OBITUARY:Sir James Darling

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The Independent Online
James Darling was an Englishman who became a great Australian; and he was doubly a Victorian - he was born in the reign of Queen Victoria and he emigrated in January 1930 to the State of Victoria to begin what became a 32-year headmastership of Geelong Grammar School: one that proved of seminal importance to both that school and his adopted country. In Australia's Bicentennial year, 1988, he was one of 200 men and women formally designated Great Australians from the 200 years since the British settlement of 1788, one of only 22 then living, and the only headmaster among the 200. He has some claim to be called Australia's greatest educator.

He was also a great Victorian in another sense. Like Shaftesbury, like Gladstone, like his own early mentor William Temple, he carried his Christianity into every area of life, whether public or private. It had not, however, come easily. His natural tendency - evident still in his mid-nineties - was that of an active and questing intellect seeking an intelligible faith rather than a natural faith seeking intellectual justification. His greatest service at Geelong lay in the education of boys to a sense of responsibility for others and to a sensitive awareness of the needs of the world in which many of them were to play leading parts.

When his long reign at Geelong was coming to a close, there were those who would have liked him to take orders and perhaps become a bishop. In fact, even before it ended, he was appointed Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (later Corporation); and, though he was somewhat abruptly replaced after six years in that office, during which he had striven for high moral and artistic standards and for necessary independence in the face of inexorable commercial interest and governmental interference, there were still many years ahead in which he went on working and inspiring others in a wide range of fields. But in his heart he never really left the school that he had taken by storm in 1930.

He inherited what can fairly be called a good school, and he left it a great one. His successors Tommy Garnett (former Master of Marlborough), Charles Fisher (a son of Darling's second headmaster at Repton, like Temple a future Archbishop of Canterbury), and John Lewis (now Head Master at Eton) made important additions - including girls - but on the basis of Darling's heroic work from 1930 to 1961.

James Darling was the son of Augustine Darling, who ran a preparatory school at Tonbridge, and a Scottish mother of strong character and principle, nee Jane Nimmo. At Repton, as a scholar, he first knew Temple and in the classroom was inspired by Victor Gollancz's passionate and radical idealism and by the historians L.A. Burd and D.C. Somervell. Geoffrey Fisher's legacy was perhaps a delayed one, in the practicalities of administration.

After war and post-war service as a Second Lieutenant in the Royal Field Artillery in France and occupied Germany in 1918-19, he read (with distinction) the shortened school of Modern History at Oriel College, Oxford, and in 1921 began to teach at Merchant Taylors' School, Liverpool, coming again within the orbit of Temple, now Bishop of Manchester, who became a close friend.

In 1924 he moved to Charterhouse and the influence of perhaps the most famous headmaster of the day, Frank Fletcher. He became president of the local branch of the Labour Party at Godalming. In 1929 he led a party of English public schoolboys on a tour of New Zealand and Australia, where he was favourably noticed in Melbourne as a compelling speaker and one who could lead young men by a combination of charm, intellect, and idealism. This tour was the immediate background to the Geelong appointment, but the choice of a young bachelor of pink political persuasion over the heads of safer candidates was courageous and far-sighted.

He took over early in the Depression. Boys were involved in relief work in Geelong, and employment was given to many who would otherwise have been without work in those dark days. Thus through the 1930s some remarkable buildings were achieved, including music and art schools; there were Shakespearean and other drama productions including pageant-plays, involving every boy, such as The Dynasts of Thomas Hardy and dramatisations of the fifth book of the Aeneid and of the Bible. Music, art, and the manual crafts were similarly brought in from the peripheries of the curriculum, and, when three of his early pupils were awarded Rhodes scholarships of whom n 1938 Michael Thwaites won the Newdigate Prize for Poetry at Oxford and James Mann topped England in the Bar finals, even those sceptical of Darling's Renaissance-style approach had to admit that Geelong Grammar was achieving spectacular results in new fields to match the rowing Blues that had hitherto done most to make it famous overseas.

The Second World War might well have dampened Darling's energies and achievements had he not possessed a resourcefulness in finance and administration to match his creative genius. The spirit of the school was probably never better than under the challenges then imposed. A National Service scheme, begun earlier, continued; the boys did domestic and maintenance work; and whole buildings, including local woolsheds and a church, were rebuilt by them and the staff after destruction by bushfires.

In the decade after the war the school expanded and by 1953 it was on four sites. In that year Timbertop was founded, probably Darling's most famous innovation (to be attended by the Prince of Wales for most of 1966). It was an outpost of the school in the foothills of the Australian Alps to which the fourth form (later the third) went for a year in which academic work was supplemented by a wide range of pursuits, the more physical of which, such as cross-country runs and long hikes, replaced conventional school sport. The principal aims of Timbertop were to awaken, or reawaken, the spirit of adventure latent in adolescent boys, to develop independence, self- reliance and a sense of community, and to restore something of the ancient harmony between man and nature.

The boy population of the school grew from 370 to 1,139 in his time, and it was more an empire than a kingdom that Darling handed on to Garnett in August 1961 together with a staff of unusual quality. Those whom Darling had appointed included young men who went on to a wider fame such as Sir William McKie, Organist and Master of the Choristers at Westminster Abbey, and the radical historians of Australia Russel Ward and Manning Clark. At least 27 of Darling's staff became heads of schools or university colleges in five continents, and his words and policies were widely weighed.

Amongst Darling's alumni may be named Sir John Gorton, Prime Minister of Australia, the painter Russell Drysdale and the novelist Peter Carey; John Landy, who broke Roger Bannister's mile world record, and was one of nine Geelong Grammarians in the 1956 Olympic Games; and the media magnates Rupert Murdoch, James Fairfax and Kerry Packer.

As a headmaster Darling never ceased to teach, particularly the sixth form with whom he shared the full range of his interests in literature, politics, history, philosophy, theology, and the affairs of the school and the world. He read constantly, and, while claiming no great scholarship for himself, he showed in the range and precision of his intellect the essential qualities of the scholar, and he inspired scholarship in others.

His publications include four books: The Education of the Civilised Man (1962), a selection of 30 of some 600 speeches and sermons from his Geelong years (he was an eloquent speaker, always candid and convincing); Timbertop (1967), in collaboration with the first Timbertop housemaster, E.H. Montgomery; an autobiography, Richly Rewarding (1978); and Reflections for the Age (1991), a selection of 70 of the "Saturday Reflections" that for 14 years he had written (and continued until his 95th birthday to write) for the Melbourne Age.

Michael Collins Persse

James Ralph Darling, schoolmaster: born Tonbridge, Kent 18 June 1899; Headmaster, Geelong Grammar School 1930-61; OBE 1953; CMG 1958; Chairman, Australian Broadcasting Commission, 1961-67; Kt 1968; married 1935 Margaret Campbell (one son, three daughters); died Melbourne, Australia 1 November 1995.

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