university student, staff member or even member of the public wanted to talk with him he would happily oblige them.

Another memory that Troy has is that of the day of Godfrey’s retirement farewell in 1992 of Godfrey wearing a suit that he personally remarked as having bought in 1949 roughly forty years prior, and moreover, that he could still wear it; this he stated was something that “Terry Ryan was envious of”.  Troy’s life was thus enriched by Godfrey Tanner’s presence and his friendship; and every memory he has of him is a happy and fond one.

Many people who knew him including Troy comment on the Beast’s sense of humor as being wicked and witty, a man who loved to shock people, and being very creative when it came to wording his more vulgar vocabulary.  Hugh Lindsay remembers him as having an almost ‘photographic memory’ able to remember things more acutely than most. Commented that he was extremely Right Wing, but that he disagreed when it came to certain political issues relating to sexuality, etc. He could be considered as both a traditional and a radical.  Furthermore, he comments on how Godfrey hated having to read modern literature, he emphasized the importance of reading original sources and he felt that there was too much reliance on modern historiography. Godfrey was, as Hugh puts it an ‘out loud and proud’ sort of man who was a very peculiar character, “he would tease the young men of the university, usually with homosexual quips; most would accept this as just Godfrey being Godfrey”.  These quips would not be accepted today in these more politically correct times.

Dr. Bernie Curran was a very close friend of Godfrey’s with a friendship spanning some 20 or more years, since his first day as a student under the watchful and encouraging eye of Godfrey Tanner all the way to the time of Godfrey’s death in 2002.  Godfrey was highly encouraging towards Bernie’s studies especially when it came to doing the Classics, which he said that he had a natural knack or talent for even after failing his first time at the University, upon Bernie’s return he continued to be encouraged by Tanner, and Godfrey was very pleased to see that he had returned.   When doing his PhD it was under the guidance of Godfrey who was his supervisor, and Bernie reminisces that it was a most radical time period of his life.  After leaving the University Bernie was given encouragement by Tanner to apply for a vacant position in the Classics Department at the time, which he successfully got the position; this pleased Godfrey.

Godfrey, Bernie and Penglase Sitting on bench

Over the years their friendship continued to blossom and grow, Bernie puts this down to the reasoning that to Godfrey he was an all rounder.   It was mentioned that Tanner was fascinated by the Aboriginal story and their ways, he showed respect towards them and in return the Aboriginal Elders referred to him as an ‘Elder of the West’.  He was known to always make the point of relevance in his discussions, being able to trace the links between the Ancient and the Modern.  He was in Bernie’s mind the ultimate polymath with vast knowledge on almost every subject, and what struck him even more was the emotionally deep involvement that Godfrey had with all these different subjects that he talked about.  Tanner got Bernie involved after his employment occurred in many committees at the University, such as guiding him in setting up the Alumni Committee.

Furthermore, Bernie went travelling with Godfrey to Italy, Greece and Turkey.  Mention is made by Bernie that Godfrey believed in the Greek ideal of Kalos Kai Agathos, which basically means ‘all round development’ or an ‘all rounder’; to be developed in not just the mind but also the body as well.  He believes that Tanner treated him as a son, that he was grooming him to be the next Godfrey Tanner (but really there will always only be one Godfrey Tanner), he says he was ‘spoiled by his dedication’.  Bernie in his eulogy written for Godfrey’s funeral remarks that while Godfrey had become quite frail, his will and determination were still so strong that they were all led to believe that he would be around for much longer.  Bernie will never forget the final days of Godfrey, which he was by his side for the last three days of his life.  To the Chaplain on the final day of his friends life Bernie said “He is ready for God, but I am not sure God is ready for him”, summing up the large character and persona that he was. Overall when talking about Godfrey Tanner his old friend and mentor, Bernie Curran talks with such passion and zest, remembering things as clear as day about him.


Tanner Express Article

Above is an image of a newspaper article that features Godfrey with a black eye, that he received from defending a pair of female university students on the Central Coast.

Works and Collection

The following is the digitised version of the many written articles of Godfrey Tanner.

The Collected Papers of Professor Godfrey Tanner (PDF, 398.3MB) Compiled by Peter Langton, May 2017

The Collected Papers of Professor Godfrey Tanner (OCR PDF, 387.2MB) Compiled by Peter Langton, May 2017

Professor Tanner collected a vast array of books and journal articles which were upon his death given to the University of Newcastle’s Archives Department, and these were collected by Gionni Di Gravio from the Bestiary.  Below is a catalog of all collected items that were passed on to the University Archives.

Tanner Collection


Thanks to all those that were willing and able to meet up with me to discuss and look back on the wonderful and eccentric Godfrey Tanner: Dr Bernie Curran, Dr Troy Duncan, Gionni Di Gravio, and Hugh Lindsay to name a few.

7 thoughts on “Emeritus Professor Ronald Godfrey Tanner & Collected Papers

  1. In June 1970, Professor Tanner initiated a discussion on homosexual law reform in the Newcastle Anglican Synod, a bold move. His motion in support passed, the first such for any religious body in Australia, I think.

  2. Godfrey was unforgettable. Hence I well recall meeting him when he came to a Classics meeting of some kind at Sydney University – must have been when he was en route from Melbourne to Newcastle.
    Glad to see he made such a mark during his Newcastle years.
    John Parkinson

  3. Godfrey inspired me to study Greek when I was still a school boy in the 1970’s – still teaching it decades later and I think of Godfrey every time I do!

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