State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 4 October 1969


E. E. Morris's Reasons for Resigning as Headmaster of the Melbourne Church of England Grammar School, 1883

E. E. Morris (1843–1902) was educated at Rugby and Lincoln College, Oxford, taught at Haileybury and elsewhere, and was headmaster of the Bedfordshire public school from 1871 and of Melbourne Church of England Grammar School from 1875 to 1883. He then became Professor of English, French and German Languages and Literatures at the University of Melbourne. He was the leading spirit of the Charity Organisation Society in Melbourne, the biographer of his father-in-law, George Higin-botham, and author of Austral English, a Dictionary of Australian Words, Phrases and Usage.
The document which follows is an item in the E. E. Morris Papers which were recently donated to the La Trobe Library by the Morris family. It is a draft of a statement which Morris intended to make public, probably through the press. The draft has many alterations and interpolations and the concluding pages are missing. It is unedited here, except for occasional revision of punctuation and capitalization and conversion to ‘and’ of frequent ampersands.
The document is of considerable biographical interest, is important for educational historians, and is a revealing demonstration of the venemous and intolerant political climate of the late 1870s.
History of this Document
When I resigned the Headmastership of the C. E. Grammar School at Melbourne, I resolved to give my reasons on the day of my departure from it and to do this in an outspoken manner. I thought as I was leaving the colony such outspoken language would not hurt me and would benefit education. A few weeks before leaving the school I was appointed a Professor in the Melbourne University. This seemed to make a difference. I read the paper accordingly to the Bishop of Melbourne and again to Mr. Justice Higinbotham. They both advised me not to publish my remarks on the ground that they would offend and would therefore damage my usefulness at the University. In this I acquiesced. E. E. M.
Early in this year I felt it to be my duty to resign my position as Headmaster of this school. In my letter of resignation I only thought it necessary to say that the numbers in the school had been much larger than they then were, that I attributed the diminution to a disapproval of me or of my ideas, and that I therefore wished the Council to make a change. In justice to myself and in justice to these ideas I have always intended to offer a full explanation of my reasons and motives. I did not think it right to do this until the day when I ceased to be Headmaster. So whilst some have thought my conduct an enigma and others have told me that I was making a mistake, I have held it better to reserve all explanation until I could speak, to use a famous expression, as “an unmuzzled man”. It was said to me in March last: “the reason you have failed is that you are too outspoken”. At any rate I will keep up that failing to the end. I took the step that I have taken, I leave the work that I had chosen, I am going from the school that I love with the most bitter and poignant regret. Had I been willing to work below my ideal, had I chosen making myself comfortable to allow principles to go overboard, I might have stayed.
It seems so impossible in this town to believe that a man, still comparatively young, would resign the command of a school which he might have made lucrative for himself, solely because he thought his going would be better not for himself but for the school, that all sorts of motives have been confidently invented, ranging from the inheriting of a fortune (alas! that it is not true!) up to a quarrel with the School Council. I was very sorry to see an unfortunate paragraph in the paper setting forth this last reason. I have done my best to counteract its effect, and I here declare that I have always received all reasonable support from the Council of the School. I am not going to say that during seven years and a half there has been no difference of opinion. To expect that would not be reasonable. But if I were making a fresh start, and I myself had the choice of the members of the Council, I do not believe that I could select a council that would help me more. I take this opportunity to thank them for this help.
I firmly believe that if I had willed so to do I could not only have remained in my position at the school, but have made money at it. Perhaps if I had, I should now be standing higher in the estimation of my fellow colonists. I never received the least hint from any one but myself that it would be well for me to retire. Not a single member of the council ever suggested it to me. Had I had no ideal to trouble me, had I been content with low aims and lower gains, a certain sort of success might have been mine. When I was on my voyage to Australia, a fellow passenger told me that there was one way to make a successful school in Australia and only one. “Give every boy a prize,
and send every boy home with a good character.” Boys who did not get prizes here, I have known removed to schools more obliging. I have known boys removed because of the unpleasant honesty of their reports. Not long afterwards another receipt was given me for scholastic success in Australia. The master of a large private school in Sydney gave this advice to a friend of mine. “Let Morris give up all his high flown ideas: they won't do here. Let him pay attention chiefly to the boys’ puddings. That's what they like best and their liking makes or mars a school.” I venture in all humility to think that such epigrammatic advice as this, even though it be partly true, degrades the profession; nay degrades it the more, the more close it is to hitting the truth. Could I have acted in its spirit, I should have disgraced myself. Now I acknowledge defeat, but I feel no disgrace. If others do not approve a line of action it is possible to retreat from it with honour. My honour at any rate I feel that I have saved. It is not always a disgrace to be defeated.
The decline in the numbers of the school and the inferences that I felt compelled to draw from this decline were the sole causes that have led me to withdraw from its government. As some have been good enough to dispute the fact of the decline with me I give the true history. I found in the school 124 boys when I came at Easter 1875. The next quarter I had 144. This number rose steadily, with scarcely a waver, to a total of 233 in the 3rd quarter of 1878. From this highest point the number fell in an exactly equal space of time to 144, which was the number in the quarter when I resigned. Now turn to the boarders, the part of the school which has to be considered both as the most lucrative to the master, and that wherein his ideas are most likely to take root. I found 25. The number rose gradually to 60, and afterwards fell, also gradually, to 24. The largest total of boarders coincides in time nearly with the largest total in the school.
When I had 60 in my house and 230 in the school, it seemed to me that there was some hope of stability for the future. That point being reached, it did not seem to me that decline was likely. The school launched out into various expenses. Our staff of masters had no need to fear comparison with any other in the colony. But when the change came it proved very difficult as well as most discouraging to take in sail.
Numbers are an important element in the success of any school, but to a school established on the basis of this, i.e. a school without endowments, numbers are absolutely necessary. I hardly know a grander dictum of a schoolmaster than that ascribed to Arnold. “It is not necessary that this should be a school of 300 or of 200 or of 100 boys: it is necessary that it be a school of Christian gentlemen.” But Rugby fortunately has rich endowments, and an endowed school can stand a temporary unpopularity. I would have wished always to act in the spirit of Arnold's dictum: but circumstances alter cases and I simply could not. I have been obliged to admit boys unfit for a public school, and to retain boys of whom Arnold would have said that they were “doing no good either to themselves or others”. I weeded most when I was strongest, but weeding helped the fall of numbers and as numbers fell, perforce I weeded less. This is one way in which the decline in numbers hampers a schoolmaster. When for financial reasons a master must keep boys in a school who ought not to be in it, it is time for the master to look out for some other work in which at any rate he may keep his conscience pure.
I have tried in every way to work the school upon the lines of an English Public School. When I was appointed I told those who appointed me that I would. I flatter myself that from experience and reflection I know what these lines are and I can see now most clearly that this is the prime, the fundamental, perhaps the only, cause why
I have not succeeded. I venture to lay down the marks of a Public School as these. First the school must have a constitution: its ultimate government must be in the hands of a body other than the master: that continuity may be preserved no individual can be allowed to close the school or change its object. Secondly, the masters must be in a position to be independent of parents, so that the laws can be enforced. Thirdly boys must be trusted, not watched, and to this end some powers of control be placed in the hands of elder boys. Prefects and not ushers are essential to the idea of a Public School. Now of these 3 principles, the first is an established principle here. The third I have striven to establish and to foster. I go because I have not succeeded—because I cannot succeed in establishing the second, the principle of independence from parents. Where there are no endowments, Public Opinion must back the master. It has not here and I am going. A distinguished Oxford professor, Professor Green, whose death within this year is a loss not to Oxford only but to English letters and to English Philosophy, when an Assistant Commissioner to the Endowed Schools Commission said in his report (I quote from memory) “The principle of private venture in schools means, as are the parents so will the children be”, whereas the very essence of the Public School system, in England mostly an endowed system, is that it must raise the generations each in turn so that the children may have greater opportunities, higher ideals, nobler teaching than their parents. Now here in Victoria I deliberately say that the master must truckle to the parent, or he will not succeed. I have been answered, “use tact”. Well tact is an excellent gift and will work wonders, so in the face of this remonstrance I will amend my statement thus—“must truckle or cajole”. Having no talent for either of these accomplishments, I resign the task.
It is notorious in Australia that to a large extent boys put themselves to school. Their private tastes and fancies are almost alone considered by parents when selecting a school. Is such a practice likely to lead to the maintenance of strict discipline?
From the indulgence of boys so many examples of which I have met with in this colony, from the weakening of the bonds of parental control, from the way in which many parents themselves deliberately work to break down useful discipline I do most sadly prognosticate that there is being trained up a generation which will be unable to do the painful right, unable to eschew the pleasant wrong.
All who know anything about education will allow that regularity of attendance at school may be regarded as almost essential to success. Irregularity means ruin. When I arrived I tried to enforce here the rule to which I was accustomed in England, viz. that unless ill-health, stress of weather or family bereavement detained a boy from school, he should be punished for any absence, if the Headmaster had not previously given leave. I introduced the rule which obtains at all good schools in England that after the holidays boys must return punctually to the day or be punished. These rules I enforced, though with only lenient punishments, but even so I enforced them at a cost which was greater than I was able to stand. The cost was twofold, first, the loss of boys whose parents removed them from the school rather than suffer any infringement of what they regarded as their rights, and then in several cases pursued me with unrelenting hostility, secondly, the constant irritation of conflict. After 5 years’ struggle and when numbers began to decline, fear that I was hurting the school by what seemed my obstinacy, with a sore feeling and a heavy heart I abandoned the principle. The announcement upon Speech Day that I would abandon it was hailed with cheers. But I thought even then those cheers mean my departure.
Had I kept all the excuses for absence that I have received from parents during my rule here, it would form an amusing though to me a painful catalogue. At the end of my first three quarters, I gave a short list of them, “to carry a parcel or to drive a horse, to have hair cut or to cash a cheque, or simply for a holiday”. Almost every one of these excuses I have received over and over again to excuse a boy from a day's work whilst it often also throws the next day's lessons out of gear. Within my first quarter a clergyman, who is a strong advocate for religious instruction in state schools, excused a boy's absence from a Scripture examination on the ground that he had been shopping with his mother. A boy was absent for 2 days from school with his mother's consent. On the second afternoon he was seen in the Show yard of the Agricultural Society sitting upon a fence and smiling. He had been for two days watching a cow. With many boys it would seem as if their purchasing of garments, having hair cut and similar matters were always done in school hours. To try on clothes has been a very common reason. The celebration of a birthday, the boy's own or that of some member of his family, involving a picnic or at least a tea, still commoner. To attend a coursing match or a race meeting is considered more than valid. Once a boy went away from school for a week into the Dandenong ranges to avoid the moral contamination of the Melbourne atmosphere during the Cup Week. I have known boys absent a week or 10 days to play a series of games. A wedding in a family requires the absence of a day boy for about 3 days. He is supposed to be useful on the day preceding the ceremony: on the day after it he has to suffer a recovery. To see a near relation off by the mail seems more excusable, but one has doubts whether every member of a family is required to help a departure to Sydney, or to welcome an arrival from the bush. One gentleman now deceased in other ways a good friend of the school, told me that he never could see the justice of my punishing his son who added an extra day to his Easter holidays by the simple expedient of not sufficiently securing his horse in the ranges, so that he required a whole additional day to chase the horse. My punishment was only to require the boy to make up on a Saturday the school hours which he had lost on the week day. If he did not like this, I should infer that on a future occasion the horse would be more securely hobbled. Anyhow throughout life we are all punished for accidents.
There is another matter as to which I venture to think the schoolmaster is not accorded his proper influence, viz. reports. If reports are to be of any use they must be honest. My experience is that when honest reports are sent the master who sends them is often punished. The parent will not believe that his boy can be in the wrong, and if be described as lazy or troublesome promptly removes his son, I may add — in this colony usually without notice, often even without informing the school authorities that the boy has been removed. It may be answered that against this latter discourtesy there is a remedy in an appeal to law, and so there is: but in my judgment the right is not worth enforcing by contest. A schoolmaster's life is too full of worries and anxieties to add to them the cares of a litigant. In many cases I have quietly surrendered rather than fight, but I sometimes think that therein I may have wronged my brother schoolmasters. An unsatisfactory report given to a boy will almost always entail correspondence and further trouble. I think therefore we may fairly assume that a master will naturally prophesy smoothly if he can, and will even strain a point so to do, and that if a bad report be sent of a boy's conduct or industry, it is absolutely required by the conscience of the sender. In such a case a parent is acting contrary to the best interests of the community if he punish the master by writing to him angrily or by removing his son
from the school. I do not believe that many men will make so stubborn a fight for the truth as I have done. Yet I can now perceive that of late I have imperceptibly been drawing nearer to the ranks of the smooth prophets, moving further from the stern and rigid lines with which I started. I rejoice to think that I am giving up the work before my moral sensibility is blunted altogether. This is not a new controversy. It is well known to English schoolmasters and there is no doubt that reports are most unflinchingly honest, where the master is least dependent on the parent, that is in the public schools. In this point as in many others I tried to introduce the English public school idea but alas! I have found that the seed was being sown on stony ground.
Even besides the matter of reports a schoolmaster is frequently punished for telling the truth. “Why did you tell Mr. So and So (a gentleman from another colony) that your numbers were going down?”, said a lady to me rather more than a year ago. “Because it was the truth”, I answered. “He cross examined me as to numbers”. “Oh! but you should not have told him. He talks about it, and it does the school harm.” So this is to be a new art for the master. He is to learn to dangle with his golden chain
And smiling put the question by:
and yet he is expected above all things to teach his boys to be honest and truthful, to abhor lying and deceit.
A parent brought me a boy to look at. “Now tell me candidly is he old enough for the school?” After due inspection I said: “I think not; take him for a while away: let me have him in a year.” But I never saw his face again.
More than once a parent has said “will you promote my son”. Answer: “He is unfit for promotion.” “Very well, unless you promote him, I shall take him away.” Yet once more — “will my son pass such and such an examination?” “Honestly I do not think he will.” This it is simple duty to say and not to hide the real truth from the parent. Down comes the penalty without hesitation. “Very well then he must go elsewhere to be prepared.” This is the kind of thumb screw that is applied to a master. Excuse me if I have winced under its infliction. Quitting the business with a conscience void of offence I have no interest but the public good in making a clean breast of it now. I want the public to think about the question and see whether my want of tact is alone to blame, whether want of tact may mean inability to cringe.
I want the public to consider whether it would not be better to support the schools that have a chance of being strong to make them strong. Had I said this a year ago it might have been thought that I had my own interest to serve. No one can think that now. I want especially the clergy to consider it who seem to me to be bolstering up a system of small suburban schools that never can be really strong. Union is strength: and if the small suburban schools have the boys, the higher standard of discipline and of all the good that goes with discipline will not be reached. The parent can have what he bargains for, the constant right to interfere, but the state will suffer, because schools of the best English pattern will be impossible. “I know he will not learn any where: so I send him to the small school hard by that he may come home to lunch.”
In what I have said it may seem as if I had been too sweeping: but I by no means include all parents within the scope of my remarks. There have been many most willing to support me, in the maintenance of discipline and in all due authority, who have had patience and been willing to wait without expecting the flower when the seed is being sown. I thank these parents for their confidence. It is quite possible too that another
man might by different methods have carried the ideas for which I strove, those of an English Public School, to a more successful issue. I do not in the least wish to repudiate my personal share of blame. I merely state that success on my lines seemed not possible for me, and that I felt too deeply the want of that particular success to be happy with a lowered ideal. Men may be roughly classed as belonging to the phlegmatic or to the sensitive kind — one might almost call it the “genus irritable”. Those who are of phlegmatic temperament could probably have fought through my anxieties and troubles and have come out triumphant. Arnold and Vaughan said a space of 15 years was as much as any man ought to have of the Headmaster's life. Dr. Farrar told a friend of mine, and my friend who did not agree with him then has since become Headmaster of a large school, and is now inclined to be of the same opinion. It was the Headmaster of a large and most successful school (I will not say where), who said to me, “I never hear a knock at my door without wondering — what's amiss now?” Well! I have been 11 years Headmaster and though if I felt that the cause I cared for was gaining ground I could easily have stood more, what wonder when it was losing ground that I should seek release.
I wish further to allude to two matters which are indeed outside of the school, but which I am told have affected my reputation and through that the school, my political or my supposed political opinions and the part that I took in an inquiry into the condition of the Industrial and Reformatory Schools. Amongst school boys it is sometimes considered a brilliant witticism to put a placard on a school fellow's back without his knowledge and allow him to strut about all unconscious that he has been written down an ass. My lot has been similar. Comparatively lately I found out that people had been saying I was a Berryite. Whenever and wherever I heard it said I flatly and promptly contradicted the statement. It did not seem to me quite proper that I should publish an advertisement “N.B. I am not a Berryite. Whoever says I am says what is not true. Signed, Sealed and Delivered.” Yet the mischief was that the label was on my back. Others read it, though I knew nought of it. A friend of mine heard the statement made in a railway carriage by a rival, I had almost said, a brother schoolmaster.
I hold indeed that a schoolmaster should be a citizen and not a monk, and that he is even a better master if he takes a real interest in the affairs of his country. Yet not only have I shrunk from proselytism but knowing how exceedingly warm party politics can be in this colony, I have maintained a rigid abstinence from political matters except in certain cases. At every opportunity I have voted at the Ballot box steadily against Berryites. I openly joined Dr. Hearn's committee when he stood for the Upper House, because I hold that the elections to that house should be made on other than party grounds. I have spoken earnestly and worked hard for the abolition of political patronage. Feeling that Free Trade principles are things indisputably proven (in which feeling I am not a whit shaken by all that I have read or seen here) I joined without hesitation the Free Trade League. But none of these acts would cause me to be written down a Berryite. No! The real reason (it has been talked of so openly that I do not hesitate to mention it) is that, as in those days I could afford the luxury of a horse, I used to go out riding with His Excellency Sir George Bowen: and in this free country it is supposed that, if you go out riding with a man. you share all his opinions and approve of all his acts. It is quite true indeed that I did not side with the opponents of the Queen's representative. I did not like and I frequently protested against the abuse showered on him. Without being a Tory, I hold what is apparently now an old fashioned
theory of the English monarchy. I believe in the form of monarchy which was practically accepted at the Glorious Revolution and certainly was generally held after the accession of the First George. I believe in the doctrine of ministerial responsibility and in that shortly expressed in the French epigram — “the King reigns but does not govern”. These English views common though not universal in England I held also here and have tried to apply them. With the misdeeds of the Berry Ministry culminating in Black Wednesday I have no sympathy whatever. But I stand almost alone in the view that I hold of them. I blame the Ministry and not the Governor. But still more do I blame the electors throughout the colony, who put the Ministry in power. This view is not general, and is not likely to be popular, but I venture to maintain that it is tenable and at any rate it is sincere.
Unless to keep the head cool and refrain from abuse of Berryism when that abuse was being showered thick is Berryism, I am no Berryite.
But I am also told that I have friends who are Berryites, and perhaps a schoolmaster can translate the words “Noscitur a socies”. May I humbly venture to trust the application of that proverb to character and not to opinions? It would be an evil day for independence of thought, for the cause of freedom and of culture, when men associate only with friends of exactly the same opinions, whether on religion or on politics. True life requires an infinite wealth of divergence, and an unfettered freedom of intercourse.
But you accepted work from the Berry Ministry. It is quite true that I accepted two positions, both of which implied a good deal of work, that of a Trustee of the Public Library and that of a member of the committee to which I have already alluded and of which I will speak more at length. If a man thinks he can do good work for the community in which he lives he should be willing to accept work, especially as in this case without emolument, from whatever quarter the offer of it may come. Can it not be maintained that this is a sound principle on which to act? If we must wait for perfect concord, some would indeed wait long. Be it remembered, I was specially trying not to be a party man.