My time at Canberra Grammar began in late May 1953, following the family’s move from Melbourne and my Father’s appointment as Manager of the then Bank of New South Wales. My brother and I departed at the end of 1957, our matriculation year, the intervening years I believe being quite representative of the decade. Significant changes only began with the arrival of the School’s third Headmaster Paul McKeown in 1959. I well remember our first day, the school oval covered in the thickest frost I had ever seen and despite a cloudless sky and the sun shining brightly, it gave off little warmth. After a brief introduction to Headmaster Canon Garnsey, we were shown to our class room, it being quite a contrast to the High School we left behind in Melbourne with its pristine furnishings and ducted heating. Remembering CGS was still in the struggling phase with little money to be spared on niceties, a wood fire provided the heating – which was really only beneficial to the lucky ones whose desks were situated in close proximity. Desks were well carved with the names of present and previous occupiers and many of the metal chairs had been put together in the school workshop.
Canberra’s population at the time was barely 25,000 and the school’s enrolment including junior classes was approximately 240. The boundaries to the south and west bordered Charlie Russell’s sheep property and from there and beyond many of the boarders, after picking up a packed lunch from the kitchen, would spend much of their weekends on bush leave, exploring the areas now taken up by Woden and Tuggeranong. There were no iPads, TV or internet in those days to occupy restless school boys. The north boundary was bordered by Flinders Way, as it does to this day, while to the east Monaro Crescent was unsealed from Flinders Way and after passing the School’s driveway, it ended in a gouged out, eroded creek bed used as one of the city’s rubbish dumps, somewhere along the present Golden Grove. The boarders, many of whom came from a farming background, comprised two thirds of the school enrolments. I believe they were generally happy with their lot, only the occasional lad would abscond, obviously missing Mum’s cooking.
Prior to when Urban Development commenced in the Woden Valley in the early 60’s, the valley was home to a scattering of farms allocated under the Soldier Settlement Scheme. Many sons of the original settlers attended Canberra Grammar in the 30’s and 40’s, including Bill De Salis, Ben Champion, Robert Campbell and Robert Tanner, who were members of the Old Boys Union Committee when I joined in 1958. The three Eddison brothers each of whom paid the ultimate sacrifice during WW2 also experienced a rural upbringing in the Valley. In fact, their block encompassed where my townhouse now stands in McNamara Street in Pearce! The three Eddison boys also attended Grammar, while their three sisters attended Girls Grammar.
For the large contingent of boarders, many helped to bring a little homeliness to their rather Spartan existence. Housekeeper Katie Morris attended to the boarder’s clothes, washing, ironing, mending, and sewing on name tags with the diligence and care as if they were her own. Sister Pat Sorby was like a mother hen carrying out her sisterly duties while Mrs Garnsey kept a motherly eye on those suffering from homesickness.
Many of the teaching staff, being fully aware of the school’s dire financial state, were prepared to work for a salary much less than what they might earn elsewhere. Long serving icons Roy Morrow and Jack Tyrell left many happy memories with the boys they taught over many years.
Roy, who taught maths, was invariably coated in chalk as he explained a difficult problem to his class and was never backward in tattooing the backside of a wayward student with his wooden compass. His most famous saying was “If you haven’t got a method, you have a mess”. Sayings such as this stick in one’s mind, even after so many years and reminds me of a visit to the school by Sir William Slim, our Governor-General at the time. He addressed the senior boys in the School library and his parting words, which I will never forget “Own up, Pay up and Shut up”. Out of the classroom, Roy proved a popular housemaster, firstly with Intermediate House and then with Jones House, which was one of two senior Boarding houses that existed at the time, Blaxland being the other. The third senior house, Sheaffe, was made up of the minority day boys. Jack Tyrell taught English and was one-time House Master of Sheaffe. He lived for many years in one of the three cottages built for married staff in Monaro Crescent, a short way from the School drive. He cultivated his small plot with vegetables and flowers and in a separate fenced off area he kept a cow.
“A man of the cloth, a man of the earth”
To this day I can close my eyes and still hear that distinctive voice of Jack Tyrell either admonishing me for some misdemeanour or preaching Shakespeare or the History of Mr Polly, our class novel by HG Wells. It was widely rumoured he would be appointed the Founding Head of Radford College but that was not to be, and I believe this remained a major regret in his lifetime of teaching.
When I arrived at Canberra Grammar in 1953, Fred Fage was the groundsman-come-maintenance man – there to fix anything and everything when it went wrong, from an obstinate boiler to keeping the pigeon population at an acceptable level.
Fred came to Grammar in 1951, being involved in the building of the three staff cottages. When they were complete, he was asked to join the School’s maintenance staff. In fact, he was the School’s entire maintenance staff. Seen around the school grounds with his greying crew-cut, mischievous grin and cockney accent, he was loved by all and looked upon as just one of the boys.
Following the departure of Bert Hauptmann from the Farm Mechanics workshop and a number of subsequent failed appointments, Canon Garnsey handed the reins to Fred. He handled the extra responsibility with much enthusiasm and spent extra hours in supervising prep and giving one-on-one assistance to a boy not coping. At one stage, he took over the coaching of a junior rugby team, his colourful words of encouragement sent many a shiver up the spine of a watching parent but his young charges would move heaven and earth for Fred and the results showed.
My lack of interest in learning the fundamentals of science was not lost on Mrs Gerome, our teacher at the time. A feisty Scotswoman, with a strong accent, she would begin each class by announcing “May get oot and Brun get to the back, now we can start” – Brun being David Brown who also favoured other subjects to science.
Canon David Garnsey was the School’s headmaster throughout the 50’s, leaving in 1959 following his appointment as Bishop of Gippsland. David Garnsey was a gifted scholar who studied the classics, firstly at Sydney University and then at Oxford by way of a Rhodes Scholarship awarded for his rowing prowess. On returning to Australia he took up the ministry in the Diocese of Canberra and Goulburn under Bishop Burgmann – it was on the request of the Bishop that he took on the role as second Headmaster of Canberra Grammar, a role I believe he accepted with some reluctance – his heart was really in the church. He was a rather staid character, quite humourless and lacked the flair and inspiration one would expect from a Head of School and teacher but, to his credit, he guided the school through difficult times, managing responsibly its meagre budget.
There was very little travelling by sporting teams during the 50’s, other than annual trips to St Pats in Goulburn, although on one occasion in 1957 the 1ST XV had a weekend in Sydney playing a Newington team expected to be their 1ST XV the following year. Grammar scored a good win with the late Dennis Debenham scoring two tries. An excursion in those days meant a walk to Manuka oval to see the Queen – a far cry from today with Rugby tours to NZ, trekking in Nepal and cultural trips to China and elsewhere.
One cricket match that sticks in my mind, organised by Jack Tyrell, had the 1ST XI up against a combined staff and parents team. The much-vaunted School team was dismissed for less than 30. My father, who wouldn’t have played a cricket match in nearly 20 years, took 7 wickets. Apart from school matches, in the 1955/56 season the 1ST XI played the local 2nd Grade team that had the bye, on the Grammar oval, giving our opponents their only opportunity to play on turf. The following season 1956/57, the 1ST X1 played in the local 3rd Grade competition in which there were one or two strong teams including Hall and ANU. Many of the other teams were from clubs that fielded 2nd and 1st Grade XI’s and subsequently were scraping the barrel in putting a 3rd team on the field. On one memorable occasion, for me, anyway, we were playing Turner – Grammar having the easiest of outright wins with yours truly taking 7/4 and 4/8.
It was a similar situation for the 1ST XV who played in the local 3rd Grade competition on Saturdays against a mixed assortment of teams, including the lower graded RMC teams, which proved easy pickings. However, some of the other teams fielded some good quality footballers playing down the grades prior to retirement. Playing Ainslie in one such game, it was obvious that the Ainslie hooker Owen Bourke, a local butcher, had yet to recover from his Friday night outing. Each time a scrum was to pack down there was a delay while he staggered to join his mates. He was quite good at his craft and won all the scrums until on one occasion he kicked the ball into our side, muttering “you can have this one you Grammar p….ers”.
One of the greatest regrets to some of the Old Boys committee at the time was when the school decided that the annual 1ST XV v Old Boys match played on the Sunday of the Old Boys weekend should be discontinued. In my time it was the highlight of the season. We would gather in the quad and to the slow toll of the bell would run down to the oval. Duty of care being the excuse for this fixture to be scrubbed. Injuries can occur in any contact sport and when one sees the size of present-day school boys, why single out the Old Boys?
Of course, corporal punishment was still rife in schools in the 50’s and it wasn’t until the 80’s that it was banned, with dire consequences for those continuing the practice. In our time it was the accepted thing and we took our punishment without question. Although there was some resentment directed at one housemaster who, with evil intent, would select a flexible switch from a willow tree growing near the staff cottages, complete with notches that would leave bruised stripes across one’s hands for days. One would not begrudge a caning where and when it was warranted, but in looking back, such punishment was sometimes metered out for trivial and farcical reasons. On one occasion my brother and I missed chapel due to the bus being late. Our fault? Maybe the bus driver should have been caned. Another occasion I was sent to the Head’s office by Verity Fitzhardinge, who was doing some relief teaching in third year geography. My indictable offence being the passing of a bird’s egg to the boy in front. Without asking why I was sent to him, DAG as we called him, produced a cane (I couldn’t believe he had one) and gave me six of the best across the backside.
Getting back to Verity FItzhardinge (nee Hewitt), she was a remarkable woman, who led a remarkable life. I recently attended a book launch, for “Verity” written by Robert Lehane, which details her extraordinary life, where I caught up with her two gifted sons Charles and Geoff, who I hadn’t seen since school days.
She was firstly known for the popular Verity Hewitt bookshop, which she opened in Civic in 1938; she taught school (and Gough Whitlam) at Telopea Park, ran an orchard and, later, a farm breeding beef cattle. She studied for a PHD part time and travelled extensively in Russia and Afghanistan. Her interest in Russia had her under suspicion during the Petrov era. She taught English to Russian diplomats, including Petrov’s wife. After reading the book I learned to forgive her over the bird’s egg episode.
The late 50’s were the beginning of a steep curve in Grammar’s development. The war years and its incumbent shortages were well passed, the economy was growing and the population of Canberra was growing rapidly with the transfer of Government Departments to the National Capital.
Our founding Headmaster “Curley” Edwards would be amazed to look down and see how his tiny fledgling school, that he moved to Canberra from Cooma all those years ago, had flourished and grown to one of the Nation’s finest schools. They were happy years for most of us, boarders and day boys alike.