Scott was born in Northampton, England son of Hannah Scott, housekeeper; William Scott, civil engineer, was cited as his father when Ernest married. Ernest Scott was educated at St Katherine's Church of England School, Northampton and worked as a journalist on the London Globe. On 7 May 1892 Scott married Mabel Emily Besant, daughter of Rev. Frank and Annie Besant, the theosophist; they had one child, Muriel (1893–1924).
In 1892 Scott (who began to call himself Besant-Scott at his wife's insistence) migrated to Australia in 1892, where he joined the staff of The Herald newspaper, edited the Austral Theosophist and lectured. Around 1896 Mabel converted to Roman Catholicism and became estranged from her husband, although they continued nominal cohabitation. Scott subsequently abandoned theosophy. Mabel returned to England in 1909, taking their daughter Muriel, but Scott did not sue for divorce until 1915. On 25 May in Melbourne, Scott married to Bendigo-born Emily Illinden Fortuna, sister of Edward Dyason. They had no children.
From 1895 to 1901 Scott was a member of the Victorian Hansard staff, and from 1901 to 1914 was on the Commonwealth Hansard staff.
After the publication of Terre Napoléon: A History of French Explorations and Projects in Australia (London, 1910), Laperouse (Sydney, 1912) and The Life of Captain Matthew Flinders (Sydney, 1914), Scott's reputation as a historian was established.
In 1913 Scott was appointed Professor of History at the University of Melbourne, even though Scott had never attended a university. He had, however, shown ability both in research and as a lecturer, and the experiment proved a great success. Future professors of history who passed through Scott's school included (Sir) Keith Hancock, Fred Alexander, (Sir) Stephen Henry Roberts, Manning Clark, N. D. Harper and A. G. B. Fisher of Christchurch.
Scott's other works included A Short History of Australia (1916), Men and Thought in Modern History (1916), History and Historical Problems (1925), Australian Discovery (1929) and in 1933 appeared volume VII of The Cambridge History of the British Empire, edited and partly written by Scott. Australia During the War, being volume XI of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, appeared in 1936.
Scott retired in 1936, was knighted in June 1939 and died on 6 December 1939.
Scott was above medium height, bluff and open in manner. He was much interested in music, the drama and poetry, in which he had read widely. He had a sound knowledge of his own subject, and was an industrious and fast worker. He did much to bring Australian history to life. He did not always carry out his urgent advice to his students that they should "verify their references" and consequently errors will be found in some of his books. Generally, however, they are in comparatively unessential things and were caused by trusting to a usually reliable memory. As a rule his work is excellent and was always based on conscientious research. As a teacher he was interesting, vivid and inspiring, exacting hard work from his students and insisting on the value of original documents, while also pointing out that even they cannot be blindly accepted. He had a human interest in his students and no trouble was too great for him if it would help them in their work.
Scott's widow Emily Scott donated money to the university to establish the Ernest Scott Prize for History, which is awarded annually for the most distinguished contribution to the history of Australia or New Zealand.
- Fitzpatrick, Kathleen (1988). "Scott, Sir Ernest (1867 - 1939), Australian Dictionary of Biography". 11. Melbourne University Press: 544–546. Retrieved 22 December 2009.
- Serle, Percival (1949). "Scott, Sir Ernest (1867-1939)". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 30 August 2016.
- Statute R6.61 - Ernest Scott Prize at the University of Melbourne
- Ernest Scott Prize page at the University of Melbourne Faculty of Arts
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