Boys Grammar School, Brisbane

News of the day

Queensland Figaro and Punch, Saturday 19 September 1885, page 22

For a long time past, the administrative atmosphere of the Brisbane Boys’ Grammar School has been gloomy. It is like that uncomfortable oppressive weather that precedes a thunderstorm, and those who have watched the Grammar School with interest, could not be surprised by any sudden change. It is difficult to point out the exact nature of the irritability of the whole situation, without being unjust to men conscientiously trying to do their best, and the position cannot be described more aptly than by the vague generality that the administrative machinery seems to be all out of gear. It is like Captain Cuttle's watch, a very good article in its way, but liable to erratic results. The trustees of the Grammar School must know of this general absence of working harmony—it would, perhaps, be too much to style it, positive discord, because the general uneasiness is, as yet, wholly of a negative character, so far as outside spectators are concerned.

I have been led to this topic by various communications I have received from, and several conversations I have had with, the parents of boys who attend the Brisbane Grammar School as pupils. The aspects of the dissatisfaction expressed by these parents—all such dissatisfaction being gentle in tenor and negative in character; resting rather on what has not been done, than on what has occurred—are of the most opposite kinds. For instance, one parent complains to me that his boy is a very bright lad, and therefore much favoured by Reginald. H. Roe, the Head Master, who, actuated by the aspiration of making him a brilliant scholar, overloads him with special classes of work for home studies, to the detriment of his progress in the more polished accomplishments, and to the supposed injury of his physical health. Another parent, on the other hand, complains that her boy, being dull, is not taken much pains with, and that his mental and intellectual powers, naturally sluggish, remain at a standstill, for the want of a sympathetic style of culture. To bear out this latter complaint, I may say that I have heard of dull boys being removed from the Brisbane Grammar School, and placed in the Normal School, much to their progressive advantage.

It is hard for one who cannot closely watch the educational system adopted at the Brisbane Grammar School, to express the convictions forced upon him by the evidence placed at his disposal, without overshooting the mark of legitimate comment. The complaining parents are naturally desirous that their names shall not be mentioned, lest they be regarded as unreasoning grumblers; but their parental anxiety impels them to desire that some vent for the expression of their fears should be provided. Probably, the Head Master, by a little judicious reflection, will be able to discover the cases most likely to produce such parental uneasiness; and it should be the duty of the rather inactive trustees to take some steps to remedy the present defective administration. Having fully explained that I have only an outside and partial knowledge of the subject, and that, perforce, I must speak entirely from a parent's and boy's point of view, I may be forgiven a few remarks that are suggested to me by these considerations.

Reginald H. Roe is a brilliant Oxonian scholar, and a man of great accomplishments. I cannot say whether he is a great teacher. A man may be chock full of learning himself but may be a sealed book to the struggling intellect of boyhood. On the other hand, a man may be only a little more learned (speaking of the term purely as school learning) than a matured schoolboy, and may be yet so sympathetically impartive as to be able to coach the dullest comprehension to a full knowledge of everything that he himself knows. Biddy, the ignorant village school teacher in Dickens's " Great Expectations," was nevertheless, the grounder of Pip's attainments, and even succeeded in teaching dull old Joe Gargery the accomplishment of writing—after a fashion. It is rare, indeed, that we find, in one man, the felicitous combination of ripe scholarship and recondite erudition with the sympathetic impartiveness necessary to kindle the unready embers of dull boyhood's intellectual possibilities. Teaching is more a gift of the heart than of the head. Hence, I am not surprised to hear that parents complain--though I repeat that I have no means of personally verifying the justness of the foundation for the dissatisfaction—that Head Master Roe expends the greater part of his efforts in polishing up his more brilliant pupils, while the duller crowd are, to an extent, neglected.

Now, let me turn to other masters. There are masters in the Brisbane Grammar School who have borne the burden and heat of its day, who have toiled patiently and unremittingly for years amongst the boys, and who remain little better off than when they first entered, while others, young men with university degrees, but without the less assertive diploma of practical experience for a lengthened term of years, have been preferred before them— have been, in point of fact, pitchforked over their heads. The old-time drudges must be competent men, must have performed their work well, or they would not have been so long retained. Probably, in their young days, the acquirement of University degrees was not so open-to-all-comers as it is now. Probably, education then was an expensive luxury, and the avenue to degrees from a university was attended with monetary and other excluding difficulties. Probably, they are as learned as, and, from the tenor of their life, they must be more impartive than, any brilliant young scholar fresh from his recent, successful university course. Yet (and now I speak not concerning the Brisbane Grammar School only, but, generally, of all modern educational institutions) such toilers are daily breaking their hearts at the old, old routine, which never offers them escape, or never stimulates them with a reward beyond the earning of a moderate subsistence.  But even supposing they are not so learned as the young man with a University degree? What then?

I ask in any practical, common sense man, Is it necessary that a man should be able to swallow all the cramming and dry-as-dust stuffing, indispensable to the acquirement of a university degree, in order to teach a schoolboy—even a grammar schoolboy—all that he requires to know during his school-life? Does it require a man to bolt the whole of the books of Euclid in order to teach a boy his multiplication table? Going a step higher: Does it require a man to be able to work out his own logarithms, in the absence of a table of logarithms, in order to teach a lad how to manipulate that table of logarithms? As well might you say that a dull tradesman, who could not work out for himself all the details of a ready reckoner, was unable to ascertain any given result set out in those details. Does it require a man to understand the Pythagorean theorem and its converse, at the end of the First Book of Euclid, in order to teach a boy the First Proposition of how to construct an equilateral triangle upon a given finite straight line? As well might we insist that a man should understand Sanscrit, before he could teach a baby the English alphabet. The means employed requires only to be commensurate with the end desired. All that is over is surplus energy. It is true that the wonderful invention of the steam-hammer can be so adjusted that while its prodigious power can be used to crush mighty obstructions into fragments, it can also be made to crack the dial-glass of a watch without otherwise injuring the watch itself. But there are few men in this year of grace who are educational steam-hammers.

The most successful teacher of boys whom I ever knew, had only a sound English education. What of classical attainments this teacher imparted to pupils, was, first of all, self-taught. Yet this individual had so sympathetically impartive a nature, and such power of making the reasons for things appear clear to the dullest boys, that their average intelligence was far and away higher than that of the boys in any similar competing institution. Every boy in that school knew not only that such and such things were, but could explain, in a boyish and familiar way, the reasons why such and such things were so. That teacher, at the present day, holds a high position in educational circles in Australia. I remember, too, Hartley, the permanent head of the South Australian Education Department—an erudite scholar himself, but none the less a practical teacher—declaring that he would sooner employ a teacher without a university degree, provided that teacher had the true sympathetic and impartive teaching instinct, than he would a prodigy of learning, who was without that sympathy, that impartiveness and that instinct.

The drudges of the Brisbane Grammar School have been, as I have said, overlooked. The small-beer of their lives is ever the same small-beer. Their outlook is a blind alley of monotony, bounded by a dead-wall, of immobility. Young men, of recent University degrees, have been promoted beyond them. I have heard no complaints, but, in their secret hearts, the drudges must resent this. I have one young master, so promoted, vividly in my mind just now. Fortunately, however, he, at any rate, has the sympathetic instinct that can extract dutiful and willing progress from the pupils, who not only esteem him, but feel a positive affection for him. It is not so in all cases. Other young masters there are at the Brisbane Grammar School, whose influence and control over the pupils are, to say the least of it, farcical. And here I come upon ground on which it is hardly safe to tread with anything like definite assertion, because I have not ventured to endeavour to verify complaints made. I felt that I could not do so without giving the Grammar School authorities the names of my informants, and I was asked, for transparent reasons, not to disclose these. Therefore, in the following remarks, I am only giving form to what has been openly asserted by many parents and boys. It has been matter of comical comment that one young master allows the boys to assess their own marks for school tasks performed! To award themselves, in fact, whatever honors they deemed themselves worthy of! Just as the Lord Chancellor in the opera of ''Iolanthe," at last, after argument by himself, for and against himself, before himself, decides at last to give himself away in marriage to his own Ward in Chancery!

And touching past Grammar School examinations. There have been rumours current that the schoolboy crime of cheating has been prevalent—that dull scholars have been known to crib most glaringly, and to thus unfairly obtain marks which they could otherwise never have hoped to get. I have heard of one boy asking permission to leave the examination room, standing behind a door left ajar, and reading from a lesson-book the whole of a difficult answer to a dull scholar seated near the door. What truth there is in such reports, I leave the Head-Master and Trustees to determine.

The Trustees must also admit that the supervision of the boarding scholars is not as domestically satisfactory as could be desired. As, however, the dark cloud of sickness rests over that establishment at present, I will forbear to touch upon this theme, more than to represent strongly to the Trustees that it is their duty to act fairly by all parties—boys as well as masters.

Lastly, a word as to the sentiments of the boys. I don't know whether the Trustees think that an affection should subsist between masters and scholars. I know, in my schooldays, a master was considered the hereditary foe of a schoolboy; but I have heard men speak with reverential affection of the school teachers of their boyhood. I fancy, however, it would be difficult to find a Brisbane Grammar Schoolboy who idolises Head-Master Roe—suave and agreeable as that gentleman undoubtedly is in his dealings with the Trustees and the members of the community outside the Brisbane Grammar School. I have heard it whispered that Head Master Roe intends shortly visiting Europe on twelve months' leave of absence, but I don't know how much of reality there is in this rumour, and how much that is shadowy guesswork.

I may return to the whole subject in some future issue.


The Main Building, comprising the Great Hall and classroom wings, was designed by architect James Cowlishaw and erected in 1880 with a second floor added to the classroom wings by the Public Works Department in 1925. It was the first building to be erected at the Brisbane Grammar School's new Gregory Terrace site.

With the expansion of the Roma Street railway yards, the school was forced to move to a new location selected on Gregory Terrace. On 28 November 1879 the foundation stone was laid by Chairman of Trustees and school benefactor, the Hon Charles Lilley.

By 1881, the new building costing some £12,000, had been completed by contractor, W. MacFarlane. A detached wooden cottage was also erected for the caretaker and included a dining room for the pupils. Like the Main Building, this featured the use of the quatrefoil motif. The new school overlooked both the old school site and the city. Its hill top location was considered salubrious and picturesque. Cowlishaw's Collegiate Gothic design provided for a large central Hall, with single storeyed classroom wings on either side. It was brick and roofed with banded Bangor slates with cast iron cresting on the ridges.

The main entry, facing the city, was by a covered carriage porch of Oamaru stone bearing a number of carvings, and which led to the Great Hall. Inside, the ceiling was coloured sky blue and decorated with hundreds of gold stars. Soon after the opening the large stained glass windows, funded by subscriptions, were installed. Made by Ferguson and Urie of Melbourne, they are thought to be the earliest Australian produced windows in Queensland. Both windows are used to portray the ideals of the school. The northern window shows a young Queen Victoria flanked by men famous in British history, including maritime and military leaders, statesmen, poets, playwrights, and men of science, who look down on the boys inviting them to "emulate their noble deeds". The theme of the southern grisaille window speaks of the rewards bestowed by the Crown for loyalty and service. On either side of the Great Hall were the class room wings including Headmaster's office and science laboratory. As in the Great Hall, the ceilings and rafters of these rooms were coloured.

Courtesy of the Queensland Heritage Register


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