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Carson-Cooling, George (1896–1960)

by Maxwell A. Howell

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

George Carson-Cooling (1896-1960), headmaster, was born on 31 May 1896 at Milton, Brisbane, a twin and sixth child of John Arthur Cooling, a clerk from England, and his Irish-born wife Sara, née Kennedy. A scholarship boy at Brisbane Grammar School, in his third year there George won the Earl of Meath Challenge Cup in an essay competition open to all school students in the British Empire. Proceeding to the University of Queensland (B.Sc., 1918; M.Sc., 1920), on 7 December 1917—only days after his final undergraduate examinations—he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He reached the Western Front in October 1918, by way of Egypt and England, and was posted to the 5th Divisional Artillery. Promoted to extra regimental sergeant in March 1919 and given educational duties, he taught Australian soldiers awaiting demobilization. He was discharged in Brisbane on 13 August 1919.

In 1920 Cooling was appointed to teach chemistry at Ipswich Grammar School. Two years later he returned to Brisbane Grammar. At the Church of St Michael and All the Angels, New Farm, on Christmas Day 1922 he married with Anglican rites Harriet Maud Carson, a niece of Baron Carson of Duncairn, the Irish barrister and politician; soon after, Cooling added Carson to his surname. He became in turn senior chemistry master, senior science master, senior English master and second master. Considerate and approachable, Carson-Cooling had piercing, dark eyes and a keen sense of humour. He was an inspiring and polished speaker with a fine, resonant voice. Following his appointment as headmaster in 1940, pupil numbers rose. In 1943 the Department of Public Instruction reported that 'the Headmaster rules with dignity and firmness and has the loyal co-operation of his staff. The boys are manly, courteous, well-behaved and obedient and the general tone is good'. Class discussions were commended for offering 'evidence of pleasing freedom from repression and a healthy development of self-discipline'.

That year Carson-Cooling published Education in Post-War Reconstruction. Having received a copy of the monograph, George Bernard Shaw responded, 'it is remarkable that my conclusions should agree so exactly with yours'. In outlining some of his ideas, Carson-Cooling explained that 'in common with many educationists throughout the world, I feel that education in its present form has failed in its duty to humanity'. He advocated extension of the school leaving age to 18 and free education to tertiary level for all. Within the school system, he proposed the abolition of external examinations and all unnecessary competition (including premierships in sport), an increase in the length of the school day to eight hours and a radically revised curriculum. These suggestions created a considerable stir and the press deemed his theories to be 'outrageous'. In a community where many were schooled to regard anything further than a basic education as an expensive luxury, he achieved little but derision, even from his colleagues.

In 1945 rumour spread at the school that Carson-Cooling was spending time with a married woman and neglecting his responsibilities. He took sick leave late in 1946, leaving the second master to present the annual report and Harriet in charge of the boarding-house. She died of cancer on 11 February 1947. In July Carson-Cooling was named as co-respondent in divorce proceedings against Freda Hazel Allan, née Blight, and the board of trustees resolved to terminate his appointment the following month. On 24 June 1948 he married Freda at Albert Street Methodist Church, Brisbane; she was a writer, aged 37. Ostracized from educational circles and from polite society, he joined the public service as a clerk. In 1949 he published an account of his life at Brisbane Grammar: interspersed with his views on education, it was wryly entitled, Here's a Villain. A former pupil later saw him serving behind the counter at David Jones Ltd's store, Sydney.

Survived by his wife, and by the daughter and son of his first marriage, Carson-Cooling died of coronary vascular disease on 17 July 1960 at Indooroopilly, Brisbane, and was cremated with Methodist forms. Despite his occasional vanity, affectation and eccentricity, many of his pupils believed that, had he remained at Brisbane Grammar, he would have been recognized as 'one of the great headmasters and educationists of this century'.

Select Bibliography

  • Brisbane Grammar School Magazine, 1914-18, 1947
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 9 Mar 1940, 19 July 1960
  • Truth (Brisbane), 23 Nov 1947
  • Brisbane Grammar School Archives.

Citation details

Maxwell A. Howell, 'Carson-Cooling, George (1896–1960)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/carson-cooling-george-9700/text17123, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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