Geoffrey Syme at Kew High School

Geoffrey Syme was enrolled at Kew High School on 12th February 1883, when he was still nine years old. His tenth birthday was only three weeks away, at the beginning of March. When he came to the school he was a thin, not very tall boy with dark hair and dark hazel eyes that could give a penetrating stare. Even as a child he was liked by those who knew him and understood him, but he was not an open, friendly child and many people disliked him because it was so hard to tell what he was really thinking. Also he was a terrible tease, so when he stared straight at one it was often impossible to be sure if he was teasing or being perfectly serious.

Geoffrey was the fourth son of David Syme.  At the time of his birth his father, together with his cousin, Ebenezer Syme’s son Joseph Cowan Syme, were the proprietors of The Age newspaper. Geoffrey, who was supposed to be his father’s and mother’s favourite son, eventually followed his father as Managing Editor, the senior and most responsible position on The Age. He came near the end of a large family. His eldest brother, John Herbert, was born in 1859, then came George Francis, born in 1860, Arthur Edward, born in 1864, and Caroline Alice who was born in 1866 and died in infancy. Lucie Isabel was born in 1870.  Gabrielle, who was born in 1871, lived for only seventeen days. Then came Olive in 1872, Geoffrey in 1873 and, lastly, Oswald Julian in1878.

Blythswood Kew

In 1882, only a few months before Geoffrey Syme went to Kew High School, David Syme had bought Blythswood, a white-painted, slate-roofed, two-storied house in Carson Street, Kew. The original house had been built in the 1850's, and the property had nearly fourteen acres of land, with gardens, paddocks and some untouched bush land that sloped down to the Yarra. Living at Blythswood was like living in the country; cows grazed in the paddocks that bordered onto Findon Crescent and, to the north, Maud Street and its houses were separated from Blythswood by two of the five cow-paddocks and rows of tall, mostly native trees. The house faced west, towards the distant city, which could be seen beyond the factories and chimneystacks and houses of Collingwood and Richmond.

Blythswood was not very far from Kew High School. It would not have taken Geoffrey very long to walk along Stevenson Street, cross Church Street and Denmark Street, pass the Kew Railway Station and walk up Wellington Street to the school. Probably David Syme sent Geoffrey to Kew High School because it was close to home - yet that does not explain why he was the only one of Syme's five sons to go there: Of the three elder boys, Herbert and Francis were sent to Scotch College, Arthur to Melbourne Grammar. The deliberately divisive policy with regard to their education probably had some effect on the friendship between the sons. The choice was unlikely to be related to fees; by then David Syme was a very rich man, and in any case Kew High School was likely to have been quite an expensive private school. Geoffrey would have been sent there because it was a good school, and he stayed because he was happy and successful. He did not suffer because of his lack of a public school education

Kew High School was founded in 1872. It began in a house on the corner of Mary Street and Cotham Road, Kew, but within a few months it was moved to 7 Charles Street, Kew, just off Wellington Street. The first Headmaster, Ernest Ingles, B. A., died three years later, in 1875, when he was only thirty-two and John Henning Thompson, M. A., succeeded him.

The school was really formed by Henning Thompson. He was English, born in London, and his family came to Melbourne in 1853, when John was ten years old. His father was a cashier at the Oriental Bank. Until their house was built the family had to live in a tent on a block of land their father had bought in Arthur Street, South Yarra. John began his schooling at the co-educational Presbyterian school in Punt Road, South Yarra, but he longed to be the first pupil at Melbourne Grammar - because his father had promised he could go there.  Though he was not the first pupil at Melbourne Grammar, he was amongst the first. John Henning Thompson was very successful at the school. He was good at a work and sport and he matriculated, did an Arts degree at Melbourne University, majoring in Classics, and returned to Melbourne Grammar as a master. He had been Second Master at Melbourne Grammar for only a few months when he accepted the post of Headmaster of Kew High School. He was then thirty-two years old, handsome, "with the form of an Apollo.” He was an idealistic man, described by one of the Old Boys of Kew High School as a "God-fearing English gentleman who understood boys ....... he despised anything mean, wicked or untrue”. The school motto, Instanter Operare, and the School song "The Reaper" probably give some idea of the educational aims of Kew High School. The Reverend G. W. Torrance wrote the music, but Henning Thompson wrote the words of the song.

"When the Reapers sally forth at dawn,
With tears of joy the dewy morn,
Welcomes the toiler,
Bearing sickle for the golden grain,
winds on upland, hill and glen,
With laugh and rapture ringing."

There is a some what repetitive chorus, another verse, and then the final verse, which is to be sung softly and slowly, presumably with great seriousness,
"And life is but a Reaper's day.
Chequered with rainbow glory,
Clouds, storms and tears. So pass away
Youth and old age hoary.
The sickle firmly grasp we then,
Reap for God's garner, Reap  - like men,
And nobly end life's story."

Geoffrey Syme would have been quite incapable of writing in such a sentimental way, but he certainly gained the sense of the school song. He became a dutiful, though reticent man, who, had he written on the subject, would have summarized it in a few words; you reap what you sow.

If one reads the school magazine, The Kewite, year by year, from 1883 to 1889, one can learn quite a lot about Geoffrey Syme's school life. His name appears in all of these issues. Not because he was particularly clever, though he won some prizes, but because the boys were divided into both Forms and Divisions, with separate marks allotted for each, and the results were published in the magazine. First was given the highest marks that the boys could achieve, then the marks a boy had actually gained, so that everyone knew the exact place of each boy in the school. There is no indication of the precise difference between a Form and a Division, but it seems likely that the Division marks were for sport and possibly for conduct too.

In 1883 the school term began on 15th February. There were twenty-seven boys in Geoffrey Syme's form, Form III, 4th Division. The highest mark it was possible to get in the form was 7,091 and the highest Division mark was 2,179.


Form marks.

Division marks.

C.J. Moodie
H.F. Brook
D.G. Carnegie
F.J. Longmore
A.B. Bowen
G. Syme
A.S Carter
E.J. Wilkinson
A.T. Day
H. Leslie
J.L. Whittington
F.S. Fitchett
A. Shaw
G.S. Anderson
H.N. Harrison
A.H. Cresswell
A.N. Townsend
J.H. Miller
W.K. Grey
P.S. Morton
H.F. Cresswell
F.C. Howard
H.A. Embling
E. McCaughan
R. Henslip

In his first year at school Geoffrey Syme was quite high up in his form and he and H. F. Langhorne shared the Nicholls Prize, a prize awarded to the boy who made the most progress throughout the year.

The Kewite of 1883 gives the annual Headmaster's report and many details of sport, athletics, cricket, football and rowing, (though rowing only continued for a couple of years after that). It is, in fact, an interesting magazine that fulfils Henning Thompson's aim when he first began to write it in 1879. In his first report he states his objective, which was "to have a personal record of the year's doings in sufficient detail on one hand to convey a sense of tolerable completeness to those who were actors there, and on the other hand to interest without wearying those who watched and struggled." He always included a short report on the Library. Henning Thompson believed in the necessity of wide reading, and if there was no particular news to relate about the school library he would give an oblique report or give some information on something more or less relevant to it.  Thus in 1883 he wrote "How much labour and expense was necessary for the production of a single copy of a manuscript in ancient times" and goes on to give a brief discussion of the changes and the developments in manuscripts and book production.

Swimming was a popular sport at the school, The boys went to the Yarra near Johnson Street, close to the junction of the river and the south west creek, "Here it is secluded from all observation by the height of the banks... carpeted with a rich covering of green, and the cool, clear water formed an allurement to fascinate the most lethargic of swimmers."

Geoffrey Syme's first Sports Day was held at the Kew Recreation Ground on 14th December 1883. There were the usual races, 110 yards, 150 yards, 100-yard hurdles and so on for the various age groups and the programme included extra events such as kicking the football, an egg and spoon race, sword drill and a one-mile walking race. He was quite musical, so he probably sang at Proclusions, the name given to the school speech night on 19th December, 1983, The programme includes A Christmas Greeting, A SchoolCantata, and Geoffrey's name appears in a separate item " P. Halfry, Our Folks. G. Syme." Most likely he played the piano, though it could have been a song, or a recitation or perhaps he might have been the accompanist for another boy.

In March, 1884, Geoffrey turned eleven. He was now in IVth Form B, and in the 4th Division. He had risen to third place in a class of twenty-nine pupils and at the end of the year won the second prize for Arithmetic and the third prize for Algebra. In his Division he only got 1,412 marks out of a possible 2,400, but this was not necessarily a bad result since the two boys at the bottom of the Division only got 40 and 30 marks each.

That year a Cadet Corps was started at the school. In The Kewite the Headmaster commented "The Honorable Member for Defense, in order to assist the development of a martial spirit amongst the young, has taken steps for the foundation of a Cadet Corps in the Victorian schools. Nothing seems more likely than this to inculcate the formation of a manly spirit of self-reliance in the coming generations of Australians. Our school has not, however, entered into the movement with as much enthusiasm as was expected........some of us are perhaps in trepidation of the uniform." Henning Thompson thought it might be more popular "if gold braid was substituted for the red collar to avoid the resemblance to the telegraph boy," and remarked "If we ourselves wish to enjoy the blessings of that happy end- by letting all see that we have strong hearts and skilful hands- unless we are ready to accept slavery as their lot they must be ready to go."

1884 was rather a sad year for Henning Thompson. Rowing was one of the sports at Kew High School, and he loved rowing. The school's boatshed was almost under the shadow of the comparatively new Victoria Bridge, on the opposite side of the bridge to Blythswood's wooded bushland which ran down to the river a few hundred yards to the north. Now, as the Headmaster of a private school, he found that his school was to be excluded from annual competitive rowing. For a while it had rowed against Hawthorn Grammar and on 18th June, 1884, Kew High School, "the Light Blues," won the sixth annual Boat Race against Hawthorn Grammar, over a course set between Victoria Bridge and the Hawthorn Railway bridge. This was probably the last race against another school. The Kewite  gives no reason why the race between these two schools was discontinued. Hawthorn Grammar's Headmaster was a Professor Irving, who was a friend of Henning Thompson and who had been one of his professors at Melbourne University. There is no reference to any disagreement between the schools, so perhaps Hawthorn Grammar no longer kept its boats.

In the list of the competitors at Sports Day in December 1884, Geoffrey is mentioned as wearing blue and white colours, so possibly he was already a competitor in the open events. His name does not appear amongst those in the various races for boys of his own age, so it was probably not until the next year, when he was twelve, that he had much success in running.

Geoffrey Syme aged 12 years

In 1885 Geoffrey Syme was eighth in a Form of twenty-five boys. He was in Form IV and the 3rd Division. That year he got a second prize for both German and Latin and an Honorable Mention for Mapping. On Sports day he came second in the 150 yard race and in the 150 yard hurdles for under thirteens. Sports Day was held on the Kew Recreation Ground and Henning Thompson noted in The Kewite  "This is the last year we can have sports on this ground as it has been purchased by a local syndicate."

The following year, 1886, Geoffrey Syme was put in a very small form, Honours IV, 2nd Division B. He was first in this class of eight; the others were Knight, Fitchett, Townsley, Wilkinson, Maplestone, Oxenbold and Penneforth. However his marks were not very impressive; out of what was now a much bigger total for the Form (12,800 marks) he only got 4,020, and he got the 3rd prize for German, the 4th for French and an Honourable Mention for Drawing. At the end of the year Henning Thompson's report to the school was somewhat sad:  "Education should make a man think and feel. The modern systems of accumulating endless exams or, rather, turning the whole course of a boy's life into one continued examination, is a complete loss to proper development." He also laments the loss of rowing, "The Public Schools were invited to make an annual match, but declined on the grounds that they would be compelled to row every private school that challenged them. Since we are the only private school that possesses boats  the contingency is slight." He makes no mention of Hawthorn Grammar or what had happened to its boat, but he goes on to say "our racing boat, the Laura, being no longer needed was disposed of for £7-15-0." He adds with some optimism "Our practice boat is in good order," though a year or so later this too was sold for about £8-0-0.

In 1887 Geoffrey was again in a bigger class, Form V, A Division, and came eighth in the form. It was a successful year for him. His only academic prize was the Upper School Prize for Arithmetic, but he was now in Kew High School's first football team. He was only fourteen but, as the Headmaster had pointed out, "The ranks of the crack team of 1886 have greatly thinned, thirteen out of the previous twenty in the team have left... there was some little anxiety as  how to fill the places... it would seem that the team was somewhat new." C. Fyffe was the Captain and Syme played on the wing. The new team did not do too badly; they beat Camberwell Grammar twice, Carlton College once and Toorak College once and were beaten in other matches against Toorak College and Carlton College.

Kew High School, or, to be precise, John Henning Thompson, was interested in both work and sport. In 1887 eleven boys passed the Matriculation examination of the University of Melbourne. Henning Thompson notes this with pride,  "A record - with regard to our numbers - unsurpassed by any other school." However, although there was no lack of donors of sports prizes, the Headmaster was not content; "May I be pardoned for suggesting that the sound and cultivated mind is worthy of attention and development" and he points out that it would be nice to have some prizes for academic achievement. He also deprecated the fact that in 1887 there was no one in the VIth Form or 1st Division:  in his opinion "Vth Form does not represent a standard which a boy should attain before leaving school."

In 1888 Kew High School celebrated the fact that for the first time in its history it had one hundred pupils. Seven boys had matriculated at the end of Vth Form, Geoffrey Syme amongst them. To matriculate one had to pass six or more subjects in examinations set by the University of Melbourne. Apparently Geoffrey was only twentieth out of the thirty boys in the Form, even though he had matriculated and had won lst prizes for both Arithmetic and Algebra. However that year, for the first time, the Form and Division lists were published without any marks at all, simply listing the class in  order and giving the boy's name and the place where he lived. The Vth Form list just says G. Syme, Kew.

Henning Thompson showed his disapproval of boys specializing too soon and, in particular, he disapproved of the idea of choosing business rather than a profession as their career. A Mr. Joseph, M. L. C., of Sydney had given a talk on education for a business career and Henning Thompson had not cared for this at all; "Character is of no account in comparison with the capacity to push, to advertise, to buy and sell."  Such an education "ignores all the qualities that develop humanity and make life worth living and the better is the chance of producing an excellent trader." Geoffrey Syme's subsequent career as a journalist, then as Managing Editor of the Age may just have been acceptable to his headmaster; journalism was almost, though not quite, a profession and though TheAge certainly advertised, Geoffrey Syme's character could never have been described as pushing.

In football Kew High School had been reasonably successful, winning three out of five matches. The Kewite comments "Excellent work has been done by G. Syme." Geoffrey was keenly interested in sport, but does not seem to have contributed much to the social side of the school. There is no record of him helping at the Social Evening in aid of the Children's Hospital. Nor, rather surprisingly, is there any record of his father giving any donations to the school, although, quite typically, he may have done so in private. Henning Thompson expressed his gratitude to many people, but never to David Syme.

1889 was Geoffrey's last year at school. His matriculation the previous year had ensured his place at the University of Melbourne. Now he and another boy, G. A. Slade, were the only members of the VIth Form and the 1st Division. All their contemporaries had left. Slade's name precedes Syme's in the Form list, so he was probably Head of the School, while Syme's precedes Slade's in the Division list, so presumably he was Sports Captain, if there was such a thing at the time. He probably wrote the report on football for that year, which includes the modest remark "G. Syme improved greatly towards the end of the season", then goes on to say the "season of 1889 was one of the most successful the school has gone through. We played six schools and lost only one return and gained the coveted position of Premiers of the Melbourne private schools. The team was more even than in the last two years." Kew High School won against Carlton College, Trinity College,Brighton Grammar,King's College and Toorak College and their only loss was the return match against Toorak College. The match against King's College was an embarrassingly easy win for Kew High School since they won by eleven goals and seventeen behinds to King's College's score of one behind. However the report commented that the King's College team had boys who were really too small to be in a first team and they were unevenly matched sides.

At Preclusions on 17th December, 1889, the Headmaster again commented on the problem of specialization in education, "Among the tendencies of modern times as exhibited by those ambitious of power and distinction in many lines of trade, art, science or profession, no feature is probably more conspicuous than the way in which man's energies are being concentrated on some very limited notion only of the subject." Both Syme and Slade had at least pleased Henning Thompson by their extra year at the school and both were destined to do Arts at the University of Melbourne, They each gained a VIth Form Honours prize and Slade won the Bramhall Exhibition; £25. given by "a friend  of the school" to be used to further a boy's education. Geoffrey Syme's last appearance at a school performance was with Slade when they recited (not acted) the parts in Act IV, Scene III of Julius Caesar. Syme was Cassius and Slade was Brutus.

Geoffrey Syme seems to have kept on his connection with Kew High School for a while, probably during his years at the University before he went to work for his father as a cadet journalist on The Age. His skill at football was missed, at least the year after he left, when there were eleven new members in the school team. He came back on Sports Day, 1893, to win the Old Boys race. His name is listed amongst the Old Boys in the alphabetical lists in the bound papers of Kew High School, but he does not seem to have been at the dinner party which was given in 1909 to inaugurate an Association of Old Boys of the School. He was, by then, Managing Editor of The Age, but he could have been in England with his wife and his two eldest and very young daughters, so he was not necessarily disinterested in the school. He never had any sons; just five daughters, Marjorie, Violet (nicknamed Hilaria), Joan, Felicity and Veronica. In any case, even if he had had a son, the school closed in 1909, just thirty-seven years after its founding.

Henning Thompson seems to have been the right kind of Headmaster for Geoffrey Syme. Scholarly and strict, but kindly and emotional. He was given to quoting Latin and French tags, a habit which his pupil copied. Geoffrey's sharp and often used Qui s'excuse, s'accuse comes directly from his Headmaster. Henning Thompson was also a good counter-balance to David Syme who was self-restrained, practical and unaffectionate at least with his fourth son. The boy had a Spartan life at home, with three much older, grown-up brothers to keep him in his place, though apparently he got love from his mother. He was extremely like his father, eager and competitive when young and always deeply sensitive. He was never able to express his feelings.

Henning Thompson's memories of Kew High School are amongst the papers which now belong to Trinity Grammar. It is sad, perhaps, that when Henning Thomson wrote these memories in 1933, Geoffrey Syme's name is not included amongst the many who were remembered.  "In the silent and wakeful hours on the night, the names of those I have known and taught and loved pass before my imagination oft times in an entrancing manner."

 One must disregard the emotional language and remember Henning Thompson genuinely loved his school and those who had formed part of it. Geoffrey would not have been utterly forgotten. He had been good at work and at sport and he was a popular, though rather serious boy. Perhaps he was just too much like his father for Henning Thompson to have taken much part in the formation of his character, Nevertheless, Henning Thompson's choice of a school motto, Instanter Operare, and the school song probably had a good deal of influence on Geoffrey Syme throughout his life. He would not have disagreed with Henning Thompson who had written in The Kewite in 1879, a little more than three years before Geoffrey arrived at the school, "May we work in the spirit of our motto, remembering that he that goeth forth bearing precious seed and reapeth, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bearing his sheaves with him."

Amongst the many letters written to Geoffrey Syme after he was knighted for services to journalism in Australia is one with an illegible signature. It is dated 2nd January 1941 and bears the address 1530, High Street, Glen Iris. Its writer, who was evidently an old school friend, refers to the pleasure Geoffrey’s knighthood would have given to their headmaster.

The auther would like to thank the then Headmaster of Trinity Grammer School, Mr Don Marles, for permission to research Geoffrey Syme's schooldays in "The Kewite" the magazine of Kew High School

Copyright © 2012 Dr Veronica Condon. All rights reserved.