A recently published (2017) ‘Occasional Paper’ about a little-known and now defunct Sydney school provides a fascinating window into Sydney’s community in the mid-twentieth century.
Drawing from historical records and personal recollections – which complement each other neatly – the author, Colin Dennett, now of Canberra, tells the story of The Mowbray School which operated on Sydney’s North Shore from 1907 to 1954.
Dennett attended the School in the Fifties, and his stories about life there and the personalities whom he encountered enliven what might otherwise have been just dry information about a building. This is a highly readable narrative, especially for those who attended The Mowbray School and the other schools for which Mowbray was a ‘feeder school’, such as Sydney Grammar School.
Others, who grew up in New South Wales in the first half of the Twentieth Century and into the Fifties, will recognise many of the events recorded by Dennett, and the people-distinguished and otherwise – who dominated the State’s rich political, legal and societal scene; and who left their mark in particular on Sydney’s development.
Amongst the wide range of eminent figures who had an association with the school were –Sir Edmund Barton (Australia’s first Prime Minister); Justice George Rich (who drafted Australia’s Constitution and became a Justice of the High Court); Rev George Long (Bishop of Bathurst); Billy Hughes (7th Prime Minister of Australia); Sir Phillip Game (Governor of NSW and, later, Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police); and R J F Boyer (ABC Chairman).
The School survived World War I 1914-18 (the ‘Great War’), the Great Depression during the thirties and World War II in the forties, with ‘the numbers of boarders and day boys … maintained.’. Mowbray’s boys also saw, in 1952, the death of George VI and the ascension to the Throne of Queen Elizabeth II.
A quote from a 1919 newspaper article found in the School archives provides an interesting insight (probably shared by Mowbray’s two Headmasters) into the (then) NSW community’s perception of the cause of WW I:
‘Germany’s Crime… German school teaching will probably be found to be primarily responsible for rendering these lamentable war phenomena possible… There is abundant evidence that it was part of the preparation…by the conspirators who planned the onslaught upon civilized people…’.
Nowadays, as history is deconstructed and reconstructed, often for political and disingenuously tendentious reasons, those sentiments may be criticised as being anachronistic. Nevertheless, they were pervasive at the time, and readers should remember the old aphorism:
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
What sort of school was Mowbray? Dennett compares it favourably with the English Grammar School, as reflected, for example, in Anthony Buckeridge’s ‘Jennings’ series of humorous novels of school life in England – life characterised in the novels by ‘schoolboy adventures and pranks’. Dennett himself confesses to taking part in Jennings- style pranks, both at Mowbray and, later, at Tudor House Preparatory School in Moss Vale, another school based on the English model.
This is an engaging story, with factual material neatly interspersed with personal perceptions and recollections, lively anecdotes and frequent references to Lancelot Bavin, the School’s Headmaster for some 48 years. In addition, there are several handsome photographs of the school itself.
Dennett observes that ‘…Mowbray…has involved many people… and by now, thousands of descendants’; and he expresses the hope that ‘(its) rich and meaningful history’ might find its way through to at least some of them’. Those who do read it will be, as was Dennett, ‘transported back in time to experience aspects of their lives and beyond which they never knew anything about’.
Fergus Thomson RFD BA MA
Barrister- at –Law