Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Carr, Nina Livingstone (1907–1992)

by Judith Smart

This article was published online in 2019

Nina Livingstone Carr (1907–1992), teacher and school principal, was born on 19 July 1907 at Geelong, Victoria, eighth of nine children of locally born parents Walter Livingstone Carr, auctioneer, and his wife Eliza Jane, née Tulloch. Nina was educated (1918–25) at Geelong Church of England Girls’ Grammar School (The Hermitage), winning prizes in divinity, French, and German in her final year. Awarded a non-resident exhibition at Trinity College, she enrolled at the University of Melbourne (BA, 1938; DipEd, 1944).

With her studies incomplete, Carr commenced a teaching career in 1930. At elementary schools in Maffra, Clunes, and Traralgon, she demonstrated skill in teaching English and French. She completed the final subject of her arts degree in 1937 and finalised her teaching qualification in 1944. Meanwhile, her appointment (1937–39) at Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School proved a turning point. She later recalled the challenge of teaching large classes and the influx of girls from migrant families fleeing from Eastern Europe and Nazi Germany before the outbreak of World War II. The director of secondary education, T.J. Ford, described her subsequent advancement as ‘meteoric’ (Ford 1983). She taught at country high schools in Bairnsdale and Warrnambool and in 1945 was promoted to senior mistress in charge of girls at Echuca. In 1950 an inspector described her as ‘a scholarly teacher … doing excellent work’ in both the classroom and school management (PROV 13579). She spent the next year on exchange to a grammar school in England.

On her return to Australia, Carr was senior mistress at Colac, before her appointment as foundation principal of Mentone Girls’ School, which opened in 1955. She spent a decade establishing the school’s infrastructure and educational foundations, and forging her reputation as a pioneer in girls’ secondary education. Living in a flat at the school, she tended the front garden and coordinated volunteer parents’ working parties to improve the grounds. In 1965 she was offered the most senior position available to a woman in the teaching service: principal of Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School (known affectionately as Mac.Rob). She was ranked number one when the common roll of teachers was created in 1969, ‘a fact which Nina made well known to the predominantly male Association of Principals of High Schools’ (Ford 1983), of which she was vice president.

Carr’s appointment (1966–71) marked the culmination of her career. Her predecessor, Daphne Barrett, though a strong advocate of educational opportunity and excellence, was distant and impersonal, and held traditionalist attitudes to authority and about appropriate behaviour for girls. Carr’s arrival signalled a change in Mac.Rob’s educational philosophy and practice and marked a transition to a more democratic model of leadership, and an emphasis on direct communication with staff and students. She led the school during an era of rapid social, political, and moral change, as ‘baby boomers’ entered secondary schools, teachers engaged in protracted strikes over conditions, protests against the Vietnam War mobilised youth, and young women began to challenge traditional sexual mores and codes of conduct. According to Ford, Carr knew that Mac.Rob ‘must remake its reputation in the new society’ (Ford 1983). She also knew that the opportunities opening to young women were unprecedented. Carr overcame resistance to change from a cohort of teachers loyal to Barrett’s style. Steering a careful path between some students’ radical demands and the maintenance of traditions that she judged worthwhile, she sought to inculcate in students a sense of personal responsibility, and to retain public esteem for the school. She listened seriously and respectfully to students, and was prepared to negotiate with them about such issues of school governance as the prefect system, compulsory school uniform and class attendance, and the right to attend demonstrations, to publish a newspaper, and to suggest speakers at school assemblies. Her forceful but clear and consultative style, leavened by humour and warmth, laid the groundwork for her successors to take the school into a new era for young women in terms of academic achievement, self-determination, confidence, and initiative.

Retiring in 1971, Carr served on the council of the graduate organisation of the University of Melbourne (known as Convocation from 1986), including a term as president (1983–86). She was also a driving force behind a bursary scheme of the Association of Civilian Widows, which enabled the children of widows and deserted wives to continue at school. She died in East Melbourne on 24 April 1992 and was cremated. The Barrett–Carr Library at Mac.Rob and the Nina Carr Hall at Mentone Girls’ Secondary College honour her contribution to girls’ secondary education, and both schools hold portraits of her. In her will she provided for trusts to be established at them so long as they remained girls’ high schools.

Research edited by Samuel Furphy

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 30 April 1992, 22
  • Blood, Gabrielle. ‘Vale Nina Carr.’ Pallas (Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School, Melbourne, Vic.), 1992
  • Carr, N. L. ‘Recollections of Miss Carr.’ Unpublished manuscript, n.d. Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School Archives
  • Ford, T. J. ‘Written Recollection of Nina Carr.’ 13 October 1983. Unit 23, Mac.Roberson Girls’ High School Archive
  • Mentone Girls’ Secondary College. ‘History.’ Accessed 26 September 2018. Copy held on ADB file
  • Parker, Pauline. The Making of Women: A History of Mac.Robertson Girls’ High School. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2006
  • Public Record Office Victoria. 13579, Teacher Record Books. Carr, Nina Livingstone, 28670
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject

Additional Resources

Citation details

Judith Smart, 'Carr, Nina Livingstone (1907–1992)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2019, accessed online 24 February 2020.

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